Tu B'Shvat Thoughts - 2020

Jay Shofet
February 9, 2020

Flowering plains - the perfect site for new forests

Turns out your tree planted in Israel might not be so good for the country or protecting nature

Greetings from Israel as we get ready to celebrate Tu B'Shvat, the new year for trees.

The Jewish New Year for Trees in 2020, Tu B'shvat, will be celebrated by us and many Israelis starting on February 10th. It's a reminder of spring's renewal in the middle of winter. Lately, it also reminds us, if we are paying attention, of the need to live in harmony with nature. This Tu B'Shvat if you'd like to make a gift that truly helps Israel's nature, click here

One of the four "new years" mentioned in the Mishna, Tu B'shvat was first celebrated by medieval Kabbalists with mystical seders of fruits and nuts, and today has been adopted by Jewish environmentalists as a day of general ecological awareness. The ritual most associated the holiday these days is tree-planting in Israel, which, alas, is actually harming Israel's environment and biodiversity.

Is Planting Trees Really Good for the Environment?
As Israeli environmentalists have been warning for decades, we’ve been planting the wrong trees, the wrong way, in the wrong places for a long time.

Twice in recent years, my organization, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, has succeeded in court to stop such ecologically harmful practices.

Now, SPNI's new study concludes unequivocally that, from an ecological perspective, the KKL-JNF’s traditional pine forests have done more harm than good. It’s not that Israel doesn’t need trees. We do, the planet does; they store carbon dioxide and provide shade to lower temperatures in a warming world. But we don't need trees in naturally unforested open spaces, we need them in Israel's urban heat islands.

The issue is complex, but in a paragraph, ecosystems with sparse tree cover - scrubland, loess, grasslands and calcareous sandstone areas -- are among the most threatened ecosystems in the country. Planting trees in these sensitive ecosystems alters nature’s balance, having a negative effect on Israel’s unique biodiversity and on the ecological function of the region. By actively continuing this activity, the KKL-JNF is acting against Israel’s international commitments to protect biodiversity.

The negative ecological impacts of planted forests are not restricted to the planted area; the forest has harmful effects on nearby natural areas, including spread of toxic pine needles, invasive plants, and species into areas they shouldn’t be.

Worse, planted forests in these open areas do not contribute to the positive balance of climate change mitigation because of heat absorbed dark patches of the forest compared to the previous heat radiated back to space by light-hued environments (known as the albedo effect)

So this Tu B'shvat, please consider the science before you celebrate by planting (or sponsoring) a new tree in Israel.

Think of the Animals
In fact, this Tu B'Shvat, I'm already thinking about the next "new year" on the Jewish calendar, one I just heard about from the esteemed London environmentalist Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg. The first day of the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar, it turns out, is referred to by the same Mishna tractate as the "new year for the tithing of domesticated animals".   In light of our new understandings about the effects and horrific conditions of industrialized meat production, and in the dark shadow of the unfolding of the Sixth Mass Extinction event, by our hands -- this is a re-branding just aching to happen:  the New Year for Animals.

During the time of the Second Temple, this was a day on which shepherds determined which of their mature animals were to be tithed. The day is exactly one month before Rosh Hashanah, when a shofar made of a ram's horn -- hmmm -- is blown to herald the traditional time of heshbon nefesh, a personal accounting.

In 2009, at the goat barn of the campus of a Jewish retreat center in Connecticut just minutes from my hometown, the festival began to be revived, first by Jewish animal protection advocates and environmental educators to raise awareness of the mitzvah of tsar baalei chayim (banning cruelty to live animals). The source texts inform Jewish ethical relationships with domesticated animals, and, today, the lived experience of animals impacted by human needs, especially in the industrial meat industry.

Since then, the rebranding of the New Year for Animals has been rolling out very slowly, apparently, because no one I've spoken to has ever heard about it. Maybe Tu B'shvat seders and tree-planting had a slow go in the early years too?

