The Miracle of the Trees and the JNF

William Goldstein shares with JOL readers an experience he had as a relatively new immigrant to Israel. While visiting the Negev with his family, he saw a forest full of trees, a site that reminded him of the JNF donation boxes at his Hebrew school.
William Goldstein

There’s a huge global hot air mass over most of North Africa during the summer months. Over thousands of years, it has spawned the Sahara Desert and at its northeastern extreme, the Sinai Peninsula and the Negev. It’s more or less the result of the attitude of Earth’s spinning - just like why it’s very cold at the poles. The earth wobbles ("precesses") on its axis, making a complete turn every twenty thousand years or so, thus its extremes might be on the order of ten thousand years. It causes large climatic changes, like the ice ages. It is interesting to consider that thousands of years ago the climate of Israel might have been quite different, or that thousands of years from today it might be different again.

I really wanted to go to the JNF event this past Sunday, especially to see MK Ayelet Shaked (Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi) and hear her speak. She’s such an inspiration. We are fortunate today that people like her and our Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, are alive and holding the responsible positions that they do. It is genuinely moving to hear them speak. Great people have answered the challenge of history. It is not to be taken for granted that life has permitted us to witness this miracle of Israel in our time.

It was a great opportunity to reconnect with the areas I was fairly close to many years and it got me thinking about the trees being planted in Israel and making the desert bloom.

Time and distance got in the way but I was able to follow most of the event on a live broadcast online. 

The Jewish National Fund- those blue and white canisters and little tin boxes with a slot for coins on top- what a great dream! They had certificates too if I remember correctly. The certificates read something like, “I bought a tree in Israel,” and had a picture of a tree or forest.  The first time I saw one of those boxes, I was probably twelve years old and at the Temple Shalom Hebrew School in Philadelphia. Mrs. Finklestein, who is probably gone by now (may her memory be blessed), had one on the green blotter on her desk, which she would slam with her fist from time to time to make a point. She was a character, some sort of assistant, treasurer, teacher and discipline officer. 

Now, my parents were not formally religious, they couldn’t afford it. My father grew up on a farm and went to school barefoot. He always explained that this embarrassed him as well as not having his bar mitzvah. My mom was orphaned at fourteen years old. They sent both myself and my brother to Hebrew school and somehow, they managed to send both of us to college as well. I always had shoes. They were usually scuffed up and the socks never really matched but I never had to go to school barefoot. My freshman chemistry teacher at the University of Pennsylvania went to school barefoot. He also won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2000.

It's hot in the Negev especially in the summer. You must protect yourself midday or suffer serious consequences.

I’d been living in Israel already close to four years and never thought of the JNF trees, not until we were driving out toward Be'er Sheva on the road from Arad. That’s when I saw a grove of pines off to the north a bit, a few miles from Arad. There was an access road we drove up and got out of the car to investigate.

"Good grief, these must be the trees,” I said to my wife. “I don't believe they actually planted them!” Now for those of you who’ve never experienced the Negev it’s very hot and dry and demands a different approach altogether than most other more temperate climates. My wife answered, "Sure, we planted trees all around the place when we were kids.” It sunk in and I felt the shade, which felt miraculous. I was taken back to Hebrew school just looking at the canisters. I saw the connection. I was looking directly at the very angels themselves, the Sisterhood of Temple Shalom.

Now, I don't care what you say, I'm a scientist and an engineer and I've got all kinds of degrees and certificates but it’s impossible to grow trees there. Trees like that, they just don't grow there. You’d have to cover them with transparent or tinted plastic domes and spray tiny little droplets of water at them, all over them and under them all day long. You’d also have to sing to them or pipe music to them somehow just to give them a positive attitude, otherwise, no way Jose! Just too darn hot and dry!

But, here I was with my wife and our nearly two-year-old son, having a sort of picnic under the shade of these trees. We were enjoying great shade from a forest of trees. I was not hallucinating - they are still standing and growing today!

There're two parts to this little story. One is the total impracticality of making the desert bloom, the contrast between the climate of Northeast Philadelphia or the Austro-Hungary of Herzl and that of modern Israel. The other is the miracle of the trees and watching the desert actually bloom! It’s something like watching the parting of the waters of the Red Sea! 

JOL Blogger | William Goldstein

William Goldstein is a retired chemistry teacher from the School District of Philadelphia. He was also a chemical engineer and worked on the Apollo 11 Camera at RCA in Hightstown, New Jersey. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently lives in Derby, VT.

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