GIVAT YESHAYAHU, Israel (JTA) – Winding up and down the rows of Arizona brush trees, Jason Heeney sees slim pickings for Christmas.
“This tree would be hard to put the star on," Heeney says. "It’s totally flat, like a smushed nose.”
The Michigan native and his friend, native Parisian Emie Genty, have driven an hour from their homes in Tel Aviv for what has become an annual tradition: the Christmas tree hunt at a Jewish National Fund forest. For about $20 apiece, they and anyone else can buy a subsidized tree this week, courtesy of JNF. The buyers include Christian Arabs, Russians, tourists and curious Israeli Jews.
The trees resemble the conifers traditionally used as Christmas trees in America, though they are a bit sparser, paler and shorter at an average of 6 feet high.
JNF’s director of VIP ceremonies and protocol, Andy Michelson, estimates that individuals, embassies and Israeli churches will buy nearly 1,000 trees this year — a 20 percent increase over last year because of a new Internet advertising campaign. The program has existed for almost 20 years, and the forest here has about 3,000 trees. JNF maintains a similar forest in northern Israel.
Approximately 150,000 Christians – four-fifths of them Arabs – live in Israel.
Though the tree distribution program costs thousands of dollars, Michelson said American Jewish supporters of JNF should not be upset that their money is going for something that benefits Christians in Israel.
“Our projects are for all people living in Israel, so when we build a park, we build it for everyone, regardless of whether they’re Jewish, Christian or Muslim,” he said, adding that many of JNF’s donors are non-Jews from Europe.
“They see Israel doing this, and it creates a good feeling and peace between people,” said Maor Malka, a JNF tour guide and firefighter who has staffed the distribution for two years. “We also increase awareness of JNF.”
JNF is best known for planting trees, not chopping them down. Michelson said the four-inch stumps left from the Christmas trees regenerate quickly, in as little as two years.
That was disappointing for Heeney, who was looking for a bigger tree — maybe eight feet high. Examining tree after tree — “No, no, no, no, no” — he lamented that “the branches are really flimsy, not like a Christmas tree” in the United States. It’s harder to hang decorations on these, he says.
Heeney, who is married to a native Israeli, grew up on a farm and as a child his family would visit the nearby forest and chop down a tree as Dec. 25 approached. Since moving to Tel Aviv 2 1/2 years ago, he has maintained American Christmas traditions. He hosts a family dinner with his in-laws on Christmas Eve and a party for friends the next day with gifts and carols.
“It’s strange celebrating Christmas in Israel,” he says. “In the U.S. it’s a national cultural event. There’s a change in the way people interact with each other, the generosity of spirit, plus the lights. It’s pretty. I miss the snow.”
Not all of the customers in Givat Yeshayahu — in central Israel, just south of Jerusalem’s suburbs — had Christmas on their minds. Miriam, originally from Moscow, was helping a friend buy a tree for New Year’s, a Russian tradition. She had bought plastic trees in years past, but found the JNF offer on the Internet this year.
“It’s not connected to religion; we like to decorate the tree,” she said. “We don’t do it on a holiday and we don’t sing Merry Christmas.”
Miriam found a tree she liked, as did Heeney and Genty, who squeezed three of them into their sedan following a 45-minute search. But not all the customers were happy with the selection. One man walked back to his car after looking for only a few minutes.
“I have something like this in my yard,” he said.