A Message for the Climate Change era
But this is a rebranding worth happening, a dusting off of an arcane tradition and its updating with an important Jewish message to ourselves and to the world for the next millennium: we share this planet with other living creatures – animals wild and domesticated – and we must, for heavens' sake, and ours and theirs -- do a much better job of looking out for them and their well-being.

Tu B'shvat is a great, ancient idea with potential today to bring much-needed awareness and action to crucial issues of ecology and sustainability. But we can’t celebrate the ecological message of this day meaningfully while the science clearly shows that planting trees the way we do in Israel is harmful to the planet, our nature and our native animals.

Chag Sameach, a meaningful happy holiday to everyone


Thoughts from the 2019 Mission

Rachele Stein
December 8, 2019

Hula Valley at Sunrise

Are you on the fence about joining our next mission? Maybe this will help you make up your mind

In trucks that were configured to look like mobile bleacher seats, we quietly trekked through the Hula Valley nature reserve in northern Israel. We stopped at certain viewing areas to observe birds beginning their descent into the Hula Valley where they would rest on the lake for the night. We saw cranes, storks, pink flamingo, and other birds, either on their annual stop-over in Israel en route to Africa for the winter, or permanent residents who have settled into the good life in northern Israel.  As we watched the sky, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of cranes begin to arrive in groups. As we watched in hushed silence, more and more birds continued to arrive in larger groups. It was as if the birds had choreographed an intricate performance, beginning with their gradual descent and ending in a rapturous finale. It was an astonishingly beautiful experience. And, as if nature, or our Hula Valley guide, had planned it perfectly, the trucks manoeuvered into position to allow us a view of a radiant sun settling into the mountains at day’s end.   At the Hula Valley, a natural space exists where birds, amphibians, and other animals, as well as humans, can thrive together.  

I have been to Israel several times. This year I wanted to learn more about a part of Israel that we don’t hear enough about: the work to preserve its natural spaces, its animal (and bird) inhabitants, and the environmental challenges that Israel faces. A Google search brought me to the website of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), the oldest environmental organization in Israel. On a 6-day nature tour in November, members of SPNI travelled with us to a variety of natural spaces, introduced us to experts in various fields, and showed us the beauty of Israel’s flora and fauna, including the wonderful Hula Valley. Additional highlights of the trip are described below. 

In Jerusalem, SPNI welcomed us to one of its flagship sites, the Gazelle Valley Park; a serene wildlife oasis, set in an urban setting. Here, Israeli gazelles, of Bible renown, find a respite from an ever-expanding Jerusalem. It’s a place where Jerusalem residents and tourists can go to appreciate the vulnerability and graceful beauty of this endangered animal.  The hope is that the group of gazelles will grow and SPNI will be able to extend their presence in other regions of Israel.  

At the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, another lovely natural oasis located in bustling Jerusalem, we were joined by staff and volunteers, keen to share their love and interest in birds. At the birding station, birds are identified, weighed, and measured (including their wing spans). A band is attached to the birds’ legs, so that the team can track their migratory patterns, population growth and health. Then, the birds are released. 

At SPNI’s Ein Gedi field school, originally established in the 1960s and located in a beautiful spot above the Dead Sea, SPNI has plans for the field school’s renewal, with the addition of environmentally-friendly living structures and common outdoor spaces that will allow visitors to enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of the Israeli desert.  While there we were enormously fortunate to encounter another Biblical species, the rocky hill living ibex, with their doe-like eyes. The ibex were very accommodating as we shutter-bugged away. 

At Hai Bar Carmel Nature Reserve, in Haifa, we learned about a re-habilitation and breeding program for Griffon vultures. Vultures haven’t benefited from a particularly positive image as a predator; however, a discussion about how vulnerable the vulture population is in Israel, including the small troupe in the Golan, and time to admire the vultures’ beauty and majesty, left all of us in awe of this species and its determination to survive. 

Intertwined with visits to Israel’s nature reserves and rehabilitation programs, we benefited from the knowledge and engagement of Israeli experts, active in SPNI programs. They shared with us Israel’s current (and future) environmental challenges and their hopes and plans to preserve and grow Israel’s natural spaces. 

