(photo credit: )
Ezra World Forest, which lies near Kibbutz Shaalavim in central Israel, was inaugurated yesterday (20th August, 2008) at a ceremony attended by senior KKL-JNF officials, Ezra World Youth Movement leaders and 400 Jewish youngsters from communities throughout the world, including Germany, Russia, England and the USA. Responsibility for maintaining the forest has been transferred from KKL-JNF to the youth movement so from now on, Ezra's madrichim and members will themselves care for the forest throughout the year on their visits to Israel. They will develop it by constructing new paths for hikers and cyclists, pruning, weeding, planting, restoring terraces and orchards, marking and signposting the archeological sites, cleaning the woodland and looking after its facilities.
This is the twenty-second forest to be transferred into the care of a Zionist youth movement, as part of KKL-JNF Education Division's Homeland Landscape project. Every year over 16,000 Jewish youngsters come to Israel in the framework of this project and caring for the country's forests helps them to touch base with Israel. Participants get first-hand experience of KKL-JNF's Zionist and ecological enterprise and engage in work that is meaningful for them and beneficial to the environment and the State.
Ezra is an orthodox national movement that serves as an umbrella organization for young Jews from different backgrounds and from a variety of countries. The forest encounter was organized as part of the Taglit (Birthright) Project and takes the form of a ten-day visit to Israel. Neither was this particular forest chosen by chance: nearby Kibbutz Sha'alavim, like two other communities in the area, Mevo Horon and Hafetz Haim, was established by the Ezra movement in 1951.
Before the ceremony, hundreds of Ezra members from Germany, Russia, England and the USA participated in activities whose themes were Zionism and ecology. In special workshops, they planned the establishment of new communities in different parts of Israel, paying particular attention to local issues of ecology and the importance of settlement, potential industrial development and issues involving wider knowledge of Israel.
At the Clean-up-the-World workshop the need to conserve the planet for ourselves and for future generations was discussed with animation and at one of the activity stations, named "Green Cube" the youngsters competed in a game of dilemmas leading to fascinating discussions of values about the connection between Zionism and ecology.
Yigal Yasinov, KKL-JNF Deputy Chairman, welcomed the youngsters and stressed the importance of the bond between Jews of the Diaspora and those who live in Israel. "The woodland activities emphasize our shared destiny and strengthen the links between the young generation, the land and its people. Just as the Land of Israel has survived, revived, and lives anew and eternal, so, too, will the bond between Jews of Israel and those of the rest of the world"
Danny Ellinson, Director General of the Ezra World Movement, addressed first KKL-JNF and then the youngsters. "Finally, after so many years, we have a forest of our own. Each time we come to Israel we shall work here in the woodland and touch with Israel through the work we do. This is also an opportunity for all of us to meet other young Jews from different part of the world. Seven thousand members of the movement have come here so far to work in KKL-JNF forests, and I hear them say again and again how important this activity has been to them.
"Your task, as members of the young generation, is to continue to come to Israel and go out into the forests to help us build the home that we all share. One day you will come back here with your own children and tell them, 'we helped to establish this forest, because this is our home'."
Reuven Naamat, Director of KKL-JNF's Overseas Education Department, said: "These trees will enable you to get a foothold in the Land of Israel. This is a way for you to become connected to the country, while, as far as we are concerned, you are providing valuable help in caring for the forests and conserving the environment."
Yirmiyahu David, Director of the KKL-JNF Homeland Landscape project, added. "Your work in the forest will help you connect with the land and countryside. We believe that the youngsters who come to Israel, who work and sweat a little as they work the land, leave part of themselves behind here and take home with them indelible memories of Israel, a love for the Land and its heritage, Jewish identity and KKL-JNF values. You, the wonderful youth of today, are the generation of the future, and you are paving the way for a very fine future."
David Roitman, Director of Ezra in North America: "Members have come from all over the world to take part in the Israeli experience. The movement's dedicated madrichim have accompanied them throughout all their activities, and I should like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of them."
To understand the meaning of the special bond that has been created between these youngsters and Israel by their work, activities and their assumption of responsibility for the forest, we need only see the sparkle in their eyes and listen to their stories.
Andrew Trebenau, 18 from New York. "We've come here for ten days of excursions and activities in Israel, and it's been a really amazing experience. I'm very happy to know that there's a special place in Israel for the Ezra movement."
Boris Yankowitz, 19, from New York: "Our activities have helped us to understand our identity as Jews and we're strongly in touch with our homeland. Now we all have a better understanding of where we're from and what our roots are."
Kate Kostanka, 27, from Ukraine: "Thanks to our work in the forest I'm much more in touch with Israel. This is my first time here, and it certainly won't be my last."
Milana Yovyetova, 27, from Ukraine: "Our work in the forest was one of the high points of the visit. We played the drums, sang, studied, prayed and talked. We got in touch with the land, with Israel and with our companions."
Tony Rivkin, 18, from Russia: "It's wonderful to learn about the culture of my people. Words can't describe the profound emotion I feel towards Israel. I know that the Israelis welcome us like brothers. Here in the forest we have a special place of our own, where young Jews can get in touch with their homeland and with their companions from all over the world."
Dima Greenberg, 21, from Colorado: "Israel turned out to be very different from what I expected. The American media tell you only about the bad things that happen here, but I've discovered that there is actually quiet and calm too. Also, I had thought that Israel was mostly desert, but when I saw the forests growing here my eyes were opened and I realized that everything was possible. In Colorado we have lots of enormous forests, but here in Israel I have come to understand how important it is to improve the world and keep planting more trees."
Irena Svestnova, 25, a madricha with the group from Boston and New York: "The guys are really enjoying themselves and they're learning a lot. Israel has changed my life and I want to be part of the change that our members will undergo. People always say that when you come to Israel you feel at home. I never used to understand how that could be, but now I feel the same way and the day will come when I'll actually live here."
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