(photo credit: )
"It is completely natural and easy to be involved with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund when you love the land of Israel," said Jim Schiller after planting a tree on Monday, 22nd June, at the new tree-planting center next to the Kennedy Memorial in the Judean Hills. W. James Schiller, Member of national board of directors of JNF USA, Chairman of the Board of the Baltimore Zionist District and immediate Past National President of the American Zionist Movement (to mention only some of his titles), was in Israel with his wife Sue and his granddaughter Mallory Sage Harrison for Mallory's Bat-Mitzvah, accompanied by a group of about twenty friends and family.
The group, which has been touring Israel over the past week, began their visit to KKL-JNF sites in the Judean Hills at the new tree-planting center, a donation of Bob & Saralee Harrisburg of Maine and Lois & Steven Scheiner of Arizona. This tree-planting center is unique in that it is totally accessible to the disabled, making it possible for them to have the experience of planting a tree without even getting up from their chairs. The group was greeted by Russell Robinson, CEO of JNF America, who spoke about the significance of planting a tree in Israel next to the Kennedy Memorial: "I know that about half of you are in Israel for the first time and I know that many of you remember when President Kennedy was assassinated. The Kennedy Memorial is built to look like a tree trunk that was cut down before its time. By planting trees in the soil, you are bestowing life and putting down roots that will be here for a long time.
"When you plant your tree, I would ask you to pick up a stone, put it in your pocket and take it with you. Since we're really not supposed to take any part of Israel out of the country, you must make a commitment that this stone will be brought back to Israel, either by you on your next visit or by one of your children or grandchildren. In this way, you are becoming a part of Israel just as the tree you will plant will become part of the landscape."
KKL-JNF's Director of Protocol & VIP Ceremonies Andy Michelson, who led the group and facilitated the day's ceremonies, asked Mallory, the Bat Mitzvah girl, to read the Planter's Prayer, which she did expertly and with feeling. While planting the trees, someone asked Andy how many trees had been planted by KKL-JNF. "240,000,000 trees since 1901," Andy answered.
After touring the Kennedy Memorial, the group proceeded to the American Independence Park Donor Recognition Site, where Mallory was to unveil a plaque on the Bar and Bat Mitzvah Wall, which was erected a few years ago. On this wall, which is shaped like a Torah scroll, the names of Bar and Bat Mitzvah children are matched with the names of Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust. Mallory, who was moved, chose this occasion to speak about her Bat Mitzvah trip to Israel: "It means a lot to me to be celebrating my Bat Mitzvah in Israel and to have my name written on this special wall. I cannot understand how so many children were killed because of a madman. My great-grandmother was supposed to leave Hungary on a ship for the United States, but she missed it. Somehow she made it to the U.S.A., where she later heard that the ship had been stopped by the Nazis and all the Jews aboard were sent to the concentration camps. She felt that this was a sign that she was chosen to live. I want to thank you all for being with me here, I'll remember this day all my life."
Jim Schiller noted that Mallory was born on the same day his mother was: "Like Mallory said, my mother was from Hungary and I have just realized that the girl who died in the Holocaust who was matched with my granddaughter on the Bat Mitzvah Wall was also from Hungary."
The last ceremony of the day was at the American Independence Park Visitors Center, which was dedicated in honor of Jim Schiller and the Baltimore Zionist District. Andy explained that the Visitors Center was built in line with KKL-JNF policy of making Israel's forests visitor-friendly, providing, along with information about the park and various recreational sites, a place to have coffee, a drink or a meal in the midst of nature. He thanked the Baltimore community for helping to make this possible and also read greetings from KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler, who noted that the Visitors Centers and American Independence Park invited people of all creeds and religions to enjoy Israel's beautiful nature spots.
Jim Schiller spoke briefly at the dedication ceremony. "I have worked with a number of organizations and I must say, KKL-JNF is an easy organization to be involved with. Many organizations promote ideas, but KKL-JNF is about forests, parks, water reservoirs, and security roads - things you can touch and see. It is relatively easy to make people excited about projects like these. Working with KKL-JNF has been immensely rewarding for me and very special. It's been a great ride!"
Speaking on behalf of KKL-JNF, Avi Dickstein, Executive Director of the Resources & Development Division, said that he had worked together with Jim for a long time - way before either of them had imagined having grandchildren! "Nearby is a village named Bar Giora, in honor of one of the leaders of the Jewish Rebellion against the Romans at the end of the Second Temple Period. Unfortunately, that rebellion did not succeed, but here we are, two thousand years later, dedicating a Visitors' Center in such a magnificent spot in our own homeland. Jim has promoted many projects in Israel but even more importantly, he has motivated others to follow in his footsteps. As far as I'm concerned, he's only beginning!"
Jim and Sue were presented a beautiful honorary plaque and Mallory was presented with the book "To Be a Free People." The Baltimore Zionist District was presented with a stylized KKL-JNF Blue Box -which they were admonished to bring back to Israel "full of coins". After unveiling the dedication plaque, refreshments were served and we had an opportunity to speak with several of the guests.
Arnold & Sheila Hyatt of Baltimore were visiting Israel for the first time. "It's our fiftieth wedding anniversary and this is a perfect way to celebrate it. We're so impressed by everything we've seen. Israel is not at all as we imagined it. Jim told us that he was planning this trip two years ago and we told him he could count us in. You know when it's time to come and I think we'll know pretty soon that it'll be time to come back - maybe with some of our grandchildren."
Steven Taylor and his wife Evelyn Brunner, also of Baltimore, told us about a very emotional experience he had at the Donor Appreciation Center. "I remembered that my father and uncle had planted a forest grove in Israel thirty some years ago. Andy was kind enough to make some inquiries and sure enough, he found a plaque with my father's and uncle's names. I was very moved to see them remembered here."
Jim Schiller summed things up: "This trip is the realization of something I started thinking about ten years ago. I'm in love with the land of Israel and I wanted to share my love with Mallory. Seeing the land through her eyes has been a remarkable experience, a sort of renewal. I'm looking forward to bringing my other two grandchildren here."