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Ecological Delegation 2017

The Ecological Delegation 2017 was a a Partnership2Gether professional exchange program where the P2G Sovev Kinneret Region hosted delegates from the Milwaukee community. This professional exchange of three delegates from Milwaukee going to Israel was an important and effective way to create people-to-people connections between Israelis and Americans, focusing in the area of ecological development and environmental education. Follow their experiences in this blog.

Conclusions:

I’ve often been called a “yes man.” When someone asks for permission to do something or shares an idea, my nature is to respond in the affirmative offering suggestions of support vs shutting things down with an immediate “no.” I did not realize just how much of a yes man I was, however, until I came to Israel. At first, I thought I was super popular, as I kept hearing people using my name when they spoke Hebrew to each other. Upon hearing my name, I’d look at them expectantly, but get nothing but odd looks in return. It was confusing. Then someone shared that my name Ken means “yes” in Hebrew. How funny! Do you have any idea how much the word yes is used when people speak here? The whole time I’ve been in this wonderful country I find myself turning my head to this conversation or that only to realize that the person speaking is just saying yes to someone else. Very amusing.

Another amusing thing I noticed, and I hope I do not offend with this one, is the propensity for people to interrupt each other with very strong opinions. I am just one data point of observation, but it appears to be a cultural trait. It seems that people are often arguing, but in fact they just have a passionate way of communicating. I love the passion. At first, I found this disarming, but over time have learned to deeply appreciate both the heart offered within the delivery of an idea and, despite the talking over each other at times, the good listening skills. “I disagree” is the common response to someone’s opinion … but when the person continues explaining themselves one hears just as frequently “fair enough, good point.” There is genuine dialogue and open listening. Its impressive.

Another trait I loved within the people I have interacted is how much respect and appreciation is given to the children and youth we encountered. Kids were brought into the conversation and listened to as equals with both appreciation and challenge. It is easy to see how the earlier trait of discussion emerges within the culture, as it is modeled cross generationally. I like it.

There is a lot to absorb on this exploratory mission to Israel. So much innovation around water, creative solutions for agriculture, an impressive understanding and use of science to grow food … yet still an ecological disconnect at times. However, as in the states, I can see a shift happening. The Jordan River restoration project is so similar to that of the Milwaukee River back home. And the discussion about the wonderful rainwater reservoirs, which allow for so much agriculture on the Golan Heights, does not miss the point of how holding water up high can affect the amount of water in the precious sea of Galilee below. Each action has consequences somewhere else, some negative and others positive. The planting of literally millions of trees over the years by the Jewish National Fund has truly transformed portions of Israel. Long term thinking in action. Very impressive. 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 for the spiritual meaning of land yet seem to miss the very basic respect and care for it. Some version of our Urban Ecology model could be very useful here. That conclusion is clear.

As stated on our first day, this land is the epicenter of complexity on so many fronts. Religion affecting both ecology and politics. Water dominating behaviors. So much love and yet so much division. A place where “yes” is a common word used yet people so openly disagree. It is a place where everyone has something to say, where diversity is accepted and respected as something to learn from, yet a place of significant conflict. As stated earlier … a lot to absorb.

This much I know. I like it here. I feel at peace on the land. I understand the deep sense of place. I am impressed with how people have figured out how to live well in this dry environment. I feel the passion and love in the culture. It is wonderful and amazing. I am so very grateful — WE are so very grateful as I know that I speak for all within our delegation — to the people that gave us this opportunity.

In deep gratitude,

Ken Leinbach

Day 5: War and Wind in Israel

From war to wind turbines. We spent the day traveling with Doron and Amir, two great friends from their days in the service to their days now as farmers. They’re commitment to the partnership is meaningful and their kindness to us was even greater. Frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered where they took us or what we did since it felt like we were hanging out with a couple of buddies.

Eric Crawford

Day 4: Environmental Education in Israel

Did you know that every bunch of bananas comes from a single tree that is cut down? New trees are planted using small shoots or suckers from the original tree. It is a highly specialized talent to recognize suckers that will produce the best bananas. We discovered this on a tour of the Zemach Experimental Agriculture Center  of Kinneret College. For banana experts this is common knowledge. What is not as well known are water conservation strategies, a critical aspect of sustainable agriculture. Here you can see an underground water metering station used to measured water flow through the banana orchard.