In less than a week, SPNI took us on a journey through Israel, a small country that is blessed with geographical diversity, and a variety of flora and fauna. What we learned was that as Israel continues to grow, it is incumbent on all to ensure that Israel’s natural spaces are preserved and that nature, animals and humans can co-exist and thrive together in harmony.

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A Canadian Hiker's Tale of The Israel National Trail

Daniel Baylis
May 2, 2019

Hiking INT. Photo Daniel Baylis

As antidotes to the busyness of day-to-day urban living, people are increasingly looking to long-distance trails. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I walked the Israel National Trail (INT):

I wanted to sidestep the clamor of my life.

Overlooking Ramon crater. Photo Daniel Baylis

Yes, the INT offers bucolic agricultural lands and long stretches of isolated wilderness, but the differentiating factor of Israel’s trail is the complex, historic setting.

The Holy Land is the original pilgrimage destination. And while I am no spiritual zealot, I did want to learn firsthand about a corner of the world that—from an outsider’s perspective—seems incredibly complex.

In February of 2015, I arrived in Israel with a backpack and a bit of ambition.

I had never walked a long-distance trail in my life, but I hypothesized that with the technical support from a friend named Igal (who had previously walked the trail), I just might be able to succeed.  

I started cautiously.

Overlooking Ramon crater. Photo Daniel Baylis

The first leg of my journey was in the north, from Tel Dan to Tel Aviv.

The beginning was muddy, and I didn’t come across any other thru-hikers for weeks.

I thought about giving up.

But my legs grew stronger and I began to feel more competent.The generosity of local trail angels was vital in maintaining my morale.

Overlooking Ramon crater. Photo Daniel Baylis

For the second leg, I left the INT for two weeks, and hiked in Palestine along a trail called Masar Ibrahim. With a guide named Mohammed, I walked from Jenin to Jericho. I stayed with Palestinians in their homes. The food was incredible, and the people were immensely welcoming, immensely gentle.

The third and final leg was the expansive stretch from Jerusalem to Eilat.

Overlooking Ramon crater. Photo Daniel BaylisThis leg daunted me the most. In Canada, hiking landscapes are typically cool, wet and green.

The Negev Desert was the polar opposite: hot and parched. Slowly, I made my way forward and, to my surprise, began intersecting with other people.

I danced with Bedouins. I spent Pesach near The Big Crater (HaMakhtesh HaGadol) with a family from the Golan Heights. I met a fellow foreign hiker from France. Paradoxically, the desert wasn’t so deserted.

For me, walking across Israel and Palestine was a seminal journey.

Due to the complexities of borders and landscapes, however, visiting Palestine and/or hiking across the Negev desert is not for everyone.

These words and photographs are not intended as an itinerary, rather they are a glimpse into how one Canadian man experienced the region. I continue to talk about my journey simply because it’s a story that doesn’t make headlines.

My story is not conflictual or shouting to be heard: one person walks quietly across Israel and Palestine—and all goes well.

Imagine that.


Daniel Baylis is a writer and photographer. As the official photographer for The Great Trail, he spends much of the year visiting and photographing trail sections across Canada. He is currently completing a memoir about his experiences walking across Israel and Palestine. Recently, Daniel returned to Israel to photograph sections of the INT.

Category: Nature Trips

Tagged under: Israel National Trail, Hiking INT


The True Nature of Conservation: SPNI’s Dual Local and Global Focus

Jay Shofet
January 29, 2019

Modi'in southern hills. Photo Dov Greenblat

Though a cliché, it is no less a truism that the environment knows no borders.  While the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel focuses inward on what's happening in Israel, we cannot afford to ignore the environmental concerns and best practices that are negatively and positively impacting our region and areas around the globe.

As the largest environmental NGO in Israel, SPNI often interacts with other civil society players in our neighboring countries in the Middle East and with countries that are part of a European Union-designated Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot.  In the Mare Nostrum project (“Our Sea” in Latin), for example, SPNI took the lead in coordinating with other civil society organizations across the Mediterranean Basin to create a shared framework to protect the Mediterranean Sea and coastline. 

