A Peek Into Gap Year Volunteering With SPNI
SPNI’s integral field schools dot gorgeous, natural spaces throughout Israel. From education about different regions of wildlife to guided hiking and walking tours, each field school serves as a hub where people from all backgrounds can become involved with nature.
During the last week in July, I visited the Ma'agan Michael Field School, located near the stunning beaches at Hof HaCarmel. What follows is a snapshot of my eventful 48-hour visit to the school.
On Sunday morning, I make my way by train from Tel Aviv to the Hof HaCarmel Station. It is five stops away, and I find myself standing in the middle of a group of IDF soldiers on the station platform.
The train pulls into the station and a smiling Adeya – the volunteer I’ll be shadowing for the day - greets me. She happily brings me to meet the new guides at the Ma'agan Michael Field School. These four 18-year-old recruits, recent high school graduates who are volunteering for a year of service before joining the IDF, are the future of the school. After a van ride into Haifa, we thank the driver and prepare ourselves for a short hike with globs of sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats.
Now a natural, Adeya leads us as we hike towards the ocean. It’s amazing to see the difference a single year can make for the incoming guides. Along the way she tells me that the past year went by so fast. After the hike, we sit down to eat in a nearby village and feast on hummus and pita.
When we are done, another quick van ride brings us to the beach. It’s time to find and catalogue marine life in the shallow water near the rocks. Doing so teaches the incoming recruits about the local wildlife. It also happen to be a lot of fun.
We find crabs, krill, and other marine life. The van then takes us on our final trip of the day: straight to the Ma'agan Michael field school! Located right next to Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, the field school is only a short walk to the beach. We have dinner together on the kibbutz and then take some quiet time to read. I’m exhausted, and knowing I have to be up quite early the next morning, I fall asleep by 8:30 PM.
On Monday morning, I rush towards the van and the driver ushers me on. In the vehicle, I meet a new group of experienced field guides. Soon, we arrive at Ramat HaNadiv Memorial Park, where the philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild is buried. His strong Zionistic support helped make the State of Israel a reality. This park is where the field school has been hosting a day camp for the past several days.
Over 100 campers from the surrounding area are dropped off at our meeting spot, a clearing in the woods speckled with picnic tables. I’m surprised when one girl in our group tells me that she lives in New York but her parents wanted her to be in Israel for the summer to explore the country. Gilad Shtruzman, the counselor I’m shadowing for the day, explains that the children are going into sixth grade and shows me the lay of the land. We have an Israeli breakfast of bread, jam, and hummus.
By 1:30 PM, we complete a long but rewarding five-kilometer hike through the park. Everyone is hungry, but a lunch of pasta, schnitzel, and corn provides the nourishment we require. Over lunch, Gilad tells me about his service year volunteering with the SPNI field school. He says that it was a difficult and intense year. “Learning how to cooperate with everyone is not easy,” he says, “but I learned a lot, and I am happy that I underwent the maturing experience.”
After playing some more, the kids leave for the day. I, too, say my goodbyes to my new friends from the field school and catch the train back to Tel Aviv. All in a couple day’s work!
I experienced so much at the Ma'agan Michael Field School in just 48 hours that it’s almost difficult to process. Adeya passing the torch to the incoming volunteers was a rite of passage of sorts. Gilad acting as a counselor for the local children was clearly so rewarding. It is quite apparent that there is much to be gained from a service year with SPNI. And if SPNI’s Ma'agan Michael Field School is indicative of the other centers across Israel, Israeli nature lovers from all walks of life are incredibly lucky to have full access to such incredible and informative resources. These gems are not to be missed. In fact, they should be embraced.
Ari Jigarjian is a native of Bergenfield, NJ, who served as a Marketing and Communications intern at SPNI during the summer of 2017
A memorable visit to one of SPNI’s community gardens
You don’t have to have ‘green thumbs’ to notice that community gardens are on the rise in just about every urban area in the world, and this is true for Israel too.
A lovely manifestation of sustainable urban-living, community gardens enable residents to grow their own fresh and healthy produce, spend quality time with others while working outside, and practice sustainable agriculture methods such as biological pest control, water conservation, composting and waste management.
Successful community gardens have numerous benefits, helping create thriving neighborhoods and fostering a positive social ripple-effect.
Sounds great doesn’t it? But I urge you to keep in mind that a prosperous community garden is the result of careful planning and constant work - establishing a community garden is a complex task, especially given the hectic, socially isolated and screen-addictive culture we live in.
Recognizing the value of community gardens as a driving force that strengthen communities and improve quality of life, especially in underprivileged areas, SPNI professionally supports more than 250 gardens nationwide (see map for details) in partnership with local municipalities, governmental offices, and both public and private organizations. Some of the gardens are located in absorption centers for new immigrants.
I had the recent opportunity to visit one charming garden found on the roof top of ENOSH’s employment center in the bustling heart of Bat-Yam, a large city just south of Tel Aviv.
