By Hilary Faverman
Moti Shriki, KKL-JNF’s Director of Soil Conservation in the Southern Region, gazes out at the rolling hills of the Negev spread before him, his eyes reflecting a deep connection to the land. “I started [at KKL-JNF] in 1987 in the fields. The land spoke to me then, as it does now. I touch this land, influence this land, prepare this land, and protect this land. It drew me in then, and it still does, every single day. The Israeli South is not just dirt, rock, desert, or forest; it’s a testament to our resilience and our dreams.” Shriki has devoted his life to the land, embodying the spirit of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) in nurturing this once-barren region, and not only witnessing its growth… but driving it.
The Genesis of Change: Community Development
At KKL-JNF, our vision for Southern Israel transcended mere land acquisition. It was about creating a foundation for vibrant communities. Through purchasing and preparing the land, KKL-JNF set the stage for housing and agriculture, transforming desolate terrain into homes and fields. This transformation wasn’t just about constructing buildings or irrigation systems; KKL-JNF determined that it was about creating a sustainable ecosystem where communities could prosper. Schools, community centers, and medical facilities followed, embedding a sense of belonging among the residents.
From Desert to Forest: Environmental Rejuvenation
Before KKL-JNF’s involvement, vast stretches of the South were home only to arid deserts. In order to make them thrive, we embarked on one of the most extensive desert afforestation projects in the world. Each tree planted was a statement against the lifeless, harsh conditions, slowly turning the desert landscapes into lush forests. These forests became not just ecological havens but also recreational spaces, promoting tourism and contributing to the local economy. Planting millions of KKL-JNF trees didn’t just alter the landscape, but reshaped both the ecological identity and the reputation of the region.
To support growth, KKL-JNF has built dams and reservoirs as well as water treatment facilities, and prepared land for agriculture and community development, positioning the area to expand and attract population. Today, KKL-JNF forests stand as green beacons of hope and rejuvenation, contributing to the ecological diversity and sustainability of Southern Israel.
Securing the Land: The Fortitude of Resilience
In 1965, Joseph Weitz, JNF-KKL’s then Director of Land and Forestry and known nationwide as “the father of Israel’s forests”, envisioned transforming the desert landscape into a secure and therefore habitable zone for Israelis. Directed by Weitz, KKL-JNF’s role began to extend into ensuring the safety and security of the region’s inhabitants, especially in the Gaza Envelope. Post-2005, following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, KKL-JNF built homes for evacuees and security roads for safe travel. Today, KKL-JNF continues to enhance security throughout the Southern region including planting complex tree networks near the Gaza border to obstruct sniper sightlines.
Since many of us employed with the Southern Region of KKL-JNF were raised in the South, and have chosen to stay and found our families here, we understood innately that the construction of bomb shelters and protected schools was also critical to fulfilling Weitz’s vision, especially in areas prone to conflict. Since 2021, we have built 100+ bomb shelters in the Gaza Envelope.
In addition, to offer holistic support, we also focus on the psychological well-being of our local residents, particularly children. During heightened tensions, we organize educational and recreational activities within our bomb shelters. In times of crisis, including since October 7th, KKL-JNF hosts families from the southern region in our Field and Forest Educational Centers in northern and central Israel, providing respite and safety.
Since Weitz’s 1965 vision, we continue to actively support Southern communities in leading normal and productive lives despite ongoing geopolitical challenges. Our regional initiatives span from agriculture to education to security, focusing on the needs of the Western Negev residents. In 2008, addressing the crisis in rocket-stricken Sderot, KKL-JNF arranged summer camps for local children and built a large indoor recreation center, providing a safe space for youth.
Personal Journeys: The Heartbeat of the South
“What we do here [at KKL-JNF] is comprehensive. We offer education, ecology, forestry, community. We are the people of the South, and here is where our responsibility, commitment, and Zionism live. I’m an advocate both for the land and for the people. The South has dreams, and I’m a dream fulfiller,” muses Danny Ben David, KKL-JNF Western Negev Region Director. A 35-year KKL-JNF veteran, Danny is actually a second-generation KKL-JNF leader who jokes, “When I came home from the hospital as a baby, it was in a KKL truck.”
Both Shirki and Ben David, the visionaries behind many of these initiatives, have both participated in and witnessed the transformation of the South, their lives intricately woven with the land’s narrative. “It’s more than a duty; it’s a calling,” says Ben David, reflecting on his 3+ decades of unwavering dedication. The experiences of both Shriki and Ben David are emblematic of the dedication that fuels KKL-JNF’s work. Both veteran employees speak of their work not as a job but as a lifelong mission. Their accounts intertwine personal milestones with the region’s development, illustrating the deep emotional ties they have with the South.
“I am with KKL-JNF to broaden and elevate my community; this is my opportunity for tikun olam. We believe in not just protecting the South – we must move forward and trailblaze. Survive – yes, but we must also thrive. I see it as my role to do both,” says Ben David.
Symbiosis: KKL-JNF and Southern Israel
The relationship between KKL-JNF and the South is symbiotic: our initiatives in community building, environmental stewardship, and security are deeply infused with emotion and history. It’s a partnership that goes beyond projects; it’s about shared dreams and destinies. The Southern landscape, once barren, now flourishes, symbolizing this enduring bond.
Since October 7th, Shirki has been unable to tend to his soil due to the military situation, but he remains hopeful. “I believe we will be back there. I am so eager to go back, to take care of my soil, my forests. We will return to care for the land, as we always have!”
The journey is far from over. The vision for the South, as seen through the eyes of KKL-JNF and our dedicated stewards like Shriki and Ben David, is one of continued growth and prosperity.
The story of KKL-JNF and Southern Israel is an open invitation to witness and partake in the realization of a dream. It’s a call to join hands in a journey of transformation and hope, to be part of a legacy that continues to shape the lives and landscapes of Southern Israel. With KKL-JNF at the helm, the South’s tomorrow is a promise of green forests, thriving communities, and enduring peace.