Israel's coastline, Achzive. Photo: Dov Greenblat SPNI

A signature international project that has been driven by SPNI for decades focuses on teaching farmers to use barn owls and kestrels as natural pest control in order to reduce the amount of pesticides.  This project now involves some 5,000 nesting boxes across Israel, Jordan and Palestine.

SPNI also organizes an international birdwatching race called “Champions of the Flyway” that draws hundreds of professional and amateur birders from around the world each year and has raised $350,000 for bird conservation across Europe and Africa.  It is now among the premier international birding events.  Our expert ornithologists visit North America regularly to lead birding adventures in local hotspots and engage in conferences and competitions, all with the aim of raising support for protection of the world's crucial migration flyways.

Our relationships with other organizations in Europe have created cultural exchange opportunities for education and environmental professionals and young people from Israel, Italy, Germany and throughout the EU to share their knowledge and exchange ideas regarding how best to protect our planet and confront the challenges of climate change.

SPNI has valued supporters in countries around the globe, with affiliates in the United Kingdom and France, and of course in North America. On a recent visit to Ottawa, I met with local supporters, Canadian parliamentary officials, and the leadership of CIJA, the non-partisan Israel and Jewish advocacy arm of the Jewish Federations of Canada. These fascinating interactions will hopefully spur more international cooperation between Israeli and Canadian policy professionals regarding the shared challenges of environmental protection, such as renewable energy, land conservation, and sustainable fishing.

Jay(left) with Keinan Family at CSPNI event. Photo Yaron Eini

But we don’t only engage environmental professionals, as they alone cannot turn the tide in many environmental struggles.  The citizens of every nation around the world must join the efforts as well, and so we engage with as many of them as possible.  Meeting with our supporters – and people interested in environmental issues in Israel and locally – at parlor meetings, synagogues, JCCs and business offices always rank among favorite encounters when I travel to North America.  When I hear about dry riverbeds and wildfires in California, overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay or urban planning in Seattle, I know that we are not alone, and I can share what SPNI is doing about these and similar issues in Israel.

(Please let me know if you'd like me or one of SPNI’s other environmental professionals to visit your community in the next several months!)

Our shared environment, the biosphere on this blue planet, our healthy habitats, flowing rivers, polar ice packs, forests, jungles, savannas and deserts, and our desire to preserve them – this is what unites us.

Here in Israel, we have a humble Mediterranean scrubland habitat called batha.  It stretches throughout much of the country, along our varied topography and climatic zones.  It’s not flashy, not naturally forested, but rich in biodiversity and under the twin threats of encroachment and climate change.  We tackle challenges like these daily – protecting the batha habitat, renewing Israel's rivers and wetlands, and helping make our cities dense, sustainable, and the best possible places to live – and we wouldn’t be able to do so without the continued support of our extended conservation family in Israel and around the world.

To receive our newsletter and stay up-to-date with our ongoing conservation activities, please click here.  And be sure to follow our English Facebook page.

We invite you to join SPNI's activities and meet-ups abroad, by contacting our international affiliates as follows:

USA:  Robin Gordon,

CANADA: Avi Sadiv,

FRANCE: Norbert Lipszyc,

UK: John Levy,


Category: Our Global Community


Birthday Reflections: What If SPNI Didn’t Exist?

Iris Hann, SPNI CEO
November 11, 2018

SPNI Celebrating 65 years

Iris Hann, SPNI CEOSixty-five years ago this month (November 6 to be exact), the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was recognized as an NGO under Ottoman Law.  Every day since, this incredible organization has been active in a wide variety of research, education and advocacy activities, leading the charge in the protection and preservation of Israel’s unique nature. 

Though Israel is a small country, protecting its environment and promoting sustainable living is a very complex task considering the rate at which the population – among the densest of all Western countries – has grown over the last six decades, and how quickly this booming population consumes natural resources.  Additionally, the prosperity of Israel’s nature is of global significance, so our conservation efforts ripple far beyond our borders.  We are the only country with such a combination (quite the tall order!), but we tackle this unique challenge head on, doing everything we can to promote real environmental change and instill an eco-conscience in Israeli society.