ENOSH, the Israeli Mental Health Association runs this center which is housed in a 3 story building. It includes a natural soap factory and gift shop, operated by the community members. The products are all hand-made out of natural oils and herbal essences. Gila Nevo, the center’s manager shared her future vision with me - to grow fragrant herbs in the community garden to supply the factory.
The rooftop garden was established by SPNI in collaboration with the community members and MIVNE, a commercial real estate company that not only funds the project but encourages their employees to work in the garden once a week.
On the day I visited hydroponics system was being set up on the roof and a small greenhouse was built on the ground, putting a less attractive spot next to building to good use.
The vertical hydroponics system will be used to grow all kids of leafy greens, in addition to the already existing vegetation such as chard, peppers, tomatoes, many herbs and flowers that are planted in beautiful wooden cases and hanging baskets around the walls of the roof.
Since the community center is overlooked by much taller apartment buildings curious residents started to participate in the community garden creating a heartwarming ‘side effect’ that I evidenced on my visit.
One such sweet lady was present that day and together with a community member and a MIVNE employee we started a spontaneous discussion around chard leaves’ picking. Soon enough we discovered a shared fond for Jewish-Turkish cuisine, and even exchanged recipes.
At the end of my visit I was given sweet basil seeds from the garden’s flourishing shrub, and they have already sprouted in an upcycled planter I made from an old closet drawer.
This type of relaxed and friendly interaction between people of different backgrounds, ages and mental health status carries many benefits far beyond the immediate experience.
The community members that participate in the program eagerly voiced their enthusiasm and said they felt wonderful being responsible for maintaining the garden and that taking care of the plants brings happiness and satisfaction into their lives. In addition Gila informed me that the center is now inviting the neighbors to come and create their own planters, filled with herbs and vegetables to take home!
The reward of such delicate yet determined operation by all the partners involved is what SPNI is looking to cultivate in Israeli society.
I plan to visit more community gardens and get a first-hand experience of the magic that they spread.
If you wish to support community gardens make a donation now and write community gardens in the comment box so we can allocate your contribution to these lovely projects.
Lawrence Kasmir enjoys the opening of the Gazelle Valley
Thousands of families, young couples, grandparents and grandchildren were drawn by the advertisements displayed all over the city to celebrate the official opening of the Gazelle Valley, Jerusalem’s newest park, and SPNI’s latest success story.
Walking through the valley during the official opening celebration, on the afternoon of Monday 30th March, I watched and heard a cross-section of Jerusalem’s residents marvel at the wonderful nature on display in their newest park. If I hadn't been in the company of thousands of other people, I imagined this is what the Garden of Eden would have been like.
Israel’s first lady Nehama Rivlin and Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barkat both spoke and gave their blessings to the newly opened Gazelle Valley, recognizing it as a major victory for the public and SPNI over vested interests who wanted to exploit it for real estate profits.
Elsewhere throughout the valley 24 different activity stations, for all ages, were being held including SPNI run birdwatching and nature workshops, arts and crafts, storytelling, board games, and a dance party with giant recycled puppets. Along the paths musicians were performing including the Jordan Valley Mondolin Orchestra, 2 choirs, percussionists, string quartet, and a harpist creating a calm and sophisticated atmosphere.
The Gazelle Valley has been designed so one section is exclusively for the resident gazelle (currently 5 but more will be introduced soon), with the other park full of newly blazed trails for human visitors. The Rakefet stream that flows down from Jerusalem’s neighborhoods is collected and purified in 4 pools along the length of the valley before filling a new half-acre pond. We expect that within a few years the pond will become a beacon for migrating water birds.
Now the Gazelle Valley is officially opened we invite you visit and see what the fuss is about for yourself. The Gazelle Valley is located next to Tzomet Pat in Jerusalem and is open from 7am until sunset 7 days a week. Entry is free.
Lawrence reflects on the meaning of the Sabbatical Year and SPNI's special activities
This Rosh Hashana saw the beginning of the shmitta or sabbatical year. According to Leviticus 25:1–7, every 7 years the Land of Israel is to be left fallow for a year, giving it a chance to rejuvenate. This commandment is one of the foundations of environmental and sustainable thought in Judaism. This means that from this Rosh Hashana until next Rosh Hashana (Sept 2014-Sept 2015) religiously observant Jews consider all fruits and vegetables grown in Israel as holy, creating several obstacles for agriculture and for SPNI in our Community Garden projects.
To ensure early Israeli agriculture did not collapse in the early years of the mass immigrations, Rabbis created the concept of ‘Heter Mehira’ where agricultural land could be temporarily sold to non-Jews for a year as a kind of legal loophole. Heter Mehira is still used today by farmers. In modern agriculture, hydroponics is also deemed a way around this problem as the plants are not being grown in the Land.
