KKL-JNF: Fighting to defeat the climate crisis 

An interview with Avraham Duvdevani, world chairman of KKL-JNF, which is helping develop the Land of Israel

 AVRAHAM DUVDEVANI has been at the helm of KKL-JNF since November 2020 (photo credit: KKL-JNF)
AVRAHAM DUVDEVANI has been at the helm of KKL-JNF since November 2020
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)

All too often, interviews conducted on Zoom do not fully allow the speaker’s true character to emerge. The exchange of ideas during a physical meeting can sound stilted when delivered online. Yet a recent online discussion with Avraham Duvdevani, world chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, did not present any communication difficulties whatsoever. The energy, passion, and vigor that “Duvdev” possesses comes through, no matter the medium.

Avraham Duvdevani has worn many hats in his professional career, which spans more than 50 years, having held executive positions in the Jewish Agency, World Bnei Akiva, Orot Israel College, and the World Zionist Organization. In his current job as head of KKL-JNF, he is ensuring that the 120-year-old organization remains relevant not only to a new generation of Israelis, but to the world at large, with its pioneering efforts in sustaining and developing the land of Israel, supporting Zionist and environmental education, and dealing with the worldwide climate and environmental crisis. 

“Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael is today one of the leaders in dealing with the climate crisis,” declares Duvdevani. He explains that the organization is no Johnny-come-lately to the field, but has been researching the subject for the past 15 years. 

DEDICATION OF KKL-JNF Heritage House in Sderot (Credit: KKL-JNF)DEDICATION OF KKL-JNF Heritage House in Sderot (Credit: KKL-JNF)

“We know that trees and forests are an important tool in the climate crisis because trees improve climate conditions and lower the earth’s overall temperature. Together with the Weizmann Institute, Keren Kayemeth created a laboratory in the Yatir Forest that researches the influence of the climate crisis on the forest, and the impact of the forest on the climate,” he says, noting that the lab has received international recognition. 

KKL-JNF is acknowledged throughout the world for its advanced capabilities in managing open areas and forests in semi-arid and arid regions; combating desertification; developing and implementing advanced methods for harvesting water runoff; rehabilitation of river and stream purification through wetlands and biofilters; land conservation through sustainable agriculture; and research into and application of biological pest control techniques. 

“We can contribute a great deal,” he continues, “regarding the uses of alternate energy such as solar power on our lands in the Negev. Keren Kayemeth can help in all aspects of climate and can prevent the damages caused by climate in this region as well.”

Duvdevani gives an example of how Israel needs to adjust to possible climate and weather change. Referring to the Yatir Forest, Israel’s largest planted forest located on the edge of the desert on the lower slopes of the Hebron hills northeast of Beersheba, he points out that the forest currently subsists on 300mm. of annual rainfall. “We have to be ready to deal with the climate crisis and the possibility that the forest will receive less rainfall. Therefore, we need to know the types of trees that we should plant if that occurs,” he says.

Keren Kayemeth has allocated NIS 50 million from its budget for researching the climate crisis, and has set aside an additional NIS 10 million for Israel’s education system to increase awareness about the environment and the climate. “This is not just for the State of Israel,” says Duvdevani. “It for all of humanity.”

Turning to matters more closely related to the land of Israel, Duvdevani takes a few moments to speak about the upcoming holiday of Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which is observed this year on Monday, January 17. Tu Bishvat is known as the “New Year of Trees” and marks the date on which farmers began calculating the tithing of their fruit crop for the coming year.

When Jewish pioneers returned to the land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Tu Bishvat became a day for planting trees, and in 1908, the Jewish National Fund and the educational system officially adopted this practice. Most years, schoolchildren take to Israel’s forests and plant saplings to mark the holiday. This year, however, is the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, known as shmita (sabbatical year), which the Bible mandates that the land lie fallow. Underlying this law are many principles of ecology, spirituality and social justice. 

Though KKL-JNF will not be holding planting ceremonies in its forests this year, Tu Bishvat will be marked in other ways. KKL-JNF’s educational systems have developed various educational programs that emphasize the value-based ideas of the biblical commandment. Duvdevani adds that KKL-JNF, which owns 250,000 hectares (617,763 acres) of land in Israel, fully follows the halachic principles of the sabbatical year’s observance as defined by the Chief Rabbinate. 

Interestingly, he explains that under certain circumstances, the rabbinate permits the planting of trees for security reasons. Thus, it is permitted to plant trees near Gaza border communities which serve to protect residents from sniper fire. Additionally, the rabbinate allows earthwork and planting in certain areas to prevent degeneration of the local ecosystem. 

Avraham Duvdevani is an active doer, and even through the lens of a Zoom interview, one can sense the frustration that he feels at being unable to visit Jewish communities around the world to communicate the ideals of KKL-JNF. 

“There is no area of our work that the pandemic has not affected,” he says, “beginning with our connection with Jews in the Diaspora and our supporters there. I have headed the organization for over a year, and I have been unable to leave Israel. There are many places and communities that need encouragement.” 

Duvdevani is particularly disappointed that he was unable to lead a recent KKL-JNF delegation to visit the Dubai Expo due to the pandemic. KKL-JNF has a large booth at the Israel section of the Expo that illustrates and outlines the organization’s activities in water usage and conquering the desert – subjects that are of great interest to people in that area of the world. 

“We are providing information and assistance to countries that are dealing with water and forestry issues – subjects in which we have great expertise,” he says. “That is why we presented at the Dubai Expo, to strengthen our ties with other countries and help them in issues regarding desert, water and climate.” 

Over 130 countries are present at the Expo, which runs until March 2022, notes Duvdevani, and the KKL-JNF booth has provided new contacts for the organization. 

While corona has greatly impacted KKL-JNF, he says that the organization’s outdoor field activities have not been affected, and in one sense, corona has presented at least one positive aspect for KKL-JNF during the past two years. 

“Since people couldn’t go out to all forms of entertainment, the KKL-JNF forests have been full, with hundreds of thousands of people visiting every weekend. Nevertheless, says Duvdevani, “we are waiting for corona to be behind us, as many projects are on hold.”

For a moment, Avraham Duvdevani departs from his remarks to comment on recent Arab protests of KKL-JNF work in the Negev to cultivate and plant in that area. “There is no reason to stop the planning in the Negev,” he says. “The work is being carried out in areas that belong to the state, and this program was approved five years ago by the government.”

KKL-JNF was founded in 1901, and Duvdevani emphatically points out the organization’s importance, even in the hi-tech Israel of 2022. “Keren Kayemeth is the arm of Zionism. It does the things that the government does not do, and if KKL does not do them, no one will.” 

As an example, he points to its planting of 250 million trees throughout the country. “If we hadn’t done it, no one would have.” Keren Kayemeth, says Duvdevani is a future-oriented organization that deals with the development of the land. “There will always be a future, with things that need development,” he says. 

Throughout his long career of service to the Jewish world and continuing with his assuming the chairmanship of KKL-JNF in November 2020, Avraham Duvdevani has retained his enthusiasm for his work. What gives him the energy to get up each morning and continue? 

“Duvdev” sighs and smiles. “At KKL-JNF, the sky is the limit. If you identify something that needs to be done, you can do it. We are here, and we are doing tremendous things. There is no limit to the things that one can do to contribute to the future of this country. That is what inspires me.”

This article was written with the cooperation of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund.