Tu Bishvat: For the first time ever, plant a tree via Zoom

Planting a tree in the Land of Israel has great meaning and creates a profound connection between the person planting the tree and the land.

TREE PLANTING WITH the Makuya of Japan (photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
TREE PLANTING WITH the Makuya of Japan
(photo credit: AVI HAYUN)
"Every tree that we plant elevates us to a better place for us to live.” 
When Eran Zavadi, a forester with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, plants a tree with visiting tourists, he says these words with great emotion and sincerity. Today, Israel is dotted with millions of trees, but during the late 19th century, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Land of Israel had fallen into disrepair.
The Galilee forests and the Carmel mountain range were stripped of their trees, and swamp and desert increased. Theodor Herzl himself, on his only visit to Palestine in 1898, noted the absence of forests and greenery and planted a cypress tree in the village of Motza outside Jerusalem.
Throughout the long history of KKL-JNF (Keren Kayemet LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund), founded in 1901, tourists and visitors have planted tens of thousands of trees in KKL-JNF forests. Planting a tree in the Land of Israel has great meaning and creates a profound connection between the person planting the tree and the land. For some, it is a religious experience, while for others, it affirms their Zionist values. For many visitors, planting a tree in Israel represents the high point of their visit. KKL-JNF’s Global Resource Development Division has been raising funds for the development of the State of Israel for the past 120 years, and is a global presence in more than 55 countries, with 33 local KKL-JNF offices around the world and close to a million supporters who have planted trees in the Land of Israel.
Zavadi, who studied forestry in Germany and who has planted trees with tourists in KKL-JNF forests for the past 10 years, says that when tourists plant trees in Israel, they are establishing a “people-to-people” connection. Visitors plant trees to mark special occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays and bar and bat mitzvahs, or to honor the memory of family members. Many of the visitors to KKL-JNF forests who plant trees, he notes, are not Jewish. Zavadi has planted trees with the grandchildren of righteous gentiles from Denmark who saved an entire Jewish family; with members of the Makuya religious movement from Japan who are devoted to Israel and the Jewish people; and with Evangelical Christians from many lands, and, of course, with Jewish visitors to Israel from around the world.
“I see a very strong cultural connotation,” notes Zavadi. “The majority of those who come to plant trees are Jewish, and many of them have a strong connection to Judaism.” 
Zavadi recalls planting a tree with someone who, though married to a non-Jewish woman, planted a tree in Israel in order to maintain a connection with the Jewish people. For Zavadi, the stories and emotions that accompany tree-planting have affected him, and made his work fulfilling.
KKL-JNF’s tree-planting area for tourists is in the Tzora Forest, near Beit Shemesh. Zavadi conducts tree-planting ceremonies with dignity, explaining the significance of the location, the importance of trees in Israel, and how planting trees has provided a sense of renewal for the country. Zavadi tells visitors how in 1948, the fledgling State of Israel had a population of 600,000 Jews and absorbed two million Jews in less than 20 years. Many of the KKL-JNF workers at that time, he says, were destitute refugees who had been displaced by war and were employed by KKL-JNF to plant trees, giving hope and life to new immigrants and turning the land into a forest of green. He then shows the sapling to the guest, digs the hole, and the visitor laces the tree into the earth.
“I created a term that I call ‘TPC,’ which stands for ‘tree-planting culture,” says Zavadi.” Israel is unique in the fact that it values the planting of trees. From 1948 until the 1970s, Zavadi says, more than 240 million trees were planted in Israel.
ERAN ZAVADI, KKL-JNF forester, conducts online tree planting via Zoom at Tzora Forest. (Yossi Aloni)ERAN ZAVADI, KKL-JNF forester, conducts online tree planting via Zoom at Tzora Forest. (Yossi Aloni)
WITH THE outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020, the flow of tourists to Israel ceased almost immediately. Zavadi remained busy doing his regular forestry work, managing the trees and keeping the trees healthy, but there were no tree plantings with visitors from abroad. Zavadi and his team soon hit upon the idea of conducting live, online tree plantings via Zoom. Tourists are still not coming to Israel, but no matter how far away they may be, they can now have a tree planted by Zavadi in the Tzora Forest and fully participate with members of their family from around the world in the ceremony. 
