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 joined a special bat survey conducted by SPNI experts
A few days ago I celebrated my five year aliyahversary – (the anniversary of my immigration to Israel). For the past 3 and a half years I’ve been working for SPNI, learning a great deal about nature and sustainability – but apart from my frequent visits to the pet shop to see the latest baby hamsters, I’ve not had that many encounters with Israel’s wild mammals. I decided that it was time to change this. I was going on an adventure to meet some.
According to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are 103 mammal species native to Israel. That’s a lot for such a small country, bearing in mind that my native England has only 41. It was clear to me, being the paragon of efficiency that I am, that I needed to see a lot of species in one go. Fortunately, I had a plan. One third of Israel’s species are bats – the only order of flying mammalians, so I was going to see them – there were only 3 problems – 1) bats fly 2) they are active at night so are hard to spot 3) I enjoy using my nights for sleeping. However, I had set myself a challenge and made the decision to sacrifice a night of sleep, I took up an invitation to join SPNI’s annual bat survey.
The Bat Survey
SPNI has been carrying out bat surveys for over a decade. The purpose is to gather basic data on Israel’s bats, such as species, gender, age, and also collect samples of fur and DNA for further analysis. This research plays a key role in developing policy and conservation activities, in Israel including the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Nature and Parks Authority.
The bat survey takes place over the course of the same week every year in a different site every night. As they emerge from their roosts, in this case as they fly over the water to drink, they are caught in nets (like badminton) strung up to catch them. I joined the researchers halfway through the week.
Arriving at the Banias National Park in the Golan Heights, for the bat survey I was somewhat surprised to realize over ver 100 parents and children who also came to the site to learn some more about the bats. Though really I shouldn’t have been – it was a public event and who would pass up an opportunity to see bats close up, and learn about these fascinating creatures from the experts.
I also spotted my first new species – a rock hyrax, enjoying the last of the sun, on the lookout on top of the gatehouse. As darkness began to fall, the nets were opened, and the excitement among the spectators increased.
As the stars came out so did the bats. Within minutes of the sun going down bats started flying overhead. The crowds were scaring the bats away from the river but fortunately arts and crafts activities were provided to distract the younger ones while the teenagers managed to keep a respectful distance. Soon our patience was rewarded with the first bat caught in the net.
The bat was (very) carefully disentangled, and much to the crowd’s disappointment was taken first to the team of bat scientists led by expert Eran Amichai (of SPNI and Tel Aviv University). His team had recorded each bat’s vital statistics including the species, their age, sex, forearm length and weight. Samples of fur were trimmed and logged to undergo analysis for traces of heavy metals and DNA samples were also taken. From here the bats were taken to what can only be described as a mobile photo studio, where they got their close ups done as part of a soon to be published guide on Israel’s mammals.
After posing for the cameras the bats were finally ready to be presented to the adoring crowd. Most impressive (for me anyway) was that even the older teenagers were just as enthusiastic as the youngest children – pushing their forward to get a proper look and feel of the bats (they feel fluffy). A guide explained how the bats use echo-location to hunt, how their hands and arms are similar to ours, and that their wings are made of skin, not feathers. From seeing the reactions of the children (and their parents) it’s clear that they won’t forget this experience or look at bats the same way. Considering that a team from a Ramle school won a science competition with a device to scare bats away this is vital.
And as for my mission - I got to see 6 bat species up close (common pipistrelle, Kuhll's pipistrelle, Savi's pipistrelle, serotine bat, Geoffroy's bat and an Egyptian fruit bat) while learning about them from Israel’s top bat experts. In addition, I definitely heard a wild boar snuffling through the undergrowth. On the drive back I even got a glimpse of an Egyptian mongoose, meaning I got to see 8 species of animals I had never seen before in one evening – not bad at all. More importantly I had an unforgettable experience learning about bats with some very enthusiastic young people.
I’m already thinking of how to meet some wild rodents …
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.
60 Years of Nature Protection in Israel: What’s next?
In many ways it felt appropriate that the day after the passing of Azaria Alon, the forefather of Israel’s environmental movement and co-founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), SPNI pondered the question “What’s next for Israeli nature” at its 6th Annual Jerusalem Conference. The picture emerging from the various panels is that 60 years of environmental activities has kept Israel’s biodiversity in relatively good shape; but that many threats and challenges exist that leave no room for complacency. Perhaps the best hope will be the publication, in 2015, of Israel’s National Biodiversity Masterplan, with much energy at the conference spent discussing what it should include.
After a moment of silence in memory of Azaria Alon, MK Amir Peretz took the stage. The Israeli Minister for Environmental Protection delivered a passionate speech attacking the government’s plans to build a railway to Eilat and Interior Minister Gidon Sa’ar for appointing 5 new members to the Park and Nature Authority Council, who Peretz believes, were appointed to authorize the railway’s route through protected nature reserves. Amir Peretz left no doubt in the mind of any of the over 500 people in the audience that he will do everything in his power to prevent this ‘megalomaniacal’ project from becoming a reality and that he stands with us to protect Israel’s nature.
The other major statement came from SPNI CEO Moshe ‘Kosha’ Pakman officially announcing SPNI’s appeal to National Council for Planning and Building against the approval of plans for an enormous housing project on former Israel Military Industries land in the Sharon region. SPNI is appealing to the National Council for Planning and Building to totally reimagine their plans and include a park to preserve 373 plant species and contiguous open spaces in the Central Region. SPNI hopes “the park would protect the public’s natural assets and serve as a center for educational activities and public events for many residents.” This appeal embodied many of the ideas stemming from the conference of the need to protect open spaces and their contiguousness through national strategic planning.
Throughout the day experts from SPNI, Israel Parks and Nature Authority, Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, government ministries and the business world presented their ideas and debated planning reforms, environmental education, community engagement, urban nature, and the role of business in preserving biodiversity. There emerged a general consensus among the experts that Azaria Alon has left behind a healthy legacy. However, a lot of work remains for us and all Israelis to ensure that we and our children can enjoy a country with birds, butterflies and flowers. As in Azaria Alon’s famous sentiment, what is life without them really worth?
Category: Our Global Community