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Chicago JUF Helps Israel Go Green

November 2009

Israel still conjures up familiar images of draining swamps and planting trees on Tu’B’shvat. But today Israel is turning the desert green in a whole new way – through an increasing emphasis on recycling, conservation and sustainable living. In fact, Israelis are on the forefront of the global movement to improve our relationship with the environment and teach new respect for Ima Adama (Mother Earth).

Still, for many outside of the country, Israel and environmentalism don’t seem to go together.

“Sometimes myths take a while to debunk and that’s what’s happening in terms of what North Americans perceive,” explains Linda Epstein, Associate Vice President, Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

“But if you just Google environmental organizations in Israel, dozens and dozens of them are out there doing amazing things, talking about standardizing recharging of batteries for electric cars, encouraging use of solar energy, and making real strides in water conservation.”

Increasingly, those “grassroots: efforts are inspired and nurtured by Jewish federations, who, together with partner organizations such as the Jewish Agency (JAFI) and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), are adding a dash of green to their Israel-based projects.

Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago has taken on a pioneering role in the area, making the commitment to add an environmental aspect to a number of the programs that they fund in their three JAFI Partnership 2000 (P2K) communities in Israel’s South: Kiryat Gat, and the Lachish and Shafir regional councils.

That decision came about as a result of a major change in policy two years ago as leaders began to consider how to remain most effective in dealing with a rapidly changing Israeli society. It began with the recruitment of a fresh group of volunteers. New faces arrived as a result of an ad placed in a local newspaper inviting people to spend an evening learning about their community’s P2K relationship with Chicago. The event led to 30 interested people, from whom a select group of new volunteers was chosen.  Not long after that, the newly-comprised Steering Committee members were flown to Chicago for an educational mission to learn more about the key objectives and rich variety of the Chicago Jewish community.

After a fruitful visit that introduced the Israelis to, among other topics, the Reform and Conservative movements, the fight against anti-Semitism, the work of the JCRC, and efforts to better educate the local Jewish community, the participants became strong advocates for the federation.

According to Epstein: “There was a realization by the Israelis that federation makes sense.”

Not only did the Kiryat Gat, Lachish and Shafir volunteers decide to pledge their own money to Chicago’s annual campaign, they also requested a serious discussion with the campaign department regarding how best to utilize them – as Israeli volunteers – to help raise more funds for JUF's annual campaign.

A new direction soon came into focus. It was time to retire P2K’s standard four sub-committees for funding allocations, and in their place, three new categories were established. The partnership’s joint steering committee decided to keep its former people-to-people focus and add to it projects related to vulnerable populations.  And they selected a theme for the Partnership: They chose to go green.

“We decided to take the subject of environmentalism and just kind of approach it from as many angles as possible,” explains Epstein.

After both groups were approached by JUF, The Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) and the Karev Fund agreed to take on the formal education aspect of the project together – the first time the groups have cooperated in this way.

The match proved a viable one. As of the current academic year, a new environmentally-focused curriculum has been implemented in over 100 elementary school classes, and the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in the region are busy turning their schools green.

Next, JUF turned to the issue of domestic tourism. After an intense search, they located a piece of land, owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which touched on all three municipalities of the partnership. They then conceived of bike paths and a park area to attract tourists, soon realizing that antiquities uncovered in the area served as an additional draw.

While finding an appropriate piece of land proved a challenge, adding an environmental element to projects that benefit vulnerable populations seemed like even more of a stretch. However, organizations in the field responded with enthusiasm. ELEM, a group that aids youth-at-risk, came up with the idea of creating a community garden to be run and cared for by the young people. The Kefiada, a day camp which annually teaches English to 11-and 12-year-olds in the periphery, also got on board right away with the decision to turn the whole camp green. Campers learned vocabulary about the environment, participated in fun activities teaching conservation, and created art projects incorporating recycled materials. 

Epstein points out that these kinds of activities have a ripple effect. Children who learn about living in harmony with the natural cycles of their environment often bring that message home to their parents, who then make small changes in the family’s daily life.  

“We won’t change the culture in a year, but if my guess is right, we will have a second and third year of funding for some of these projects.”

With that in mind, the federation has been mindful of the importance of leveraging other partners. Groups as disparate as SPNI, JNF, the local municipalities and the Antiquities Authority are all contributing money to the various initiatives.

As she begins planning upcoming regional events in the area, Epstein is optimistic about the future of this revolutionary concept.

“Everyone is responsive,” she says.

For more information, visit Chicago JUF on the web.

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ELEM community garden in Kiryat Gat created by youth-at-risk.
Bike path created by Chicago JUF last year.
Kefiada '09 staff made environmentalism fun.
Chicago Birthright participants on a dig in Plugot Forest.