In advance of Tu B’Shvat, the annual “new year of the trees,” a group of middle school students from the Ohr Torah Stone network's Derech Avot Junior High and High School came together to help develop a growing forest in Efrat near their school.
The forest’s expansion, located within the municipal boundaries of the town, is being managed by the local council in order to provide increased green spaces for the benefit of its local residents.
“As educators, our challenge is often to show students that what they are learning isn't just in the classroom but has very practical applications,” said Gidon Osher Shmueli, the Derech Avot Eighth Grade teacher, who spearheaded the initiative. “This goal is to show how the mitzvot (commandments - ed.) can be performed in a way that will promote a more soul-filled connection for these boys to their studies and the land in which we are blessed to live.”
The program, initiated last year as a COVID-safe activity, focuses on the personal, communal and national aspects of working the land – particularly appropriate values for the teens as they prepare for their bar mitzva.
Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi blessed the initiative, telling the students that, “In recent years we’ve seen catastrophic fires in Israel - in the Carmel and near Jerusalem - that have destroyed tens of thousands of trees. In response we have set a goal to plant at least 1,000 trees every single year which will help the environment, look after the physical land of Israel, and strengthen the local community here in Efrat.”
The project is in partnership and with the support of the local Efrat municipality and the Efrat Foundation, and the trees chosen for this project are native to the region and will help rejuvenate the local environment. They have been planted along with a watering system, to ensure their growth and long-term sustainability.
“Planting trees is good for the environment, good for the land, and personally it gives me greater spiritual strength and love of our land,” said 13-year-old Elisha Kasnett, who participated in the program. “The moment you feel that you are part of something larger than you and that you are investing in the land, it gives you a stronger feeling that you are truly part of the Jewish people. I was really excited and happy to participate - and it was also a great deal of fun!”
Kasnett's classmate Azi Ginsberg agreed: “This isn't just about planting trees,” he said. “It empowered us to really connect to the land and to Judaism.”
Junior High School principal Yisrael Avital explained that the initiative was able to be carried out despite some restrictions on planting that come with the Shmita year. The trees selected won't bear fruit, he clarified, and they are planted in areas where they are functioning to protect the land and its people.
“Together with Uri Arnon, the coordinator of the Shelach program at the school, we spoke to the students about the biblical commandment to settle the land, about the connection to the land through working with your hands... and in a few years, our students will be able to return and look upon the hill with pride in what they have done for the land and the Jewish people.”