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February 8, 2017 7:11 am

Trees, Tu B’Shvat and the Jewish National Fund

avatar by Alina Dain Sharon / JNS.org

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Trees in Jerusalem. Photo: Juandev via Wikimedia Commons.

Trees in Jerusalem. Photo: Juandev via Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org – The Midrash teaches that God told man that He created everything for us: “Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world — for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”

For more than a century, the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), which calls itself “Israel’s largest environmental organization,” has followed that tenet by protecting and preserving nature in the Jewish state. The organization marked the 115th anniversary of its establishment January 17, and also launched a month-long campaign of tree-planting events to commemorate the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shvat.

Through February 17, more than half a million people are expected to participate in more than 130 Tu B’Shvat-themed KKL-JNF planting events across Israel.

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Hagay Yavlovich, the director of the organization’s Seeds and Nurseries Division, said that the organization is using Tu B’Shvat to help them strengthen their connection to the land and ecosystem of the Jewish state, and to teach them about the importance of preserving the environment. Those who plant a tree “will treat the forest differently,” Yavlovich said.

The traditional roots of Tu B’Shvat

The first mention of Tu B’Shvat (also known as the “New Year for trees”), appears in the Rosh Hashanah section of the Mishnah, and related to the fruit tithes that ancient Israelites were ordered to bring to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a necessary step to determine the beginning and end of the crop year; any fruit that blossomed after Tu B’Shvat was considered produce for the new year.

In 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, a school teacher in Zichron Yaakov, took his students to plant trees on Tu B’Shvat. The Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, later established KKL-JNF in 1901, in order to purchase plots of land as a foundation for a future Jewish state. The organization purchased its first acres of Israel in 1904, and later began a decade-long process of forestation across a landscape that had been largely stripped bare.

Over time, “Israeli culture adopted tree planting as a tradition, … and KKL-JNF followed suit,” Yavlovich said.

The first forest that the organization planted in was the Hulda forest in central Israel (where 18 olive trees were planted in 1907).

Today, the group says that forestation is an important way to offset pollution and the effects of climate change (because forests offset half a million tons of greenhouse gases each year). Israel currently has 247,000 acres of man-planted forest — approximately one-third of the size of Rhode Island. By contrast, when the organization was established in 1901, less than 2 percent of Israel was woodland. Thus, Israel is one of the world’s few countries where there are more trees today than there were a century ago.

The aftermath of November’s fires

Many forest areas in Israel are still recovering from last fall’s devastating wave of brush fires.

Dr. David Brand, the head of the Forest Department at KKL-JNF, told JNS.org that those the fires destroyed or damaged approximately 16,000 dunams (about 4,000 acres) of woodlands managed by the organization.

In the fires’ aftermath, the immediate goal of KKL-JNF and other organizations, such as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), has been to remove safety hazards, such fallen trees. Unfortunately, the groups need to wait one or two years before they can begin planting again.

In state-run nature preserves, the INPA has been building gaps in vegetation — known as fuel breaks — along roads, villages and inside territories. This is being done in an attempt to stop future fires from spreading.

There is also a debate about whether these groups should be planting pine trees in Israel. The pine tree is a coniferous species not native to Israel, but was chosen in the state’s early days because of the tree’s ability to thrive in harsh terrains. Today, man-planted pine trees grow all across Israel, along with the country’s natural vegetation.

But pine trees, though they helped create modern Israel’s landscape, are also highly flammable, and Shkedy believes that they represent a fire hazard.

KKL-JNF’s Brand takes issue with Shkedy’s viewpoint. He pointed out that only 50 percent of the damaged trees from the forest fires were pine trees. He also said that other factors can affect the spread of a fire, such as the  dry weather and strong winds that existed in November.

“Pine trees are flammable. Even so, [Israel’s] natural vegetation is also flammable,” Brand said.

Looking ahead

Acknowledging the possibility of more fires, Brand said, “You won’t stop driving a car just because there is a risk of car accidents.”

Currently KKL-JNF has three nurseries for forest and woodland trees, which grow about 1 million tree seedlings a year. Eighty percent of the growth in the organization’s tree nurseries are comprised of broad leaf trees such as oak, almond or olive — and only 20% are pine seedlings. Thirty years ago, those proportions were the opposite.

KKL-JNF still believes it is important to continue planting trees, despite the risk of fires.They plan to plant more than half a million seedlings in 2017.

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