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"If you are considering the coming year, plant wheat. If you are considering the coming years, plant a tree! Border Police Rabin Base Commander Salman Ganam was speaking to soldiers and volunteers from abroad at a very special Tu Bishvat tree planting ceremony. Volunteers from three youth movements and members of the KKL-JNF Canadians and Americans Active Retirees in Israel (CAARI) joined Border Police at a base in the northern Judean desert for a moving ceremony, tree planting, panel discussion and Tu Bishvat seder on Sunday, 8th February.
The day's events were organized by Yermi David of KKL-JNF's Education Division. Yermi told us about KKL-JNF's Nof Moledet - Homeland Vistas - program: "Many Jewish youth movements from around the world sponsor trips to Israel for various durations of time and our job is to familiarize these young people with the Land of Israel. They rebuild ancient terraces, prune trees, blaze trails and dig archaeological remains, to mention only some of what they do. Each youth movement receives their own parcel of land, so every year, volunteers from that youth movement work in it.
"The young people here today are from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the United States and Canada. We felt it was only natural that they should meet their peers who are serving in the Israeli army and do some activities together. The Border Police Corps have been working closely with KKL-JNF, making that living connection with Israel's nature an integral part of their army training. Tu Bishvat provides the perfect opportunity for everyone to come together, plant trees and celebrate."
Commander Eliyahu Aharoni described how the ties between the Border Police and KKL-JNF were formed and why ecology and nature were so important for soldiers. "Things began two years ago as a result of a chance meeting between Yermi David and me. We organized a "turning back the desert" event where we planted trees, just as we are doing today. The trees, by the way, are watered by the base's recycled effluents. Education is a great part of what we do here. When you carry arms, when, as a policeman or policewoman you have the legal right to deny someone their freedom, you must have a strong ethical base, otherwise you become a danger to society. Soldiers are positively affected by learning about KKL-JNF values and how to care for nature, we see the results daily. I welcome the opportunity for them to share their experience with the volunteers from abroad."
Not all the volunteers were from abroad. Demitri Goldstein and Alexi Rasovski, both in their early twenties, started a youth movement named "Granit" just a month and a half ago, in Israel. We asked them why Israel needs another youth movement. "During the recent Gaza war, we heard about some young people who were questioning why they had to fight. We decided that Zionist values have to be inculcated from a young age before people are drafted into the army. We are starting with young people from the former Soviet Union, but our goal is to include young people from all sectors of Israeli society. We enjoy the support of KKL-JNF Deputy Chairman Yigal Yasinov - in fact he inspired us to start a youth movement at a course we were at for youth councilors. Some of our volunteers are here today, and they're really eager to get to work planting trees."
And not all the volunteers were young, either. The CAARI group, led by Susan Horowitz, was having a great time joking with the soldiers. Esther Frances explained. "We are here for two to four to six to eight weeks, depending on each person's commitment. We do all sorts of community work and volunteer in hospitals, schools and forests." Brenda Seiden of Newburg, New York added that all the people in the group were connected to KKL-JNF: "I'm the chairman of JNF Lower New York State. We sell trees, do fundraising and distribute Blue Boxes. In fact, together with my friend Lauri Kaplan, we counted $500 in change from our boxes!" Susan Horowitz noted that although the group had arrived in Israel towards the end of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, there had not been even one cancellation.
At the short ceremony that took place before the tree planting, Dr. Benzi Bar Lavi, Director of KKL-JNF's Education Division, said that Tu Bishvat was a time to connect to the earth and the Land of Israel: "I cannot imagine a better place to be on Tu Bishvat. Israel is suffering from a severe water crisis, so watering trees with recycled water is exactly what we need to be doing. I want to thank everyone here, especially the Border Police, who work to promote environmental awareness together with KKL-JNF all year long."
Ilan Osrin made aliya from South Africa eight years ago and is in charge of the Bnei Akiva leadership training program in Israel. "We have a contingent of 42 eighteen-year olds here today who arrived in Israel in December. They learn about all the facets of life in Israel, with KKL-JNF providing seminars and events related to nature and Israel's ecological challenges. Our hope is that they will either decide to make aliya or to raise Jewish awareness in their communities abroad."
The group was treated to a demonstration of a military exercise of the Border Police fighting terrorists in the field, after which everyone divided into small groups comprising three volunteers with one soldier - and went to plant trees. This is where the ice really broke. We spoke with Adin Lenchner, Gabriella Bronstein, Hannah Ellenson, Arlen Weiner, Samara Jaffe and Asher Krell, who are from the United States and Canada and are spending a year in Israel in the framework of the Kivunim program. "Our time is spent between a rigorous academic program and community service. We also go on trips in the region to get an understanding of Israel's position in a global context. I love Israel, it's amazing to be here, and you should know that the Green Israel website is where I get my most important news items!"
It was time to board the busses and return to the army base for a panel discussion with five soldiers who made aliya without their families and enlisted in the Israeli Army. They discussed their difficulties quite frankly and answered questions from the audience. Yonatan Ben Harosh came here from Paris, France. "I made aliya because I am a Zionist. Everyone here is like my family; every Jew in Israel is part of the Zionist family. The anti-Semitism I experienced in France was what really convinced me that Israel is the place for Jewish people to live."
Tal, a soldier from Los Angeles, said that he had originally been in the infantry, but he felt much better in the Border Police: "I wanted to fight terrorists. Being in the army was not easy at first. When I first came here, I was into partying and having a good time. Actually I still am, but in the army, you learn how to take orders and you learn self control and that makes you more of a man. I think each and every one of you should come to Israel and do army service. It'll change your attitude and your perspective on reality." Needless to say, the first person to jump up and volunteer was 90 year old Morris Falk of Woodstock, New York, a Second World War veteran.
The soldiers were asked what they did on weekends when everyone else went home to their families. Eliya and Anna, two soldiers from France and Russia respectively, said that there were lots of families in Israel that are thrilled to host them and their friends from the army base also invite them to go home with them. "Besides, the army really takes care of us. Every six months, we get an airplane ticket to go home and spend a month with our family." Both girls said they were considering military careers in the future.
The day ended with a Tu Bishvat seder and festive meal, with everyone of all ages, from Israel and abroad, joining in singing and dancing. Just before the meal began, Base Commander Ganam spoke about what being a professional officer means for him. "I am a Druze. My father, grandfather and three sons have all fought or are fighting in the Israeli Army. My uncle was killed in action during the First Lebanese War in 1982. There is a covenant between the Druze and the Jews, we fight together because we know it's our country and it's our duty to protect it. I would like to thank KKL-JNF for organizing today's event and for cooperating with us all year long. There is no place like Israel in the entire world! Welcome to the base and Happy Tu Bishvat!"
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