Over Sukkos, my family and I participated in a one-day JNF tour led by Yedidya Harush, a young man who grew up in Gush Katif. When there was a call for settling the Sinai, his parents moved there, only to be later evacuated from their home in Yamit. They later settled in Gush Katif, responding once again to the call for settling a specific region of our ancient homeland.
In 2005, having now been asked to settle twice and subsequently forced to move, one might have expected the Harushes to move from Israel altogether, or at least retreat to another community with great anger, resentment, and disappointment. But, rather than be disillusioned and disaffected, Yedidya, and many of those forced to give up their homes, responded very differently. He described how they went to the government and said, “We are devastated by your actions and couldn’t disagree with them more. Nevertheless, we want to know what you need us to do next. Where do you need us to go and what area needs settlement now? What is our next mission?”
The government immediately pointed to Chalutza, an area located in the remote corner of the northwest Negev. This area of the desert, which borders Gaza, Egypt, and Israel, had never been inhabited, settled, or farmed. In fact, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were negotiating, Barak offered the area of Chalutza to the Palestinians. Arafat took one look at the vast sandy desert and turned it down, claiming nobody could possibly make it blossom or bloom or produce anything of value there.
This statement brought to mind a maxim I’m fond of: “If you say it can’t be done, you’re right—YOU can’t do it.” Arafat was right that he and his people could not have made the desert bloom. However, Yedidya and other modern-day pioneers are not ordinary. With vision, dedication, eternal optimism, and a deep sense of mission, over 100 families have already built new homes, founded magnificent communities, and planted acres of growing organic crops, all sitting amidst sand dunes and desert. And 30 new families are scheduled to move into temporary homes and found a third town of Shlomit, in the Chalutza region.
Like many, I had been mistaken in thinking that JNF was only about planting trees, blue tzedaka boxes, and planting more trees. That day, visiting numerous JNF projects, including the revamped Ammunition Hill, the indoor bomb-proof playground in Sderot, and a tour of Chalutza, we began to realize what JNF does and how indispensable it is to Israel’s past, present, and future.
JNF has supported Chalutza’s growth from the very beginning by clearing land for housing and farming, purchasing temporary prefabricated homes, laying basic infrastructure, and paving roads. As the region grows, it has been instrumental in providing social, medical, and educational services.
I have come to love, admire and support JNF because they are apolitical, uninterested in staking political positions, or directing policy. Instead, they are singularly invested in helping residents across the width and breadth of Israel, by providing crucial assistance to the new Gush Etzion visitor center, Nefesh B’Nefesh, lone soldier programs, and so much more. Look at a JNF map and you will see projects everywhere, with no lines being drawn to differentiate or distinguish between parts of our homeland.
It is so appropriate that we host a JNF weekend at BRS specifically this Shabbos as we celebrate Tu B’Shevat, but not for the reason you may think. True, JNF is invested in planting trees and forests in Israel, but even more it is involved in planting and building communities, reuniting the Jewish people with and through our precious land.
R’ Eliyahu Kitov, in his Sefer HaToda’ah, writes regarding Tu B’Shevat, “It is customary to eat fruit which comes from the Land of Israel… The reason for the festive mood of the Rosh Hashanah of trees is that the 15th of Shevat bespeaks the praise of the Land of Israel, for on this day, the strength of the soil of the land is renewed. When the soil of the Land of Israel renews its strength to give forth its riches, the people of Israel who love the land and yearn for it, also rejoice.”
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) says, “There is no clearer indication of the ‘end of days’ than the blossoming of the land of Israel, as it says in Yechezkel, ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel when they are about to come.’” Rashi explains that there is no greater sign of the redemption than when the land gives forth succulent fruit.
On the fourth day of the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1901, a Viennese journalist named Theodor Herzl stood up and made a passionate plea to create a fund that would purchase land in what was then Palestine. The motion passed and the congress resolved that a fund, to be called Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael), should be established and that “the fund shall be the property of the Jewish people as a whole.”
A visit to Chalutza is not a favor to its residents, though it does provide great moral and material support. It is an opportunity to witness the fulfillment of God’s promise - that after 2,000 years of barrenness and desolation, our people would return to our land and our land would return to yielding its precious fruit and produce, something it had held back from doing for over two millennia.
Tu B’Shevat, long celebrated in exile with the hope and longing of returning to the Land and seeing it transformed from rocks and sand to green and lush fields, is celebrated today with the fulfillment of that promise and prophecy. It is not a coincidence that many of Israel’s major institutions chose Tu B’Shevat as the day for their inauguration. The cornerstone laying of Hebrew University took place on Tu B’Shevat 1918, the Technion on Tu B’Shevat 1925 and the Knesset on Tu B’Shevat 1949.
As we mark our annual JNF weekend this Shabbos, it is an opportunity like Yedidya to ask Israel, what do you need from me? What is my next assignment to advance the mission of the Jewish people and how can I do my part?
This Shabbos, make a point of eating fruit of the seven species of Eretz Yisroel and celebrate how fortunate and blessed we are to be living in a time in which Tu B’Shevat is not about longing for the opportunity to return to our land, but having the privilege and chance to do so.