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
I was extremely nervous on the first day of my summer internship. I had never worked in an office before (and never wanted to), and I was already feeling like a “suit,” a rigid and boring businessman. Dressing up for others has never been something that I particularly enjoy, but I had to make a good first impression, so there I was decked out in my new work wear: a button down shirt, beige slacks, and nice shoes.
But the moment I met my boss, Aya, who sported dyed red hair, a funky style and a huge smile, I began to breathe a little easier. Aya took me on a tour of the office and made me feel at home. While eating lunch together on the rooftop patio, Aya told me a little bit about the nature sites I would visit and write about for the English newsletter. Later, she took me on a walking tour of the neighborhood, and we discussed the best restaurants in Tel Aviv and the ins and outs of Israeli politics.
In no time at all, I felt like a part of the team at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and a full-fledged member of Israeli society. Once I felt comfortable among the people, it was time to get acquainted with the land.
SPNI’s main office is located in the South Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, an area that has been blighted by the construction and abandonment of the old Tel Aviv central bus station and is overrun with an unsavory element of Israeli society.
I was previously unaware that such rough areas even existed in Israel, and my walk to and from work opened my eyes to some jarring new realities. But I was also introduced to numerous breathtaking nature sites created, maintained, and protected by SPNI.
In Tel Michal, an urban nature site situated on the coast of Herzliya, I saw firsthand how the organization was empowering seniors through conservation activities, bringing them back into the community through public service projects that include beautifying this previously neglected archeological site and leading tours.
In Jerusalem, the nation’s capital, SPNI fought for and successfully established several stunning urban nature sites, including the 64-acre Gazelle Valley Park and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which is within earshot of the Knesset.
I was supremely impressed by the many eco-tourism focused field schools established and operated by SPNI across the country. In addition to serving as core team members for conservation projects, the field school staff lead nature excursions and provide educational programming for both young and old to enjoy.
And in its own backyard, the ramshackle neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan, SPNI built a rooftop garden for an apartment building occupied primarily by refugees.
As I began to settle into the rhythm of office life, I found myself connecting to the other SPNI team members through mutual interests, shared experiences, and our dedication to a common cause. We discussed the many projects I had seen, and I began to understand just how much time and effort went into every element of the work that was being done around me.
Everything from tackling new sources of environmental degradation, which seemed to pop up almost daily, to marketing campaigns aimed at generating public support for environmental initiatives took so much time and dedication, and nothing was a simple walk in the park (or forest, as the case may be).
I finally understood that no one at SPNI could ever be considered a “suit.” Yes, they worked day after day in an office building spending most of their time behind desks, reliant on computers and concerned with cutting costs. But their dress is way too casual, their demeanor too friendly, and their ideology too inclusive to ever fit the pejorative connotation of that overused term. Making that assumption was my mistake. But then, I had never met anyone quite like the SPNI staff before.These environmental desk warriors are nature’s first line of defense.
Most SPNI employees spend a good amount of time in the field, visiting sites, collecting data, and helping lead public initiatives. But every moment in the field is made possible by hours of office work. Grants must be secured. Logistics must be solidified. Promotional materials must be developed. Every task is essential to protecting the environment and keeping it safe from predators of all kinds for generations to come.
As I look back on my time at SPNI, I am so grateful to have spent my summer in a cubicle. Not because I love office work, but because I now understand how much office work is required to save the environment.
This summer, I didn’t become a “suit,” as I had feared. Instead, I spent eight epic weeks becoming an environmental desk warrior, a label I wear proudly.
Josh Brandt is a native of Los Angeles, CA, who served as a Marketing and Communications intern at SPNI during the summer of 2017.
Category: Our Global Community
An Expert's View on Wildlife in Urban Environment
There is a common misconception that nature’s place is far away, well outside the boundaries of our cities and towns, to be enjoyed only during vacation. Fortunately for our animal friends, quite the opposite is true.
