Three years ago, Aviv Beilis Lerner and a couple of friends sat in a room and dreamed up an organization that would plant 100,000 trees across Israel’s cities.
They started with 24 planting events, which attracted several hundred people to plant 1,000 saplings, followed by a Facebook campaign to plant a further 3,000.
As of August this year, more than 15,000 people have come together to plant over 8,000 trees and 10,000 other plants, most of them on the grounds of institutions serving communities such as orphans, the elderly, people with special needs, battered women, former soldiers suffering from PTSD and prisoners undergoing rehabilitation.
Now, in the run-up to the Jewish planting festival of Tu B’Shvat on January 17, the organization, called Venatata is hoping to raise NIS 350,000 ($100,000). It will use this sum — half of which has already been secured — to try to leverage NIS 1 million ($290,000).
Venatata, which in Hebrew means “You Will Plant,” appears eight times in the Bible. According to Beilis Lerner, it is also a Sanskrit word for the bank beside the river of life in the epic Hindu tale, the Mahābhārata.
The word just “landed on me,” said the 32-year-old father of two from the central city of Pardes Hanna, who runs the non-profit while also lecturing on ecology and plants and providing environmental consultancy and gardening services.
Venatata, which today employs 15 salaried personnel and uses 30 freelancers for planting projects, works to connect people and communities with the soil. This means creating webs of groups and individuals who have trees to give, land to plant on, knowledge to impart, or the will to learn and take up a shovel to do the work.
Staff members reach out to local authorities, community centers, businesses, education and welfare institutions in a bid to embroider a communal tapestry.
As Beilis Lerner explained, the project is about more than planting trees or regarding them as mere objects that absorb carbon dioxide or provide fruit.
Venatata’s vision, he said, was based on permaculture, an approach that emphasizes the relationships between natural systems, living organisms (including humans), and the living, dynamic planet itself. Tree planting and protection is a tool for educating the public and reconnecting people with one another, as well as with the soil, from which all life springs,” he said.
The multiple benefits of trees themselves, he went on, were that they provide shade, reduce temperatures, help to filter water, clean the air, prevent flooding and soil erosion, and provide habitats to countless creatures that perform vital roles in healthy ecosystems.
Venatata’s website contains a mass of knowledge and information about what to plant, where and how, much of it in English.
During the coronavirus outbreak, some 5,000 people tuned in to lectures on ecology-related subjects where they could also learn about different eco-community models from the world.
The organization runs online City Forest podcasts and will be holding a live Zoom session on December 28 with John D. Liu, a renowned American-Chinese environmental filmmaker and ecologist, and the founder of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, a global movement to restore damaged ecosystems on a large scale.
Scores of planting activities will be held on Tu B’Shvat, the details of which will be uploaded to the organization’s website.
January will also see a first training day for some 200 high school students who will create a TikTok campaign and take the Venatata message to their schools and youth groups.
Venatata is currently planning to introduce ecological principles and greening to its first whole town — Jisr az-Zarqa, an Arab community on the Mediterranean coast north of Netanya.
To date, the organization has focused mainly on creating 100 therapeutic gardens in 100 institutions countrywide. It has already planted more than 70 and is now thinking of creating an eco-community rehabilitation coordinator position in each one to continue maintaining and growing the gardens with residents.
Many donations and several thousand volunteers come from companies. Today, businesses are eager to report on green and socially responsible activities, some of which can qualify for tax breaks.
But for Beilis Lerner and his associates, the work is about restoring the connection between healthy individuals and communities and a healthy, flourishing earth.
“So many crises and wars, especially in the Middle East, are linked to the destruction of the land and nature, and these tear communities apart,” he said. “Wherever there’s a wound, we are there to come and plant forests. For us, it’s very spiritual.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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