SPNI is a part of the “Shmitta Israelit” (Israeli Shmitta) coalition of national organizations under the auspices of Teva Ivri (Israeli Nature) to promote all the concepts of shmitta as a way of reflecting on Israel’s societal values. Even Israeli politicians are getting involved, with MK Ruth Calderon promoting a special fund to help families get out of debt, (another tenet of Shmitta).
Utilizing guidance from Machon HaTorah v’Haaretz (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) SPNI has been helping our 100+ Community Gardens adapt to the laws of shmitta.
As previously mentioned it is forbidden to grow crops in the land of Israel during the year. SPNI is helping the Community Gardens prepare flower beds that are not ‘in’ the Land. These flower beds have been newly built with a layer of nylon at the bottom creating an impermeable layer between the flower beds and the soil. The flower beds also have walls and a roof to ensure their total separation from the Land. Over the summer, SPNI ran workshops in Beer Sheva, Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to show any interested local gardeners how to make these special flower beds out of cheap and easily available materials. Over 150 people attended these workshops.
During shmitta, according to Jewish tradition, the land reverts to its original state without an owner. It follows that produce grown also has no owner. The Community Gardens have embraced this idea by advertising, in the community, specific times where anyone is welcome to pick produce and take it home with them, even if they have no other connection to the project. This sharing creates a positive community atmosphere, encourages more people to eat healthily and helps promote the Community Garden.
Disposing of Waste:
As fruits and vegetables grown in Israel are considered holy they can’t be thrown in the garbage with normal waste (this includes those which were grown last year and picked this year). To get around this problem most Israelis simply throw away their shmitta produce in either a separate garbage bag or use the ‘brown bin’ that is used for organic waste collections. SPNI’s Community Gardens are taking advantage of this need by advertising their composting services and gratefully accepting donations of organic waste from local families, which is then used to fertilize the soil. Most Israeli municipalities are moving towards separate garbage collections for organic waste and the shmitta year is the perfect chance to get more people to adopt this practice.
The shmitta year is also an opportunity to think about consumption. As all produce is considered holy it is natural that we think about how much of it we buy in our weekly shop and prepare for each meal so food doesn’t spoil or quantities of left overs aren't just thrown out. As part of our preparation for shmitta all the irrigation systems in SPNI’s Community Gardens were rechecked and recalibrated to make sure that just the right amount of water is being used for each plant, to reduce wastage.
The shmitta year has also given us a chance to think about new projects. As part of our partnership with Shmitta Israelit in SPNI’s Community Garden, we’ll be running study sessions in the Community Gardens and enabling people to grapple with religious and secular Israeli texts, about concepts such as environmentalism, consumerism and sustainability.
Inspired by a TED talk, SPNI will grow plants inside and plans to place dozens of plants in 50 kindergartens near Modi’in. According to research carried out in India, the plants will significantly improve the quality of air within the school by removing dust and other contaminants while increasing the amount of oxygen in the air. Our hypothesis is that the improved air quality will boost the children’s development while helping inspire the students to learn about nature.
Although shmitta is commonly thought of as being entwined with the Land of Israel, it is also an opportunity to think about our relationship with the planet, how much we consume and a chance to try new things. I hope you will join me in my new year’s resolution to use it.
Welcome to SPNI's Field Schools
While I was in Northern Israel, I got to experience life at SPNI's field schools. Our group stayed over night at the Achziv field school. It was located along the Mediterranean Sea just south of Rosh Hanikra. We were guided by Dudu and accompanied by his dog Shadow. We walked out to Achziv Beach where Dudu explained that the sea was currently purging itself of trash and depositing it onto the beach. This is a two month long process that happens naturally every year. In order to keep the beach clean both humans and animals work together (sand crabs have been known to take away some of the smaller pieces of garbage and waste). We also discussed the plight of sea turtles. Currently there are only around twenty female sea turtles between Rosh Hanikra and Acre. The newly hatched eggs have a very low survival rate (between 0-1%) until they are around ten years old. In order to help increase sea turtle numbers, a small turtle farm has been created to protect the turtle eggs. As we walked around, Dudu pointed out a number of fascinating plants. The Judean Viper's Bugloss is a pink flower that turns purple once pollinated. This allows bees to know which flowers they have already visited. There was a flower that has seeds that look like small pieces of coal. These seeds are able to survive in saltwater for five years without damaging the seed. We saw a caper plant and learned how to make capers and we also saw a cannabis plant that contained a highly toxic defense mechanism.
The next school we visited was on Mt. Meron. The Mt Meron field school is located in the middle of the highest nature reserve in Israel. Dudu explained to us that the field school has been in a battle of brains against a group of wild boars. The boars would knock over trash cans to eat whatever was inside. To prevent this the field school team decided to come up with a new type of trash can, but the boars proved determined to find a way to break into the trash. After three different designs had been defeated by the boars, a new design was successful. This new trash container was elevated off the ground by being attached to the side of a building. It contained bars to prevent the wild boars from reaching the trash bag and a chain to keep the top securely closed. Currently the Mt Meron field school is undergoing some renovations and I am excited to see what it looks like in the near future.