In another section of the research center, banana tree longevity it tested in individual plots. One interesting challenge for water conservation in the Kinneret is the level of salinity of the water. While it is a freshwater lake, there is enough salinity that it requires 30% more water to grow banana trees than with desalinated water.

The Experimental Ag Center does much more that study banana trees. Bananas are one of many crops being studied. It is an education center for many youth who have never before grown vegetables or fruits. It is a learning lab for farmers and a tourist attraction.

-Beth Heller


Day 4 was a deeper dive into environmental education in the region. We first met with Idan who runs the Jordan Valley Agricultural Research Center where he and his students research bananas and other crops. Bananas are not native to Israel and since 1950 are the most planted crop in the region. They are water-intensive and cannot be imported or exported. The nets installed above save nearly 30% of water consumption, and they have determined that using desalinated water they yield 30% more bananas. Additionally, students come from a nearby high school, and they start with seeds and grow vegetables. This entire life cycle is an important learning experience and can be done within one year. There are also study abroad students from all over the world, attending Kinneret College, who live on and work on farms who also do research through this program. Idan shares our belief that children are now very disconnected from the farm and the understanding of where food comes from.

 

Our meeting at Bet Yerach High School showed us how disconnected the surrounding schools are from the City of Tiberias. Very few students come from the urban center, and nearly 98 percent are Jewish. Many of our Shin Shins have come from here, and this is quite the impressive and privileged program. There was an air of positivity with everyone we met and with all the students we saw. There is a strong environmental commitment here, as well as, to social action.

In terms of environmental education, the Tiberias Ulpana was very impressive. This is a relatively new school with over 1000 girls, and they are guided by an environmental education specialist who is implementing a green school program. We toured their spotless grounds and saw their garden that was utilizing the water runoff from the air conditioning system. As important as their environmental efforts was their creativity in social action. They shared the details of two of their important programs. The one that touched us most was the girls decorating white mannequin heads that held the wigs of women who are newly undergoing chemotherapy, reducing the shock of the process. This was truly inspiring and led to the question of what defines sustainability. For these girls in this school, it is also the connection of people to people.

Our last formal meeting of the delegation was with Yossi Ben David, the Mayor of Tiberias. Our meeting was shortened due to a surprise visit from a Nigerian Bishop, and the time we spent together was meaningful. He defines Tiberias as a city of water, connecting us immediately to the City of Milwaukee, a global water city. His vision for growth intertwined with green space exemplifies his understanding of the balance of development and the protection of the environment. Among the many things he has already done, he is planting 2500 trees in the city with a goal of over 5000. His plan is to develop the waterfront with greater public access, buildings further away from the water and the inclusion of more green space in each neighborhood.

He very much appreciated our Mayor Tom Barrett sending him a personal letter and gifts, and he showed interest in visiting our city sometime in the near future. Ken brought stones from the Lake Michigan shore to give to him, and surprisingly, he shared that he collects them himself from his travels around the world!

-Eric Crawford

Day 3: Sustainability in Israel

Day 3 was a deeper dive with some of the local sustainability leaders. The day started with a kayak tour of the Kinneret with Amit. He had a rich knowledge of the sea and the city, and most interesting, he owns the biotechnology company that invented a suntan lotion that protects from jellyfish. We believe he found more meaning in being on the water. Our kayak trip exposed us to the plethora of local birds.

It was hard for us to keep Ken, an extremely experienced kayaker, with us and not trying to paddle across the sea!

 

So far we’ve been showing the beauty of Tiberias and now we must show you the reason why we came. There is a significant disconnect with the Land of Israel and the “land” of Israel. The trash on the street extends to the sea. So, today we met with Nava Kokush, Director of Environment for the Tiberias City Council. She is the sustainability leader in the city, and we found her quite passionate about her work and extremely talented. She calls herself the “Erin Brockovich” of Israel for her previous work going after major polluters. As you can see by all the garbage in the city, her hands are quite full with the challenge. She’s making a measurable impact with a long way to go.

