JNF engages campus environmentalists in eco-Zionism

The Negev is shrinking.

It is the only desert in the world to do so. According to Aliza Kline, this is a perfect example of eco-Zionism in action.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF) plants trees in the Negev during the rainy season. Birds migrate to these mini-oases, fertilize the land and, thus, change its soil.

"Eco-Zionism is the connection between a specific people, Jews, with a specific landscape, Israel," said Kline, director of JNF On Campus, adding that the term was coined at last year's conference.

However, she said, planting trees is not enough.

In hopes of enlightening a new generation of environmentally aware Jews and introducing college-age students to JNF, the organization sponsored its second Eco-Zionism conference at the Headlands Institute in Sausalito, March 7 to 9.

More than 130 college students — hippie types and Orthodox alike — met for prayer, hikes, text study and workshops ranging from "Greening Your Hillel" to "Jewish Eco-Activism: Jewish Ethics and Public Policy."

Strictly vegetarian meals were served. In order to fulfill the laws of kashrut while remaining environmentally sound, students ate from mess kits they received at registration.

"We couldn't kasher the plates at Headlands. And we can't use plastic or Styrofoam throwaways. It would be hypocritical," Kline said. "We bought mess kits. Students will use them all weekend and then take them with them.

"We also gave out plastic mugs with our logo — made out of recycled plastic, of course."

Even the JNF On Campus Program Guide is enclosed in a recycled vinyl binder. Organized by seasons, the guide offers environmental activities and programs for each of the Jewish holidays.

For instance, for Chanukah it suggests throwing a party. "Give the electricity a rest" by playing dreidel and eating latkes by candlelight, it recommends. Or for Pesach, rid the house of not only chametz (leavened foods) but also items that harm the environment, like Drano and Styrofoam.

"There is a whole movement in Jewish campus activism to engage students where they are," said Kline, 25, herself just a few years out of college. "We're taking them out of synagogue, out of Hillel.

"If they're into hiking, we'll take them on a hike and talk Torah. Or if they want to start a recycling program, we can talk about the concept from Deuteronomy of bal tashchit — not to waste."

Other JNF On Campus programs include $500 grants for students to participate in Jewish wilderness journeys, and linkups between Jewish students and fraternities and sororities for "tree drives": The latter fulfills the Greek system's philanthropic requirements while planting more trees in Israel.

JNF On Campus also helps student leaders plan their own programs, like the upcoming "40 Years in 40 Hours" at UCLA. In preparation for Passover, Jewish students will go to the desert to re-enact the Exodus.

"Jewish involvement on most campuses," she said, is still largely one of reaction to negatives: "anti-Holocaust deniers, anti-Farrakhan. We want to bring the celebratory aspect of Judaism and Israel to life," Kline said. "These students are searching for meaning during their college years. We are the tree people. We are showing students new expressions of Judaism."

JNF's off-campus commitment to eco-Zionism extends to planting trees, paving roads and building recreation sites in Israel. Environmental education is not part of its mission. But it is an integral piece of eco-Zionism, Kline said.

"The ecology of Israel is a mess. You have 6 million people in a country and 90 percent of them live in the center. It's a growing population and a shrinking country of shrinking resources."

Part of the solution involves increasing awareness. The Israeli government, working with Israeli companies, must promote cleaner air and water through incentives, she said.

Ultimately, Israelis need to fulfill David Ben-Gurion's dream, Kline said. There must be a population shift to the Negev.

"It's 60 percent of the land and 4 percent of the population. It's our safety zone. Nobody wants it," Kline said. "JNF tries to help answer the question: How do we make the Negev livable? By planting trees, building reservoirs and working the land."