Tu Bishvat: Trees in Jerusalem & the Judean Hills

A census of Jerusalem trees undertaken seven years ago by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel reported that some 4,900 trees in the city that are at least a half-century old.

THE ANCIENT olive tree in Jerusalem’s Garden of Gethsemane.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE ANCIENT olive tree in Jerusalem’s Garden of Gethsemane.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Seven years ago Prof. Antonio Cimato, registrar of the trees at the Garden of Gethsemane here in Jerusalem, made a report to the Vatican. 
“Let me say: plants and trees of greater age than our olive trees are not cited in the scientific literature. Olive trees are among the oldest broad-leaved trees in the world.” 
Cimato used the process of carbon-dating on the oldest trees. One was 1,092 years old; another 1,166; and the third 1,198. In Jerusalem we are fortunate to have some of the oldest trees in the world. We can only imagine the care by so many generations to ensure these trees would live.
A census of Jerusalem trees undertaken seven years ago by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel reported that some 4,900 trees in the city that are at least a half-century old; 600 are at least 80 years old or older; and as mentioned from the report given to the Vatican, there are a number of trees here that are much older.
The vibrant vegetation of Jerusalem is highlighted in tours of the city for foreign visitors, but many of our city’s residents have never noted this aspect of Jerusalem’s beauty.
Many of the city’s trees over 50 years old were planted by many of us in the Kennedy Forest, in the Ramot Forest, in the Peace forest and a little outside of the city in the American Bicentennial forest. After the disastrous fire along the highway into Jerusalem several years ago, we witnessed replacement trees being planted in those hills to make them green again.
We note with pride how olim began their herculean environmental efforts in the 1880s. Breaking rocks, they sought to fill the empty spaces where trees had once grown. 
Why had so many trees disappeared? In part because the previous inhabitants did not want to pay taxes on them, so they cut them down.
The writer's family in Israel, December 1976 (Courtesy David Geffen)The writer's family in Israel, December 1976 (Courtesy David Geffen)
FOLLOWING THAT ambitious start, Keren Kayemet le-Yisrael (the Jewish National Fund) was created at the World Zionist Congress in 1901 and has overseen the planting of millions of trees in the last 120 years. All of us should stand in awe.
In the Marysville California Journal of March 26, 1920, we find the article “300 schoolchildren of Jerusalem celebrating the Jewish Arbor Day recently planted 500 trees in the suburbs of the Holy City, inaugurating the afforestation program of the Zionists to plant one million trees this year in Palestine.”
It appears, from the sources, that as the children marched to the various areas such as Talpiot and Rehavia, they were loudly cheered by the citizens of the city, who came out to witness the parade to the planting sites. All of us who live in Jerusalem can walk the streets and see what those children achieved 100 years ago.
In Jerusalem, the most common species are the Jerusalem Pine, the Mediterranean Cyprus, the Olive Tree and the Red River Gum. In 1931, the Keren Kayemet planted Himalayan Cedar Trees in front of the Jewish Agency building that have grown now to be a stately 14 meters tall. Take a look at them when you are in the vicinity.
In 1919, the British were concerned about the trees, which had been “wantonly destroyed” by the Turkish misrule and war. One of the important acts at that time was the planting of 369,000 trees throughout Mandate Palestine. That particular act of afforestation 100 years ago, was one of the most dramatic.
In another California newspaper we read, “The afforestation of Palestine, because of the importance in the agricultural rejuvenation and in providing labor for construction work, is considered one of the biggest restoration projects that the Zionists are attempting in the Holy Land.” 
Californians were always interested in the tree and bush culture of Palestine because of the similarities to their state. An entire speech on the topic given by Aaron Aaronson at a California Biological Institute was published in 1915 in an institute publication.
The 1920 a Los Angeles newspaper reported, “500 Jewish organizations will observe ‘Palestine Week’ February 1-8. The week will mark the coming of spring in the Holy Land.” The story emphasized that ‘Palestine Week” would coincide with the dates of the national $10 million campaign for Palestine Restoration. The youth in the Holy Land were not forgotten since the “Fund distributed Palestine treats to Jewish children on the celebration of Jewish Arbor Day.”