What’s not visible is the Kinneret behind Eric that is over 200 meters below we’re here sitting.

We shared a very special lunch today with Elon, one of the founders of the Hazera Seed Company. They are a truly global company with offices in the US and the Netherlands. Most importantly, they are committed to keeping their research and operations in our region of Israel. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of pressure to move further south where there might be better availability of employees and investment money. Their connection to “place” is remarkable and making them quite successful.

 

Day 3 included a meeting with Danny, the head of the Tiberias’ Sea Education Center. His program is fascinating and was as close to what we do at the Urban Ecology Center as anything we’ve seen so far. He has 15 full-time sailing instructors, and they have contracted with all of the schools in the city of Tiberias to offer every student 2 hours of sailing per week for one year of 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. Although they are connected to the sea, they are not connected to the land. Our meeting was so incredible, and we were so engaged that we forgot to take a photo!

No visit to the region is complete without a visit to Kadoorie High School, an agricultural program for elementary though high school students. They are currently going through a process of reimagining their program since the government of Israel has made a deal with the large corporate grocery chains allowing them to import food from around the world. This is shrinking the local farming industry to such a level that they no longer need to create as many future farmers. Sadly, today I was offered (not at the school) a Pink Lady Apple that was from Washington State(!). That was politely declined. I did give permission to the staff at the school to give the students from the Milwaukee Jewish Day School a really hard time next week when they visit, especially one boy in particular.

The day ended with a visit to an after-school community center in Tiberias where we met the counselors and many of the children. Eric took the time to connect with Moshe by challenging him to a few games of backgammon. They ended their games in an overall tie and with lots of conversation, laughing and sharing of some important aspects of their respective lives.

– Eric Crawford

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Reflections from Day 3

After a vigorous swim out deep into the Kinneret, the Jewish word for the Sea of Galilee, I found myself floating barely treading water with my head just above the water line reflecting on the day. It was beautiful — the hills of the Golan Heights to the west reflected a golden glow from the setting sun. The evening array of colorful birds, repeating their previous nights performance, were on parade along the Israeli shoreline. Peace.

Relatives of these birds have been performing this same daily ritual of evening flight for tens of thousands of years along these shores. The kayak tour this morning led by a life time native of the region drove home the ancient human history this land has witnessed from 500 years before the birth of Christ until today. But the repeated pattern of these birds in flight around me, as the sun set golden over Israel, marks time much further back than the history recorded in the ancient stones of Tiberias. Peace — this is the norm here, despite how we measure time so frequently by the anomaly of human conflicts and cultural warfare. Do we call it the 7-day war? Or the 358-day year of peace? It is the peace that keeps so many here. Swimming here tonight, I understand. I don’t want to leave.

Yet, as common place as the beauty of the evening birds in flight are on these shores, the reality of deadly conflict cannot be ignored. The bomb shelter that sits deep underground within our hotel complex, always at the ready with doors open and water cistern full, is easy to miss but it’s there and everyone here knows where. The easy manner in which the mother of four teens shares with clear acceptance her children’s impending time in the army, to us is disarming, but here is the norm. It is an important duty that every Israeli child will perform without question. You go to school, you join the army, you go to college and that is life. Our visit to the Kadoorie High School made this all the more relevant by the prominent memorial inscriptions of recent alumni fallen in service to their country. The most recent was in 2014. Present tense. Not history.

The intractable fight that has spanned centuries is all about the land. Our Homeland. Our Palestine. Our Israel. Our culture. Our country. Yet it is clear to us after our visit today with folks like Nava Kokush the Director of Environment for the Tiberias City Council, our lunch time tour of a permaculture farm up in the hills above the sea, and the group of teens we met at the Red House, an after school program in one of the urban neighborhoods — that despite the fight for the land that all hold so dear in spirit, many and perhaps even the large majority are disconnected from it. Trash abounds in both water and on land. The lower Jordan River receives the area sewage barely treated (the lake itself is remarkably clean). And while impressive green initiative are salt and peppered throughout the region, as with us in the states, there is little cohesion to the efforts. Those that enjoy the water are the tourists. Many youth in the city don’t even know how to swim. There is no question that an Urban Ecology Center is needed here. There is also no question that the place is ripe and ready to receive it. The question lies in how to make it happen. Who will lead the effort? And where will the resources come from to put it in place? We came here with the request to explore with the community the possibilities. So exciting to potentially be a small part of the future history of these ancients lands. And land that we hope will some day find full peace.

