Dear friends,

As we celebrate Tu Bi Shvat, The New Year of the Trees, we are reminded that ecological awareness has always been part of Jewish tradition. This awareness began with Biblical Talmudic & Mishna guides to agricultural practices, to ensure sustainability of the land and fruit-bearing trees (Shnat Shmita), limitations on age and years of yield before consumption of crops, and more.

In more recent times Israel has been leading the world with innovative environmental practices in a variety of fields such as water conservation, desert agriculture, desalination, and drip irrigation. These technologies and know-how have been shared with the world at large, including many developing nations in Africa, Asia and South America, empowering these often impoverished communities to improve crop production and livelihoods. Young members from these countries often come to Israel for work experience and training, bringing back these environmental & agricultural practices to their home countries. As we all know, several thousand years passed between the biblical times of Jews working the land, and the rejuvenation of such practices pioneered by Kibbutzim over a century ago.

I would like to share with you my reflections from my recent visit to Israel on what some of these farming communities have endured. First the story of my cousin Yoel from Kibbutz Kfar Szold located in Hula Valley in Northern Israel:

Kfar Szold was founded in the early 1940’s by Jewish immigrants from Hungary, Austria and Germany and was named after Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist organization. During World War II, she helped rescue children in the Holocaust and transported them to Mandate Palestine, including places such as Kfar Szold.

Yoel, his wife and three young children had to leave their home at the Kibbutz following the 7th October events. For a couple of months, they had no permanent place to live and no educational system for the children as they moved among houses of relatives. They were not entitled to compensation or funded accommodation as their home was several hundred metres from where the Government instructed people to leave.

Practically displaced refugees in their own country,they finally ended up finding a very old two-bedroom apartment in Kibbutz Deganya (the first Kibbutz in Israel founded in 1910) where they have been living for the past month or so with little furniture, mattresses on the floor and some basic appliances to keep them going. No one knows when they will be able to return home, but at least the children have some routine and can join the educational system of the Kibbutz. Despite this hardship, Yoel says they are willing to sustain this situation as long as it takes for Israel and the IDF to do what is needed for them to get back a sense of safety.

The second story is of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai located in the south of Israel near Gaza that has been under constant rocket fire since it held off Hamas terrorists on October 7th. The Kibbutz is named after Mordechai Anielewicz, the commander of the Jewish fighting organisation during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The Holocaust museum on the Kibbutz is now damaged and all the Kibbutz residents have been displaced.

These are just two of many stories of hundreds of thousands of Israelis that have been displaced, and millions more who are living under the uncertainty of whether a second front will start from the North. This includes my parents, who are in their late seventies, living on Moshav Hosen in the Western Galillee, a mere 7 kilometres from the Lebanese border. Despite the constant threat of 150,000 missiles from Hezbollah and the potential for infiltration across the border, they are determined to stay and like many other Israelis exhibit amazing resilience.

I have various relatives who are fighting in the Gaza strip, others past the age of military service that have joined the reserve troops. Parents are worried for their children, but their determination is strong, as is their sense of what they are fighting for – their families, their homes, and a safe haven for all Jewish people to live.

Despite their challenging eroding efforts, their morale is high and the community is incredibly supportive. Warehouses are full of equipment, such as clothes, toys and appliances, donated by both Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Volunteers mobilise this equipment to families in need. In Tel Aviv University, I saw displaced children from Kiryat Shmona engaged in activities, and thousands of volunteers assist farmers with picking fruit and vegetables on their farms.

There is one specific initiative for Tu Bi Shvat that is moving and inspiring which I would like to share. This was shared with me by Yair Lootsteen, a board member of the JNF (KKL) and ARZENU:

“KKL invited the families of the 364 people murdered October 7th at the rave party which took place at KKL’s Re’im Park, very near the border with Gaza, to plant trees in memory of their loved ones. Families and friends of each of the those murdered planted trees in memory of their loved ones at the very site where those loved ones were viciously murdered.

For many of the families it was the first time visiting the place their loved ones were brutally murdered. Many brought additional plants, rocks, flowers, photos, markers to add around the saplings they planted. Some of the family members recalled their last calls with their loved ones; the gun shots they heard in the background; spoke of their anxieties, feelings of futility, helplessness and guilt not being able to come to their loved ones’ rescue. Others expressed their appreciation of KKL for allowing them to memorialize their loved ones at this place.

It was a very sad, somber and significant event, sensitively put together by KKL for the families.”

We continue our ancient tradition, planting new trees, working our agricultural fields in our ancestral homeland, developing innovative technologies for the betterment of humanity. Wishing to you and all Am Israel Tu Bi Shvat Sameach, and may we see better days ahead.

Ayal Marek
President ARZA
Vice President Union for Progressive Judaism