Czech Republic Ambassador visits Czech volunteers in Carmel Forest

Wednesday, March 02, 2016 1:10 PM

“Professionally their contribution is very significant…it is vital work for us. The work of the volunteers is a real contribution to the protection of the forest.”

Czech Republic Ambassador to Israel Ivo Schwarz, his wife Eva Schwarzova and Czech Republic Honorary Consul General Roni Gipsz visit the Carmel Forest to meet Czech volunteers who are assisting KKL-JNF in its rehabilitation work of the forest, which sustained great damage in the 2010 fire.
The unseasonably warm end of February proved to be the perfect time for Czech Republic Ambassador Ivo Schwarz, his wife Eva Schwarzova and Czech Republic Honorary Consul General Roni Gipsz to visit the Carmel Forest and witness its rejuvenation since the 2010 Carmel fire.

The Czech dignitaries were hosted by KKL-JNF European Desk representative Sharon Geva, KKL-JNF Public Relations Director Elisha Mizrahi, KKL-JNF director of the Northern Galilee and Carmel regions Michael Weinberger,  Carmel Alonim bloc forester Micah Silko, and KKL-JNF northern region public relations representative Etti Azoulai.

The diplomats began their tour by seeing for themselves the important work Czech volunteers have been doing every year for the past five years in the Carmel Forest.

Before meeting the volunteers, Mizrahi showed the ambassador and his wife the Recognition Center at the KKL-JNF offices in Hof HaCarmel where dedication plaques have been put up in recognition of those who have contributed to the restoration efforts of the forest. The recognition center also houses memorial plaques for dedicated groves that were destroyed in the forest fire, many of which had been planted for loved ones who perished in the Holocaust.

The Czech volunteer program, initiated by volunteer Karel Kana, a Czech forester, is now in its fifth year. The program has brought volunteers to prune and clear areas of the Carmel Forest for two weeks each year, performing a vital service for KKL-JNF and the forest. Five years ago, Kana was deeply moved as he watched the news of the Carmel fire unfold on television. The 2010 Carmel fire was the worst forest fire disaster in Israel's history. It left thousands of acres of forested area burnt and barren, tens of buildings destroyed and 44 people dead, mostly Israel Prison Service office cadets, who died when their bus was trapped by the fire.

Kana said he felt the need to do something as a forester, and reached out to KKL-JNF’s then Northern Region Director Dr. Omri Boneh with an offer to help. Boneh immediately responded in the affirmative with several areas where he could help.

“We love Israel and we would like to show our support to the country,” Kana said.  “I asked several friends and we first came in March 2011. We come around the time of Tu B’shvat. The work is hard and we are very tired afterwards but the shared laughter with friends from the volunteers and KKL-JNF, and the support of the KKL-JNF makes it all worth it. We can see the results of our work and that is our reward. KKL-JNF has done amazing work with their forests. As a forester I appreciate their work. If we look at countries around Israel and see their forests, we can see the contrast.”

“It warms our heart to see how this initial act of volunteerism has turned into a continuing service for us. This is a significant connection for us not only with Jews across the sea, but also other friends of Israel who believe in our work,” said Elisha Mizrahi. “Professionally their contribution is very significant as we at KKL-JNF don’t have the manpower to prune and cut away all the invasive species. It is vital work for us. The work of the volunteers is a real contribution to the protection of the forest.”

Michael Weinberger, KKL-JNF Western Galilee and Carmel region director, explained that the work of pruning back the trees and other growth helps create a “fuel break” in the forest line which is intended to slow down the expansion of any future fire, giving fire fighters and foresters time to move in safely to fight the fire.  While not stopping the spreading of a fire, it will break the fire ladder, he said.

“In a fire storm this break will do nothing, but in 99.9 percent of all small fires, a break like this will help us safely extinguish the fire,” said Weinberger, remarking on the true dedication of the volunteers who work long hours doing hard physical work. “They don’t come here to do just a few hours’ work. They are here eight hours doing hard work. They are pruning the forest. It is continuous work. Natural growth will grow here after the process.”

