This week in Israel

On our Israel Ride we often cycle to Ein Karem. But this week, for the first time, I visited Kaima Farm, in Beit Zayit, just on the other side of the hill. It was founded by Yoni Refet Reich, a recovering lawyer who is both practical and inspiring. He and a group of friends have created an organic farm that’s run by at-risk teenagers – kids who have been in trouble in all sorts of ways. The kids are actively involved in all decision-making. They are paid for their work, and they’re expected to be there by 7am in the morning – which they are. Many hundreds of volunteers helped to clear the fields of stones. They have a great record of their participants getting clean and getting back into education. They sell the food they grow in a CSA that generates a significant part of their revenue. Very inspiring.

We went to the Heschel Center’s new Sustainability Center in Gilo, a neighborhood of Jerusalem in which locals are steadily cleaning up the neighborhood – quite literally. As they do so they’re making it more sustainable, in all sorts of ways, and they’re significantly strengthening relationships amongst neighbors.

I met with Einat Kramer, from Teva Ivri. She helped to develop the Israeli Shmita Declaration. She’s married and she has four kids, but for four days each month, throughout the shmita year, she’s been going to a different part of Israel and simply sitting there in a tent and talking with people from all walks of life about shmita and the issues underpinning it – relationship to land, food, money and time. (Here’s what Einat wrote yesterday in the Times of Israel about her tent and the elections.)

We were on the roof of the Dizengoff Center. It’s one of the oldest and largest shopping malls in Israel – 35,000 people a day walk through its doors. But it’s also one of the first shopping malls in the world to have a full-time Sustainability Director. They’ve reduced their electricity bill – and carbon output – by more than a third. They launched a farmers’ market, inside the mall. And, up on the roof, they have a significant aquaponics operation – breeding fish, whose waste fertilizes the greens that they’re growing and which they serve in the mall. It is a phenomenally impressive operation. The Israeli guy who built it has put up more than a hundred small rooftop hydroponic installations – in Gaza City (!). I said to him, “how did the locals relate to you, as an Israeli Jew?” To which he replied: “oh, I don’t think they know I’m Israeli – I’m there as a UN consultant…”

We went to the Hiriya. It was once an eyesore, the waste dump that took a quarter of all of Israel’s waste. It has been turned into Ariel Sharon Park – 2,000 acres that are en route to becoming Tel Aviv’s Central Park. (Metric that defines the Jewish state: Israelis throw out, on average, 3 lbs of waste per day. But the staff at the Hiriya told us that between Purim and Pesach, as the pre-Pesach cleaning gets under way, that goes up – to 12 lbs a day 🙂

The Hiriya is a metaphor for what is possible in this country, in the Jewish community and in the world. People came together and transformed trash into something beautiful. Very inspiring.

We met with Amiad Lapidot. He spent 13 years in the navy, thinking that that was the greatest contribution he could make to his country. Then he read about climate change – and figured there was more he needed to do. So in 2001 he and his family built the greenest house in Israel. (He told us there were four criteria it needed to meet: as environmental as possible; legal; replicable; and “a house that my wife was willing to live in…”). He used old containers; straw bale; bricks of local soil baked in the sun. In 2012 it won a prize as the greenest house in Israel, and it’s a beautiful house.

Then he turned to composting. Roughly half of an Israeli family’s waste is organic. It’s a significant contributor to climate change – methane as well as CO2. So he started his own composting project. Bought bins, labeled them, went to his neighbors. 12 years ago they had 12 families. Then 170. Then 340. After 5 years they had 6,000 households in 50 communities. He translated their materials into Arabic and started doing it in Arab communities. Then they met with the then minister of the environment – Gilad Eldan – who agreed to support the further scaling of this project. There are now 420,000 families composting in Israel.

This morning – two days after the election – I heard Sahar Amoun speak. She’s 22 years old; Israeli Arab; Palestinian; Muslim; a social activist, speaking to an audience of Jewish funders about finishing her studies to be a social worker, and working for mifalot chinuch b’chevra – a non-profit that utilizes sport to strengthen disadvantaged populations, and to help promote understanding and coexistence amongst different groups in Israel and in the region. Very inspiring. She helped lead a peace mission of Arabs and Jews to Germany. Very cool.

Earlier today, Gabi Scher and I met with staff from the Shahaf Foundation. More than twenty funders have come together through Shahaf to support the development of intentional communities across Israel. We’re bringing a group from the US next week to visit several such communities, and many of their leaders, throughout Israel. What is happening in the Israeli intentional communities is remarkable. From a small trickle fifteen years ago, there are now more than 200 such communities around the country – all in poor areas, and all explicitly committed to making a difference in their wider neighborhoods.

Here’s the bottom line: there was an election this week in Israel, and its consequences – like that of all elections – will be fateful, for good or ill. But the election, and the headline politics, important as they are, are only a part of the story. This country and this region has many problems. But Israel also has more idealists per square foot than any place I’ve been in my life. Non-profits in this country are doing extraordinary work. They need our help, but they also have much to teach us. I wish that a fifth of all US households composted their organic waste. I wish our shopping malls had sustainability directors, and grew food on their roofs. I can imagine how much better America’s bad neighborhoods would be if they had intentional communities sprouting in them with the idealism and determination I see here. As an organization, we hope to play our own part in increasing the velocity of best practice in some of these areas in the US and in the American Jewish community, in due course.

For now: a few shout-outs. To the superb Heschel Center, who helped to organize our pre-JFN Israel Sustainable Food Tour. Many of the people we met were Heschel Fellows – an incredible network of people fanning out to do good across Israel. And some of the things that we were doing this week and next week have been supported by the Leichtag Foundation, by Jewish Funders’ Network, and by UJA-Federation of New York. I’m grateful to all three of them, and to so many others I’ve seen in the last week, who are variously creating, leading, supporting or funding work that is so important, so good and so inspiring.

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