There was a “pioneering tree moment,” as I like to call it, which may have been noted all over the world – certainly the Jewish world – because of a news item that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency distributed on August 22, 1957. “The planting of trees in the Jerusalem demilitarized zone near the United Nations Truce Supervisory headquarters continued today without Jordanian interference.”
When it came to trees, the Israeli government recognized that more were needed, but in those early days, who would decide if the trees were legal?
“There was no indication that Jordan would carry out a threat to enter a formal complaint.” Then the news item continued. “The tree planting is part of an Israel program to create a green belt on the outskirts of new Jerusalem. Israel’s Foreign Ministry officials admit the planting area was a part of a zone designated as no man’s land in Israel-Jordanian Armistice.” Those trees must be quite tall today.
LEAH HAMMERMAN plants a tree. (Courtesy David Geffen)LEAH HAMMERMAN plants a tree. (Courtesy David Geffen)
IN 1992, the late Leah Shoshana Hammerman, then a young woman, was given a gift of a grove of 1,000 trees in the American Bicentennial forest. She and her family were in Israel staying at their home in Jerusalem. A Jewish National Fund forester met them at the planting site of the forest. In a picture of her planting some of the trees, you can see a beautiful smile on her face.
As she grew up in Tom’s River, New Jersey where her father was the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue, Hammerman began to teach Hebrew and about Israel. She also developed a great love of nature and took hikes in many of the national parks and forests in the eastern United States. After earning a degree in education, she taught in Jewish day schools throughout New Jersey. In the summers she taught at Camp Ramah. 
When she died of cancer a year ago, individuals in various communities where she worked said, “Leah had the ability to interact with youngsters in exactly the way they needed. To her each was sacred.” Her rabbi said, “A month before Rosh Hashanah, she would send a check with a note in honor of all the babies born that year.”
Leaving her family and friends at age 40, memories of her abound. Her parents, Rabbi Richard and Sharon Hammerman, wrote me, “When Leah needed additional assistance through hospice at home with us, we welcomed a flood of visitors and only then we learned the impact which she made on her friends, students, synagogue, neighbors and community.”
The trees, planted with love, will be convey to us the joy of Leah during her lifetime.
The Jewish National Fund encourages families to urge their bar and bat mitzvah children to use some of the money received from their Jewish milestone celebration to purchase and plant trees in Israel. As we celebrate Tu Bishvat, we can join with hundreds before us like Leah z’l and plant trees in the soil of Israel.
JUMPING AHEAD to our family’s personal planting of trees in and around Jerusalem, in the fall of 1976, while we were here on sabbatical, a close relative died in the USA. We took the bus to the Kennedy Memorial forest in Aminadav part of Jerusalem and as we looked at the sculpture of the cut-off tree trunk in memory of JFK, we placed tree saplings into the soil. 
When we were completing our sabbatical in the winter of 1977, we were asked to plant the first trees in the Children’s Forest established by Beth Shalom Religious School. Since the congregation is in Wilmington Delaware, it is possible that President Joe Biden, then a senator, purchased some trees. 
The AACI cemetery in Har Menuchot overlooks Ramot and the Ramot Forest. Since we were here, my parents came over to Israel in December 1976. In honor of my mother, Anna Birshtein Geffen’s 70th birthday, my father arranged for a grove to be planted in the USA Bicentennial Forest. My late wife Rita and our son Avie were able to save pictures of that wonderful day, especially the ones of my parents planting a tree.
The week of my mother’s birthday just a few years later, all the Israeli Geffens and some close friends were bused to the site where that mammoth forest had begun to rise just outside of Jerusalem.
What a thrill on this Tu Bishvat to enjoy the trees that others planted before us. Keep our nation green by appreciating the trees we have – and add some of your own!