The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has been planting trees since before modern Israel became a state but this year will be the first holiday of TuBeshvat in all that time that their corps of arborists will not be going out into the field to replenish Israel’s blessed forests. Russell Robinson, the head of the JNF-USA, explains to Israel365 News how his organization is moving forward undaunted in its mission of planting an astounding three million trees every year.
The JNF, called Keren Kayemet LeYisrael in Hebrew, was established in 1901 to buy and develop land in what was then Ottoman Palestine. The Jews believed in the prophetic promises that God would soon return them to their land and it was inconceivable that the Jewish homeland would not be flourishing with trees. Since its inception, the JNF has planted over 270 million trees in Israel. It has also built 180 dams and reservoirs, developed 250,000 acres of land, and established more than 1,000 parks. Thanks to their efforts, Israel is one of the only nations in the world that entered the 21st century with more trees than it had 100 years ago. By the time Israel became independent in 1948, the JNF had planted about 4.5 million trees on the country’s rocky hillsides.
The focus of their yearly effort is normally the holiday of Tu BeShvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, whose basic theme the organization embodied. Celebrated this year on the 27th of January, Tu Beshvat is described in the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah as one of the four new years of the Jewish calendar, more specifically as Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot (the New Year of the Trees).
On Thursday, Israel365 News spoke with Russell Robinson, the head of the JNF. Though their efforts have been seriously hampered by COVID health restrictions, Robinson was undaunted, even enthusiastically optimistic about the future.
“Not only is this our holiday, but it is a very special moment that we have to talk about more,” Robinson told Israel365. “Not just for the tree planting, but if you celebrate Earth Day, you are kind of anti-Jewish, because we are the originators of Earth Day. We started it with Tu Beshvat. We are the people who have a New Year for our souls, and a separate new Year for the Earth.”
In fact, precisely as Robinson intended, in contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration. Unfortunately, he added that this year would be far more subdued as Israel is currently experiencing a lockdown and health restrictions prevent groups from going out to the fields to plant trees.
“We’re not going out like we usually do with thousands of people,” Robinson explained. “Of course, it is special, that act, to go out as a family or with friends, to plant trees.”
But the JNF offers a COVID-friendly alternative: virtual planting by donating online.
“JNF is still going to be planting three million trees each year,” Robinson assured Israel365 News. “We’re still going to be taking care of the forests. Taking care of the land of Israel and the Earth is so important. And if you can’t go out and do it., you can do it from your home. Even education, showing your kids how to plant seeds, how to care for house plants. The act, the Jewish holiday, is to make things grow. This is the point of time in the year when the ground is just beginning to thaw and the seeds are starting to take in water. You can go outside and show your kids the buds that are just beginning to appear on the trees.”
Of course, it is always possible to enable the planting of trees by donating to the JNF. Israel365 video reporter Joshua Wander described the ancient Jewish tradition of planting trees when children are born. When a young man and young woman get married, boughs from their trees are woven together to form a canopy for the ceremony.
“Now, you can plant a tree when children are born, when they graduate, or, God forbid, in memory of someone who loved the land of Israel,” Robinson said.
Presenter Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz describe to Robinson how the iconic blue-and-white JNF collection boxes represented more than an opportunity to give charity. For the Jews in exile they came to symbolize connecting with and even reacquiring the land of Israel through the act of planting trees. Robinson related a personal anecdote identifying with that sentiment.
“I have in my office a certificate from my father who planted a tree with the JNF in 1939 for his Bar Mitzvah in Canada when he was 13 years old,” Robinson said. :”I never knew he had it until he passed away at the age of 85. He had a long and interesting life but didn’t have many keepsakes. But the certificate for a tree in Israel he kept.”
The early efforts of the JNF had an additional motive; establishing a legal claim for the imminent return of the exiles.
“This is a methodology that became an ideology,” Robinson said in agreement. “Buying trees and receiving certificates was a way of re-acquiring the land.”
Robinson was reiterating a precept that was first taught by the Prophet Jeremiah when he instructed the Jews to write deeds before they went into exile in Babylon.
And fields shall again be purchased in this land of which you say, “It is a desolation, without man or beast; it is delivered into the hands of the Chaldeans.”Fields shall be purchased, and deeds written and sealed, and witnesses called in the land of Binyamin and in the environs of Yerushalayim, and in the towns of Yehuda; the towns of the hill country, the towns of the Shephelah, and the towns of the Negev For I will restore their fortunes—declares Hashem. Jeremiah 32:43-44
Robinson explained that this Biblical precept became the law of under the Ottoman rule which required that a person plant or live on the land within seven years or risk losing ownership. He explained that this was accomplished by the JNF 120 years ago, ensuring that the Jews could establish their ownership even while still in exile.