170 Aussies plant JNF trees on IDF air force base

January 31, 2010 Agencies
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170 18-yr-old Australians shared the planting of trees on TuBishvat with young Israelis on active duty at the Nevatim Air Force base…a first for JNF

Aussies at the Nevatim base

Squadron Leader Lt. Col. N. remarked that this was no minor event, and that he does everything he can to make the very most of such opportunities. “For the pilots and the ground crew it’s no trivial matter to take part in an encounter like this and explain what it is we do here, and why we do it,” he said. “A group like this brings us a breath of fresh air from another world, and this is one of the reasons why I’d like to regularize contacts like this and put them on a formal basis. First of all, I think it’s important to show our people what Diaspora Jewry is. People in Israel don’t know much about Australian Jews and their identification with Zionism; they’re more accustomed to Zionist citizens of the US, and they’re unaware of the strong connection people in such faraway places feel to Zionism. It does all our hearts good. Another thing I try to communicate is the understanding that Zionism doesn’t necessarily have to mean living in Israel, as we are often taught. Suddenly we realize that everyone, everywhere in the world, is doing whatever he or she can for Israel. In today’s global village, many of the young people here today will come to occupy key positions in the politics, economy and society of the countries they live in.”

Habonim Dror's Olivia Kenny from Melbourne plants her tree

The warm welcome expressed by the squadron’s veteran F-15 pilots left no room for doubt: something unusual was going on. The lively bunch of Australians and New Zealanders had landed in Israel only 24 hours previously. All of them are members of one of the six Zionist youth movements active in their homeland, and all of them have decided to devote a year of their lives and a considerable sum of money to experiencing life in Israel at first hand, through an educational program operated by the Zionist Federation of Australia.

Yigal Sela, Director of the Federation’s Israel office, explains: “One of the main objectives of the program, which brings these young people to Israel for a period of ten months, is to encourage immigration. Each of those taking part pays around $20,000 to participate in the program, and they spend the first week together, before splitting up into groups according to youth-movement affiliation. Their meeting today with people only a few years older than themselves gives them a jolt, which has two beneficial effects: the youngsters from abroad come into contact with one of the foundations upon which the State of Israel is built, and with the young Israeli elite; while, from the other side, members of this Israeli elite get to meet Jews from the Diaspora, which helps them understand that the strength of the Jewish people lies in the conjunction of the two groups.”

We found the young Australians assembled in groups on the grass inside the host squadron’s compound. Each group was led by a pilot, whose descriptions of life in the Air Force and of the private lives of these individuals who had reached this, the highest level, were drunk in eagerly by the visitors. We met , of Melbourne, just as he was in the middle of putting on a flying suit, while his host explained how to cope with life inside a pressurized suit in a plane that could perform any task required of it. Ricci, a member of the Hineni youth movement, seemed a little stunned by the honor that had fallen to his lot: “I’m still floating a bit,” he admitted. “It’s been excitement all the way, ever since we landed. The fact that we’ve planted trees here gives us a sense of belonging.”

After a short session of group meetings, the visitors set out to see the planes themselves and take a close look at these expensive machines, many of which are still flying after a great many years of service.  Two circles painted on the nose of one of the planes commemorate the Syrian aircraft shot down by this machine in 1982. Another adjacent circle contains the outline of a familiar building: the Iraqi nuclear reactor, in whose destruction this same plane participated in 1981. At this point, quite suddenly, familiar history stops being a mere abstraction, and abruptly changes into something very real.

When the time came to start planting, everyone gathered in front of the squadron buildings. “Tu BiShvat in the State of Israel nowadays is a holiday that symbolizes the connection between the People and their land,” explained Squadron Leader N. in his speech of welcome. “Today is a day of special significance, as all over the world people are observing the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. On this day special emphasis is laid upon the need to maintain a strong and stable Israel, without which the Jewish People cannot survive. Tree planting likewise symbolizes the relationship between one individual and another, and also the need for patience, while we wait for the tree to grow and provide us with the shade or the fruit that we shall enjoy in the future. Planting is an expression of giving, too, because these trees we plant today are a gift to those who will come after us.”

KKL-JNF Head of Protocol and Ceremonies Andy Michelson, who himself immigrated from Australia many years ago in very similar circumstances, displayed no small measure of personal emotion as he conducted the ceremony. “I want you to know that the experience you’re having here today is one that few Israeli citizens, young or old, ever have. They have never visited an Air Force base, and have most certainly never enjoyed such an intimate encounter with the wonderful people who operate these marvelous machines. Use this time when you are far away from your home and family, and try to absorb these experiences to the very best of your ability,” he advised.

The Planter’s Prayer was read at the ceremony by Emily Hilton, from Sidney, who wore a red jacket that stood out boldly against the surrounding desert landscape. “This is my second time in Israel,” she said, “and it’s much more exciting than last time, when I was in more of a tourist framework. This is a big group of young people, all of whom are active in youth organizations, and we’re all floating around on a cloud of tremendous excitement. The most remarkable thing about today’s meeting is the directness and friendliness the Air Force people have shown towards us. It’s clear that they very much want to communicate knowledge to us, and that they want us to believe in them and their abilities. Here, in the middle of the desert, in the middle of nowhere, this meeting and the planting are a simply amazing experience.”

Three friends, Andi Lewin, Sivan Feigen and Alexia Robinson, were gathered around another large hole in the ground, where they were planting a tree together. Sivan is from Sidney, while Andi and Alexia have come from Perth. All three are members of HaBonim youth movement. Alexia tries to describe the general feeling: “What made all of us decide to take part in the program was the knowledge that we would spend a year of our lives here, and that together we would experience life in Israel. All of us here share the feeling that we’d like to do something more with our lives, something over and above the routine of life at home. We want to experience a different world, one we feel we belong to. When we go back, we’ll have experienced so much, and we’ll share it with others,” she said.

It was clear that, but for the Air Force personnel’s busy schedule, this lively group would have been happy to spend a great deal longer in the fighter-plane squadron’s compound.

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