For volunteer Roman Koziel it was a life dream to be able to come to Israel.

“It is a great privilege to be here and to work in the Land of the Bible,” said Koziel, who works with physically disabled children in the Czech Republic. “I like nature and even if it is physically hard work I am glad to be here and glad I can help.”

The daughter of a forester, Jana Prudekova said she grew up in the Czech forests with her father and to this day she still feels a special relationship with forests.

“The forest here in Israel is different than in the Czech Republic, but nature is still nature,” she said.  “We can breathe the air, enjoy the sunshine. This is a good opportunity for us to come here and help. KKL-JNF is doing very good work here and they have been very friendly with us.”

Impressed with the work his country’s volunteers are doing in the forest, Schwarz said they were doing important work.

“This is something very admirable. They are fulfilling this work in the forest helping nature in a place where it is needed as volunteers, which makes it even more admirable,” he said. “I will ask for this program to be supported in the future. We need to make the work of the volunteers better known to motivate more people to come.”

As an avid outdoorsman he said he and his wife are well aware of the work KKL-JNF does in Israel to maintain nature sites for the enjoyment of all of Israel’s citizens.

“Supporting nature in this modern industrial age is very much needed,” Schwarz said. “And with this volunteer program we also see that KKL-JNF is actively bringing people together.”
At a nearby site where ancient agricultural terraces were discovered and restored following the fire, ambassador Schwarz and his wife planted a carob tree sapling at the base of the terraces. Here, KKL-JNF has been planting fruit trees thought to have grown in the area during biblical times, such as olive, fig and pomegranate trees. 

Weinberger explained that rather than fence in the whole area of the tree orchard, KKL-JNF had put individual fencing around each sapling planted in order to protect it from wild boar and domesticated cattle, while plastic tubing provides a concentrated water source for the sapling during its crucial first few years.

Before planting the sapling, Ambassador Schwarz recited the Planter’s Prayer in Czech while Honorary Consul General Gipsz read it in Hebrew.

“It is our duty and our privilege to plant trees for the future generations,” said Mizrahi.

Noting that he comes from a long line of Czech farmers, and his brother and father still work the family apple orchards, Schwarz said he felt connected to his family roots by planting the tree. And planting the sapling in Israeli soil also made him feel connected to his Jewish ancestry, he said. 

“It was very emotional for me. Planting the tree here made a connection between my Jewish roots and my Czech agricultural roots,” he said. Using the modern technology of GPS, he took down the location of the sapling so that he would be able to find it on his next visit.

The Czech delegation then visited the memorial site for the Carmel fire victims, where Weinberger poignantly recounted the trajectory of the fire and the last moments of the 44 prison service officer cadets who were trapped in the fire.

The group then got to experience Druze hospitality in the Carmel village of Ussifiya, where they were hosted for lunch. Druze tour guide Haeyl Azzam introduced them to some of the Druze heritage and traditions. He noted that the Druze people are an integral part of Israeli society, with a number Israeli ambassadors and consuls coming from their village.

Over tea, Arabic coffee and sweet baklava for desert, KKL-JNF's Sharon Geva told the group that through her work, she has discovered many wonderful things happening in Israel, including meeting special people like the volunteers.

“How incredible it is that you are willing to leave behind your work, your homes and families and come to help our forests, our trees, our nature -supporting the land of Israel and its people,” she said. “Your motivation and desire to rehabilitate the Carmel is a sign of those who are willing to make a change. You came to prune, saw and cart away trees, in order to protect the forest from the next fire -a small action that has a great impact. I hope others will follow you.”

Another outcome of their work, said Geva, is the bringing together of people from the Czech Republic and Israel. She thanked the Czech ambassador for his country’s continuing friendship with Israel and expressed hope that the two countries will continue cooperating, not just through good economic ties, but also in ecological, scientific and technological projects.

Concluding the wonderful day, Geva shared with the group a song by beloved Israeli singer Arik Einstein, “You and I,” which talks the ability of every person to make the world a better place.

“Today I have learned about little things people can do to make the world a little better,” said Geva, quoting Einstein's song:   “You and I will change the world.”