In fact, when reviewing the living patterns of wildlife over the past couple of decades, we have noticed that they don’t simply survive in urban areas, but they are actually thriving. This doesn’t always come about naturally though, and it is important for us to develop sanctuaries in urban settings if we hope to continue to enjoy living side by side with our local wildlife.
Like any other ecological system, urban environments develop according to the type of habitat it produces. That is to say, a bridge or a building edifice might be nothing more than a concrete structure for humans, but a bird will see the similarities to a cliff face and may decide that it is the ideal place to build its nest. With this being the case, all urban developers must be mindful enough to begin the landscaping and construction process by figuring out how their new structures will fit within a given ecological system, specifically how the local wildlife will react to and even benefit from them.
Israel’s urban landscapes are unique in that they are some of the oldest in the world, enabling us to examine how animals have been reacting to these environments over thousands of years. Wherever you look, whether in Jerusalem, Jericho, or on the coast in Caesarea, you find ancient cities that have provided a home for a wide array of Israeli wildlife, successfully integrating many species into their historic structures and spaces. Thus, Israel is like a living laboratory for the study and preservation of urban wildlife.
In the country’s ancient and modern cities alike, it is always fascinating to note how the local wildlife has changed to adapt to its newfound environments.
For instance, urban areas now boast fewer large animals, but smaller ones have adapted in ingenious ways. Over the years, we have observed certain species actually surpassing their natural abilities to survive in the wild with the introduction of cities into their habitats. With a more readily available food supply, thanks to trash thrown out by humans, and the decrease of natural predators in cities, certain species can grow unimpeded.
In order to ensure the continued survival of nature and wildlife within Israel, the urban conservation plan spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) employs both the mapping and maintenance of local nature hotspots in cities throughout the country. These surveys supply the data needed for policy reforms that focus on creating tools for sustainable development.
Until recently, every weed in Tel Aviv was killed using harmful herbicides. Upon reviewing the data, SPNI realized that this was incredibly harmful to the local animal population. Together with several local activists groups, SPNI managed to persuade the municipality to change its method of operation. Now, all weeds are mowed to safeguard the local animals.
This example highlights the need for public intervention in the preservation of nature, especially when it comes to public policy. SPNI’s newest public policy campaign surrounds the design of new public building. We are urging the Knesset to implement legislation that would call for architects and urban developers to integrate spaces on roofs, entrances and walls that could serve as shelter for local wildlife, thereby mitigating the negative environmental impact of these structures on the surrounding natural habitats. Hopefully, this effort will be successful, and Israel will lead the way toward green building practices, fortifying nature’s place within our society.
With Israel’s population on the rise, continued urban development is guaranteed. As such, conservations activists across the country will have their work cut out for them in the years to come. But with every city expansion, we see great opportunities to implement change. However, the activists simply cannot do it alone.
Living within nature, side by side with local wildlife, is part and parcel of life. We may take it for granted, but it would impact us tremendously if it all slipped away. It’s time for individuals to speak out and insist that their local government officials implement pro-environmental policies and become fully aware of the impact of urban development on the local environment. At this crucial stage, it’s all about safeguarding the survival of nature itself, the future of which is firmly rooted within every city and town.
Amir Balaban is the urban nature coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). He also serves as the co-director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and continues to be a force behind the renovation of the Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem, a pinnacle of urban nature innovation.
The love life of the Israeli Mountain Gazelle
If you were to ask a female gazelle to detail the most important qualities of an ideal mate, the domination of an area with the tastiest and most nutritious food would most certainly top her list.
Male gazelles do their utmost to dominate territories that will attract females. The richer the site, the more likely females will spend time there, thus providing the male with better opportunities to mate.
But don’t be fooled. A decent territory is never a matter of sheer luck. Fierce male competition over quality area is simply unavoidable, as males are constantly busy marking their territory and chasing away other males who are challenging their control. From time to time, these battles for dominance get violent, with goring incidents by intruders or defenders resulting in a loss of life.
It should be understood that not all males manage to dominate a territory. In fact, most males are either too young, too old or simply incapable of such domination. These males tend to huddle together into bachelor herds or dwell alone in less attractive areas, thus minimizing their chance of ever finding love.