Birthdays provide us with a great opportunity to reflect on our accomplishments.  In our case, it’s incredibly gratifying to recognize what we have already achieved and heartening to realize how much more is possible.  

At a recent meeting at the Har Ha’Negev Field School, a female soldier named Avia posed an important question that demanded reflection: What would Israel be like if SPNI didn’t exist?

To answer the question, I began compiling a list of SPNI’s achievements, milestones and activities. 

In addition to developing a network of field schools in the most extraordinary natural areas, including Ein Gedi, Eilat, Mitzpe Ramon, the Mediterranean Sea at Achziv, and Mt. Hermon, where SPNI guides lead hikes and orienteering programs to introduce the population to the wonders of Israel’s natural diversity, we also helped establish the Israel Nature Reserves Authority and the Israel National Parks Authority (they were two distinct entities in the 1960s).

We formed the Israel Trails Committee, which is responsible for marking and maintaining approximately 10,000 km of hiking trails across Israel that are safe, interesting and preserve nature.  This, of course, includes the Israel National Trail, which spans the length of Israel and is by far our longest hiking trail at around 1,000 km.  

SPNI's first logo

We established bird watching centers across the country, developed environmental education programs for residents, immigrant groups and tourists, and work with diverse communities across the country, including Arab, Druze, Bedouin, and Ultra-Orthodox populations, to connect both kids and adults to nature while embracing their distinctive cultures.

If SPNI didn’t exist, the entire country would have continued picking wildflowers, and we might not have been able to enjoy some of them today.  The development of the Haifa Marina would have destroyed the natural resources along Israel’s coastal plain, the Jerusalem Hills would have been overwhelmed by construction, and the dunes of Ashdod would have become large housing projects – rolling down the dunes with our children would be but a distant memory.  In addition, the beautiful southern hills of Modi'in would have also disappeared under heavy construction, unrestricted fishing would have destroyed some of our fish species, Gazelle Valley Park would have been transformed into office buildings and a residential housing, and “urban nature” would have become a contraction in terms.

Indeed, we have much to celebrate, and it is a blessing that SPNI does exist and can continue to carry on this important work.  That said, we must acknowledge our incredible partners, including environmental organizations, government ministries and the general public, without whom we could not have reached this point and would not be able to continue our environmental mission.

It’s also important that we take this opportunity, this momentous milestone, to look to the future and identify the challenges that lie ahead. 

Development plans still threaten areas that are environmentally essential and in dire need of protection, and various infrastructure project have the potential to cause critical damage to man and nature, the proposed train to Eilat among the most prominent. We have a long way to go to adequately protect the sea.  Our children are spending far too much time indoors in front of screens and far too little time outdoors hiking our amazing trails and connecting with nature.  And the absence of legislation for how to handle invasive species exposes us and nature to a number of significant dangers.

The Official document of SPNI's establishment

Still, our greatest challenge is the fact that some decision-makers perceived nature conservation as a luxury, rather than a necessity, and that every citizen does not yet regard the preservation of nature as a personal and existential problem.  As an example, it is crucial that the public sees our natural shared spaces as an extension of their own homes, instead of allowing our beautiful country to be covered in litter.  We hope to address the challenge of Israel’s waste disposal culture – and the large gaps in environmental education – in the coming years.

On a personal note, I should mention that SPNI is an integral part of my life.  I was born after the organization’s establishment, and I grew up with it and in it.  I was privileged to enter the ranks of SPNI as a teaching soldier, and today, I am very proud to lead it.  Every day, it seem as though I am standing on the shoulders of giants, and I feel privileged to be part of this vital endeavor to preserve our nature.

Thanks to our dedicated workers and supporters across the country and around the world, SPNI is a rare and wonderful organization.  If you are not yet a member, please join us – there is still so much for us to accomplish together.

Here’s to many more birthdays spent reflecting on our achievements and celebrating our positive impact on our beautiful country!

Tagged under: Iris Hann, SPNI 65th Birthday