Botanical garden plows new territory as change agent

Why did organizers of a recent American Public Gardens Association conference include two Israelis in a panel discussion on public gardens as agents of social empowerment?


Lior Gottesman photo/abigail klein leichman

Because the Social and Environmental Hub at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is breaking new ground. Co-founders Lior Gottesman and Adi Bar-Yoseph travel widely to talk about the Jerusalem model for making botanical gardens relevant to the lives of city dwellers.


“I’m really passionate about connecting the environment and people in a sustainable way,” Gottesman said during a tour of the 32-acre site. “A lot of people, when they think about green issues, imagine tree-hugging hippies. For me it has to do with social justice and social inclusion, food security and other super important issues in cities.”

Gottesman, 30, was hired two years ago to coordinate 21 social-environmental programs at the gardens. They were run separately by a variety of Jerusalem nonprofits for populations such as adults with mental illness or autism, veterans suffering from PTSD, prisoners, senior citizens, Holocaust survivors and Arab schoolchildren.

Zel Lederman, a curator at the gardens from 1994 to 2004, felt that uniting Jerusalem’s environmental organizations around a collaborative hub would maximize efficiency, transparency and potential. His family’s philanthropic foundation partnered with the Encinitas, California-based Leichtag Foundation to plant the seeds.


Visitors stroll in Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. photo/judith marcus

“We felt we needed a new concept that would inspire people and put the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens on the map. And we needed to bring the communities of Jerusalem into the picture,” Lederman said. “Lior spent a year mapping the needs of 70 organizations working on environmental and sustainability issues in Jerusalem, and developing a master plan.”


Among the hub’s first sponsored projects were the Kaima hydroponic greenhouse, where high-school dropouts grow marketable greens at the Botanical Gardens; a garden planted at the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem by seven organizations, and mini-gardens established at 10 Arab, 10 haredi and 10 secular Jewish preschools. The botanical garden is surrounded by seven residential neighborhoods, the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus and the Gazelle Valley urban nature park.

By 2017, the hub and its members will be anchored in a building next to Kaima’s greenhouse, constructed to green standards by volunteers using repurposed containers.

Change agents accepted into the hub — environmental entrepreneurs, environmental artists and designers, urban planners, social activists, gardeners and urban farmers — will have access to the professional staff of the Botanical Gardens, from the head gardener to head scientist.

“We can save them all a lot of time in finding connections and gaining knowledge,” said Gottesman, who has a master’s degree in sustainable economics.

“They’ll do networking through events and an online platform, and we’ll even have a local currency, lira Yerushalmi, that allows all the different services to be exchanged.”

The Hub eventually will house an accelerator for ag-tech startups, as well as social-environmentalist volunteers and interns from other countries.

Gottesman expects the Social and Environmental Hub to be 70 percent self-sustaining within five years. One source of income will be a social gardening company under the auspices of Israel’s Dualis Social Venture Fund. Nonprofit and for-profit enterprises will be able to rent outdoor spaces and offices in the garden’s bucolic setting.

 “For many people, botanical gardens in the 21st century are just irrelevant, and across the world there are efforts to change this by bringing in new audiences,” Gottesman said. “What we are doing here in Jerusalem is taking it to a new level. And we built it in a way that can be copied in other communities.”

Abigail Klein Leichman
Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is associate editor of ISRAEL21c.