So, it turns out that female gazelles are not at all shallow, but rather incredibly practical. Their mating choices are not based on the short-term gains of occupying the areas with the best food and shelter, but the long-term gains of mating with a male capable of securing and dominating such an area, namely the ability to pass on traits like stamina, agility, and competitiveness to their offspring. In other words, for gazelles, love between a male and female is all about survival and progression of the species.
But what about the love between a female gazelle and her fawn? A mother gazelle will do almost anything to protect her offspring. Though it defies human logic, this sometimes includes long periods of separation. The reasoning is that predators are naturally attracted to the young fawns, who are slow and, thus, ideal targets. In order to keep the predators at bay, the female gazelle hides the fawn away for long hours, only returning for brief nursing breaks a few times a day.
Every once in a while, hikers encounter an “abandoned” fawn. In most cases, these animals are being well-cared for and protected in a way best suited for the survival of its species survival. So, if you spot such a fawn while outdoors, please keep your distance and allow its mother to take care of it properly.
We must remember that while animals love differently than humans do, and we may not understand their methods of care and survival, they are simply rooted in their nature, which is profoundly beautiful in its own way.
(NOTE: If you find an injured animal, please call the Israel Nature and Parks Authority hotline at *3639.)
Official bird for the city of Eilat
If you know Eilat, you know it is a very unique place. It's remote and beautiful, surrounded by fantastic natural treasures such as the marine life, desert landscapes, bird migration, and the people who live here who have their own unique character.
So we at SPNI wanted the people of Eilat to embrace their uniqueness by connecting them to the birds of Eilat. The Environmental Education Unit of the Eilat municipality called it "place-making" and I called it getting the birds in to the hearts of the people. I guess it was both.
Our basic assumption was that the uniqueness of Eilat – the extreme climate, remoteness and outstanding landscape - creates a special character for both humans and birds, which adapt to the habitat. We picked 10 flagship bird species that seemed to have identity issues: The Sunbird is a tiny and energetic bird that originated in Eilat but is widespread across the country; the Blackstart that looks grey and shy but has a built-in colorful character; the Little Green Bee-Eater – the most beautiful bird in town and knows it too; the Rosefinch, connected to the desert ground; Brown Booby, is a “Tropical Storm” at sea that no one can ignore (it's a bird, just Google it!) and the Flamingo – that art-deco pink and ever-optimistic bird.
Two months of bird madness struck town. Every school took a day to discover its Bird Identity, the local radio station was pumped with nonstop campaigns for birds and interviewed every possible person about their chosen bird, and signs were hung throughout the town and in work places. Our nature guides, dressed with the competing birds’ costumes, went through town and lobbied people to take a vote. The town was in a total birdy madness.
Last week everyone gathered in the Eilat Bird Sanctuary; school children, teachers, families and even the Municipal Council moved their monthly meeting to the festive venue, SPNI's important birding research center at the southern tip of Israel's crucial global migration flyway. The mayor announced the iconic White-eyed Gull as the official bird of Eilat, having received 5,670 of the 15,769 votes. Eilat chose our calmest bird, one that can only live in quiet sea water, and is endemic to the protected waters of the Red Sea– local patriotism at its best.
The event was nothing less than touching and exciting. The school kids played and guided the visitors, and the guides of SPNI, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and El Arzi educators quizzed and entertained the children with the bird costumes and games. It felt like the whole town was at The Bird Sanctuary, in spirit if not in flesh, from the Mayor and his Council to my favorite checkout girl at the supermarket. A flamingo and curious Caspian Terns showed up too and we all enjoyed the best celebration in town for a long time, in 113 (Fahrenheit) degree heat, but who cares. It's our party.
Thanks to all the 'dream-come-true' makers – the Municipality of Eilat’s Environmental Education Unit, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Nature and Parks Authority and the religious field school – El Arzi.
Noam Weiss is the Director of the International Birding Research Center in Eilat, SPNI
Tagged under: Birding, Naom Weiss, Eilat