First person: Ecological delegation to Israel comes away wiser

 

What was the ecological delegation? Three visitors to Israel from the Milwaukee area were part of an ecological delegation earlier this year. The Partnership2Gether program, a cooperative venture of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Agency for Israel, created the trip to encourage human connections among people who work in ecological development and environmental education. More info: MilwaukeeJewish.org/EcologicalDelegation2017

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Ecological delegation to Israel comes away wiser

There was a lot to absorb from our exploratory ecological delegation to Tiberias, Israel. So much innovation around water, creative solutions for agriculture, an impressive understanding and use of science to grow food – yet still in other areas there is an ecological disconnect.

The Jordan River restoration project is so similar to that of the Milwaukee River. The discussion about the wonderful rainwater reservoirs was as complex as so many issues in Wisconsin. The reservoirs provide so much agriculture on the Golan Heights yet hold back precious water flowing into the Sea of Galilee and then the Jordan River. Each action has consequences, some negative and others positive.

The planting of millions of trees over the years by the Jewish National Fund has truly transformed Israel. It’s long-term thinking in action. Yet it is clear that many in the cities are missing the connection to nature. The amount of litter and garbage in areas is shocking. People fight over the spiritual meaning of land, yet seem to miss the very basic concept of respecting and caring for it.

Some version of our Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee certainly has a place in Israel.  I wonder if the Jewish National Fund might next be the Johnny Apple Seed of Urban Ecology Centers, in addition to trees and other JNF efforts? This is clearly what’s needed.

Joined by my colleague Beth Heller and Urban Ecology Center board member Eric Crawford, we walked the streets of Tiberias with city planners, sustainability and education leaders and even young students to get a deep sense of “place.” We participated in a round table discussion with regional education and environmental leaders, examining issues of curricular alignments of religious studies and care of the earth; how community empowerment might balance municipal responsibilities; how to scale small “wins” up to significant impact; and much more. We made fast friends with students at Nofarim Junior High School, the 8th and 9th graders presenting their efforts to create a “Green School.” We also had an extensive conversation with students living and volunteering in the poorest neighborhood of Tiberias, in exchange for college tuition.

We hiked along the Kinneret Trail and learned of the complexities of making the trail –circumnavigating the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) – accessible to all. Our hike ended at Kinneret College, where we met the Student Association Sustainability Group. This is where we met Maria Gretzky, an anthropology and sustainability student at the college, who is now in Milwaukee for the summer volunteering at our Washington Park Branch and connecting with the community. We also visited Tiberias Ulpana, a girls’ school that is implementing a green school program and taking actions in social justice. They were broadening the concept of sustainability – connecting people to land and people to people!

We kayaked on the Kinneret and visited a restoration project on the lower Jordan River, an area that receives sewage barely treated (the lake itself is remarkably clean). And while impressive green initiatives are salt and peppered throughout the region, as with us in the states, there is little cohesion to the efforts. Those who enjoy the water are the tourists, while many youth in Tiberias don’t know how to swim. Sound familiar?

We completed our delegation meeting the honorable mayor, Yossi Ben David. Mayor Ben David defines Tiberias as a city of water. He connected immediately to the city of Milwaukee, a global water city itself, through our visit and gifts provided by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. We were impressed with Ben David’s vision for growth intertwined with green space, indicating his understanding of the balance of development with the protection of the environment.

It was an amazing experience with an equal exchange of learning. We came away wiser for the trip, inspired to do more and excited for the future. If interested in learning more, stay tuned as we will be hosting a presentation on what we learned in Israel in the near future.

Ken Leinbach is executive director for the Urban Ecology Center of Milwaukee.