Our hosts here are absolutely amazing!! This tour could not have been set up any better. Great organization and fluid flexibility. We are infinitely grateful!

-Ken Leinbach

Day 2: Land Use and Water Ecology

Day 2 was quite the full day meeting many of the environmental leaders in the Jordan Valley. Here we are touring the restoration project of the Lower Jordan River with a leader from the Regional Water Authority. The project was quite complex, as you can imagine, to restore the river and its surroundings to a healthy ecosystem.

  

Relatively new, the Kinneret Trail circles the sea with four exceptions. Here we learn about these complexities as we walk a stretch of it.

 
Our visit to Kinneret College was quite inspirational. This student union is committed to sustainability, had great passion and doing meaningful work. We are looking forward to having the group visiting Madison and Milwaukee in May. We believe we might have found our interns for the Urban Ecology Center!

At 213 meters below sea level, the sea is precariously low heading into the summer season.

Walking the neighborhoods and streets, viewing from the Swiss Forest above, and approaching from the sea below has giving us a good understanding of the topography of the city of Tiberias.

Thank you to Ahuva and Gideon for hosting us for a wonderful dinner and great conversation. Many secrets were shared!

-Eric Crawford

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Our day opened with a round table with education and environmental leaders. In a room overlooking the paradisiacal Kinneret, we delved into 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 more. With these rich discussion stretching our minds, we then stretched our legs with a short hike along the Kinneret Trail, and learned about the effort to make the trail that circumnavigates the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) accessible to all. Our hike ended at Kinneret College, where we explored potential learning exchanges and met the Student Association Sustainability Group.

Guided by an environmental engineer from the Kinneret Water Authority, the remainder of the afternoon was a deep dive into water conservation efforts. Sharing “They say God gave us the key to many things, but not the rain,” his quote captures some of the challenges facing the Kinneret.

Highlights included:

  • Witnessing a fisherman returning to shore with the Famous St Peter’s Fish.
  • A boat passage across the Kinneret to Tiberius, where we heard stories of water management in a complex watershed.
  • Traveling along the Jordan River restoration projects toward the Jordan border, we found familiar invasive fragmites (reed grass), an imported nutria, and beautiful native species of oleander, striking iridescent blue-green kingfishers, and a flock of storks.

Connections started to gel today, as our two cities on two Great Lakes exchanged lessons.

– Beth Heller

 

Day 1: Meeting Israel

 

Day one included walking the neighborhoods of Tiberias and getting a view of the city from nearly every angle possible.

“I’ve decided that this region of the world is the epicenter of complexity in motion. A place where the human experiment of diversity, religious freedom, morality, politics, history, economy, ingenuity … they all vortex right here. And through all of this, I still awake to the sounds of the dove.”

Fast friends at Nofarim Junior High School. Highlights included a presentation by the student environmental council.

Day 1, and what a day! The highlight for us had to be our discussion with the dozen or so 8th and 9th graders from a local junior high public school about their efforts to create a “Green School” in support of their dynamic principal’s hopes. Their youthful enthusiasm and legitimate student centered initiatives were inspiring to hear about. Now, of course, they all want to come to Milwaukee! Any takers on home stay hosts?

At the high school, which is running a unique green program, the students engaged us and a wonderful conversation of the work that they’re doing. What was most impressive was the way the students were so composed while they presented their ideas and responded to a barrage of questions

A close second was a late afternoon conversation with a group of college students living in the poorest neighborhood of Tiberias, feeling their struggle to connect in meaningful ways with the community in which they were immersed. Their commitment and community efforts are bartered for free tuition to the college. Cool concept! Lots of learning, lots of sharing, lots of laughs and the occasional tear too.

– Ken Leinbach