By RON FRIEDMAN
The Jewish Agency's Partnership 2000 coordinators met with representatives of Israeli environmental organizations on Wednesday, with hopes to turn environmental action into a platform that unites Jews around the world.
The conference was held at Hiriya, a site that for decades served as a landfill for Dan region waste, but which has since been turned into a park that includes a recycling plant and an environmental education center.
Partnership 2000, or P2K, is a Jewish Agency project that for the last 14 years has been connecting Jewish communities in cities around the world with regions in Israel, similarly to twin city arrangements.
Receiving funding from the Jewish Agency as well as from the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, P2K participant communities are free to choose the types of projects and activities they wish to run.
According to Andrea Arbel, director of the Jewish Agency's partnership division, in recent years more and more of the suggested projects have a green tinge to them.
"One of the reasons we are still going strong after 14 years is because we have become a platform of engagement that evolves to address trends, issues of concern and strengths that characterize Israel and Jewish communities at any given time," said Arbel.
If in the first days of the program the main focus was economic development and support for new immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, today the focus has shifted to other things and it appears that environmental awareness and ecological action is about to take center stage.
"The best programs are things that are of equal interest, concern and excitement to people on both sides of the ocean," said Arbel. "Today, the environment is clearly one of them.
"Finally Israel is really coming into its own. We've seen in the past few years an increase in terms of the consciousness and awareness, and as a result it can be a fantastic and effective content for engagement and partnerships."
Over the last three years, said Arbel, there has been a steady increase in partnerships that are implementing programs related to the environment. "Today we hear from organizations that offer a real added value in terms of connecting values of the environment and conservation with Jewish values. That is the glue that connects us," she said.
"The environmental agenda is not merely a question of policies, lobbying or technical solutions, said Dr. Eilon Schwartz, executive director of the Heschel Center for environmental learning and leadership. "It is a crucially important issue that concerns communities and their most basic valuesâ€¦.
"It requires a different notion about what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a Jew, and [an understanding] that our Judaism is closely linked to questions regarding community values.
"The same questions that exist regarding the environment in communities in Israel, exist in Jewish communities in Kansas City, Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York. That is why it is such a good foundation for real partnership."
According to Shwartz, many American Jews have been leaving the traditional Jewish philanthropic avenues of acting within their community - a worrying trend. "[But], the environmental issue enables the return of many of these people," he said.
"The environmental story in Israel is one of the most admirable stories that are taking place, even though many people don't know about it. Israel has gone from having four environmental organizations in the early 90s to having more than 100 today," said Shwartz.
"I am an immigrant to this country, and one of the things I am most proud of is being part of this community. This is one of the main reasons that I came to Israel, to be part of something like this."
"The environmental issue has an advantage that no other issues possess, firstly because it is a topic that is important to everyone and secondly because it takes place in places that we all share," said Carmi Wisemon, executive director of Sviva Israel, an environmental education start up.
Wisemon spoke about the challenges of getting people in Israel to think globally and suggested educational tools that could help people begin to do so. "One of the tools we use to get the process started is the notion of the environmental footprint. We show how the small activities every individual takes combines with those of six billion other humans to affect global changes."
Sagit Porat, from Life and Environment, an umbrella organization for more than a hundred environmental causes, said she has doubts about how important the environment really is to Israelis. "I think that many here in Israel don't make the connection between traffic jams, lack of parking or the degrees on their air conditioners with the environment.
"I think that one of the challenges of the environmental movement, and one of the areas where we have not succeeded enough, is in the ingraining of the term sustainability into the dialog," she said.
"While environmentalism may be seen as something of a niche issue, sustainability is something that touches our lives in the deepest ways."
She said that sustainability is a great topic for partnership because it is a notion that can be included into many already existing activities.
Moti Lieberman, education director for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, warned of the destruction of the natural panorama of Israel. "When our children run the country there will be one giant city between Acre and Ashkelon," said Lieberman.
"There are too many people in Israel who don't consider nature important - they have the attitude that it doesn't belong to them. We need to better connect our children and the children of the Jewish world to the land, because it's the only land we have."
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