Sustaining Tel Aviv

The Heschel Center gives Taglit-birthright participants a green tour of the White City.

What's a sustainable city? Is walking transportation? Do Tel Aviv city streets need more arteries or a blood transfusion? Do Tel Aviv city councilors have a vision? Why was Tel Aviv the only city in the world where a Starbuck's coffee house opened and then closed? Those were some of the questions that environmental educator David Pearlman-Paran from the Heschel Center asked 46 American youths on a 10-day unconventional Taglit-birthright Israel tour. As the face of Judaism changes in the Diaspora, so have the one-time, free birthright trips designed to activate the inner Zionist in every young Jew around the world. Until now, the trips were designed on a handful of models, depending on whether or not one is secular, religious or a nature lover as examples. The latest incarnation is the Earth, Wind, Water and Fire tour (replete with matching water bottles), designed to give ecologically minded Americans (and one Canadian on the pilot trip) a look at the underbelly of Israel's environmental accomplishments and challenges. Not only did the meet provide a forum to North Americans for caring about the environment in Israel should they one day make aliya, but it also showed the group that despite the grave environmental issues facing cities like Tel Aviv, a team of environmental stewards is working on damage control at the political, community and business level. Located in the Green Building on Rehov Nahalat Binyamin in Tel Aviv, the Heschel Center promotes a dialog between the public and the government. As environmental issues move into the 21st century, Heschel educators are taking a holistic approach to making the country's urban and natural environment a just and healthy place to live. Pearlman-Paran called the approach "sustainability," and in two short hours he hoped to plant the seed of modern Israeli environmental education in the minds of the birthright participants, some of whom are studying environmental science and policy-making in the US. The first stop was a green chair, perched high above Sderot Rothschild on an altar facing the Max Brenner chocolate caf on Rehov Shadal. "Do you think this sculpture and its partner across the street create open space in the city or the opposite?" asked Pearlman-Paran, explaining that building developers barter for construction rights and, in exchange, are required to donate a sculpture, such as this one. Pearlman-Paran pointed in a different direction, not waiting for every question to be answered. "Where are the bike lanes and the signs?" he asked as the group looked down the boulevard. "Does anyone see the synagogue [on Rehov Shadal]? Why not? Why is there a sign advertising hamburgers instead? Should public space be allowed to become privatized?" Attention was then focused on the chair stained with burgundy berry droppings - an unlikely place for anyone to sit and admire art. Pearlman-Paran asked the group what could be done better. "The chair needs to be cleaned and there needs to be a sign," said Devora, a visitor among the group. Similar questions were asked when the birthrighters crossed the busy Rehov Allenby which, Pearlman-Paran pointed out, was called "the road to the sea" until 1917. Now the street is the epicenter of urban chokehold. Pearlman-Paran asked, "What's the solution for all the buses? Should we have a rapid bus transit system like in Colombia or Brazil? Should we build underground or overground, and can Tel Aviv's sandy base hold such a project?" The attentive group gulped collectively and followed behind their speaker. Sherry Goldberg, 22, studying environmental science at the University of Washington, said she wasn't surprised that Israelis focus on social issues when they talk about the environment. "It's an overpopulated place. There are some people who think you have to choose between the environment and people." It was her first visit to Israel, and she had signed up because of the environmental angle. Later in the week she was to go to the Dead Sea, the Hula Valley, Haifa and an eco-farm as part of the itinerary. Others on the trip have no formal environmental education but thought that Israel and the environment sounded interesting. "I just signed up and it's turning out well," said Carey Rotman, 24, an employee living in Seattle via Canada. "I am seeing parts of Israel I normally wouldn't see," he added. "I get to see things I wouldn't read in a book. I have been to Europe and took pictures of the tourist sites, but I could have just bought the postcards." Andrew Oberhardt, 25, a Microsoft programmer from the US, had heard about Israel's drip irrigation technology. About Israel in general, he said, "It's a tough place. It is densely populated and there are scarce resources. How do you survive without destroying the environment?" he asked himself. "When I was approached by Taglit-birthright, they had an idea of putting together an environmental tour," Pearlman-Paran later explained to Metro. "Since Heschel Center's duty is to enhance and enrich environmental thinking, it was natural for us to want to be involved. I suggested the idea of a tour in Tel Aviv." Looking at the schedule beforehand, he suggested some aspects of environmentalism that had been overlooked. "For their tour of the Dead Sea, it was presented as a completely positive view of how the Dead Sea was a wonderful place. I put them in touch with Friends of the Earth, who could give them another take on that." Pearlman-Paran explained the reasoning behind choosing the topic "What makes a city sustainable." "The world has started talking about sustainability in the last 15 years. It is a broader way of addressing environmental problems that covers social, political and economic issues based on values. We are asking how to create a society that uses its resources in a just way that is healthy for its members. In a nutshell, Heschel is a group that shapes environmental policy and thinking even at the government level. Sustainability policy affects every ministry, such as trade, infrastructure, environment and agriculture. We want to stimulate new ideas, new directions and new activities." As part of that mission, the Heschel Center runs sustainable city tours and works with community centers and NGOs to get people involved in shaping the health of their own cities. Why does he ask so many questions and not answer them? "There are no guidelines or prescriptions for what makes a sustainable society, and I can't create a model. Instead, we need to make the best solutions. Stakeholders can make those decisions but only with public involvement, and I don't mean involvement every four years during election time. In the long run, people will become involved in the complexities of living in Israel. As for the birthright group, it is best to give them the feeling of being involved in what Israel could or should be, rather than creating a model that doesn't fit reality. They too need to look at our environmental dilemmas." To get involved in making Tel Aviv sustainable, e-mail: or visit