Those who want to plant a tree online sign up at the KKL-JNF page at plantatree.kkl.org.il, choose a date and a time and then receive a link to the tree-planting ceremony, which is conducted by Zavadi from the forest. Zavadi dons a yellow hardhat, with his cellphone positioned securely in the helmet to broadcast the tree planting, and performs the very same ritual that has been done for visitors up until this year. 
“Every time I do tree-planting online, I am amazed. It is even more meaningful than doing it in person. Those who are watching understand the situation and appreciate the circumstances. They are very quiet, and I hear a lot of silence from the other end.” Frequently, the online Zoom tree-planting can involve family members from around the world and is a significant family event, he says. “I have a feeling of real fulfillment,” he adds.
When the tree is being planted, the special prayer of the tree-planter is recited in Hebrew and in the language that the donor speaks. The prayer was composed by Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, who was the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel when the state was declared. 
The prayer reads: “Our Father in Heaven, Thou who builds Zion and Jerusalem and establishes the kingdom of Israel, take pleasure in Your land and bestow abundance upon it from the goodness of Your grace. Give dew for a blessing and cause beneficent rains to fall in their season, to satiate the mountains of Israel and her valleys, and to water every plant and tree. Make deep their roots and grow their crown that they may blossom according to your will among all the trees in Israel for blessing and for splendor. Strengthen the hands of all our brethren who toil in the labor of the Holy Land and make its desolate areas fruitful. Bless, our Lord, their strength, and may the work of their hands find favor before You. Look down from Your holy habitation from heaven and bless Your holy nation Israel and the land that you have given us as you promised to our fathers. Amen.”
At the conclusion of the online ceremony, a certificate attesting to the planting is sent to the person who ordered the tree, the event is recorded, and the video is sent to the recipient. Once a year has passed, KKL-JNF sends “birthday tree greetings” to the person who donated the tree. Tu Bishvat – the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat – is known as the “New Year of Trees,” and is observed this year on Thursday, January 28. While much of the tree-planting in Israel is celebrated on this date, KKL-JNF plants trees with visitors throughout the year.
When the corona pandemic disappears, KKL-JNF will resume physical tree-planting ceremonies for visitors and continue online tree-planting for those who cannot make the trip. Says Eran Zavadi, “Wherever you are, plant a tree!”
This article was written in cooperation with KKL-JNF.
Planting hope for the future – KKL-JNF Tu Bishvat Activities for 2021
KKL-JNF has a variety of events planned for Tu Bishvat. Following is a partial listing:
• Planting online – Online plantings for the restoration of the Nof HaGalil Forest. Members of the public are contributing new trees to restore the Nof HaGalil Forest that burned a few months ago. This activity is available both in Israel and abroad. Each tree donor will receive a certificate of planting from the KKL-JNF.
• Choosing the national tree – In celebration of the 120th anniversary of KKL-JNF, the organization has launched the “National Tree” competition, inviting the public to select the tree they believe best represents the State of Israel. The candidates are the palm, olive, tabor oak, cypress, eucalyptus, pistachio and fig. The public is invited to vote for the national tree of Israel at salkkl.kkl.org.il/NationalTree/#/TreeList.
• JNF on Wheels – The KKL truck will travel throughout Israel’s cities, near nursing homes, hospitals and military bases, playing songs of Tu Bishvat. In designated areas, the KKL-JNF truck will turn into a green stage, where there will be musical performances, with Israeli songs and tunes of Tu Bishvat. All activities will follow the rules of social distancing. This activity will take place during the week of Tu Bishvat from Sunday, January 24 until Friday, January 29, from 9 a.m.-12 noon.
• World KKL Shabbat – In honor of January 29, the Shabbat of Tu Bishvat, the KKL-JNF Education and Community Division has produced a unique map that focuses on Tu Bishvat and its connection to the values of the JNF, Zionism, forests and the environment. The game map features family activities and diverse content, enlightening illustrations, quizzes, readings, games and holiday table sessions. The kit will be distributed in different countries around the world, in different languages, and can be printed at home.