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JNF engages college students in environmental initiatives

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
SAN FRANCISCO, March 18 (JTA) — The Negev, the only desert in the world that is shrinking, is a perfect example of eco-Zionism, according to Aliza Kline. “Eco-Zionism is the connection between a specific people, Jews, with a specific landscape, Israel,” said Kline, director of On Campus, a program of the Jewish National Fund. The Jewish National Fund plants trees in the Negev during the rainy season. Birds migrate to these mini-oases, fertilize the land and, thus, change its soil. However, Kline said, planting trees is not enough. In hopes of enlightening a new generation of environmentally aware Jews and introducing college-age students to JNF, the organization sponsored its second Eco-Zionism conference, which took place March 7 to 9 in Sausalito, Calif. More than 130 college students — hippie types and Orthodox alike — met for prayer, hikes, text study and workshops ranging from “Greening Your Hillel” to “Jewish Eco-Activism: Jewish Ethics and Public Policy.” “There is a whole movement in Jewish campus activism to engage students where they are,” said Kline, 25, herself just a few years out of college. “We’re taking them out of synagogue, out of Hillel.” In order to fulfill the laws of kashrut while remaining environmentally sound, students attending the conference ate from mess kits they received at registration. “We couldn’t kasher the plates” at the conference center, Kline said. “And we can’t use plastic or Styrofoam throwaways. It would be hypocritical.” Even the JNF On Campus Program Guide is enclosed in a recycled vinyl binder. Organized by seasons, the guide offers environmental activities and programs for each of the Jewish holidays. For instance, for Chanukah it suggests throwing a party. “Give the electricity a rest” by playing dreidel and eating latkes by candlelight, it recommends. Or for Pesach, rid the house of not only chametz, or leavened foods, but also items that harm the environment, such as cleaning products and items made of plastic foam. “If they’re into hiking, we’ll take them on a hike and talk Torah,” Kline said. “Or if they want to start a recycling program, we can talk about the concept from Deuteronomy of bal tashchit — not to waste.” JNF On Campus helps student leaders plan their own programs and offers $500 grants for students to participate in Jewish wilderness journeys. One program involves linkups between Jewish students and fraternities and sororities for “tree drives.” This fulfills the Greek system’s philanthropic requirements while planting more trees in Israel. “Jewish involvement on most campuses” is still largely focused on reacting to negatives, said Kline, such as responding to Holocaust denier or Nation of Islam activities. “We want to bring the celebratory aspect of Judaism and Israel to life,” Kline said. “These students are searching for meaning during their college years. “We are the tree people. We are showing students new expressions of Judaism.” JNF’s off-campus commitment to eco-Zionism extends to planting trees, paving roads and building recreation sites in Israel. Environmental education is not part of its mission, but it is an integral piece of eco-Zionism, Kline said. “The ecology of Israel is a mess,” Kline said, adding that 90 percent of the nation lives in the center of the country. “It’s a growing population and a shrinking country of shrinking resources,” she added. Part of the solution involves increasing awareness. The Israeli government, working with Israeli companies, must promote cleaner air and water through incentives, she said. Ultimately, Israelis need to fulfill David Ben-Gurion’s dream, Kline said. There must be a population shift to the Negev. “It’s 60 percent of the land and 4 percent of the population,” Kline said. “It’s our safety zone. Nobody wants it.” The JNF is trying to make the Negev livable by “planting trees, building reservoirs and working the land.”