Israel is a sight for sore eyes this week. Everywhere you go there are newly-planted saplings and newly-tended gardens. And they all make me think of dad.
I just marked the yahrzeit of the big-hearted Irishman who adopted me as a baby and died 10 years ago. And for me, it’s so apt that it falls at this time of year, when Israel is full of new greenery, which was just planted in honor of Tu Bishvat.
Even in his hometown of Dublin he felt connected to the Land of Israel. David Steinberg came here and planted his family in this special country, where we took root and flourished. He managed hotels in Jerusalem and became a much-loved character in Israel’s tourism industry.
Since his passing, for me this season of planting has become a celebration of the connection between Israel and the Diaspora.
As Sabras like me plant, we talk about the link between Jewish people and the land. But to truly understand this concept, we need to appreciate the efforts olim make to come here and develop the country. My dad was among them.
This season also teaches us about the feelings that other Jewish people have for Israel. Every native Israeli should watch a visitor from the Diaspora plant a tree here. The sight always brings me to tears.
I work in travel, and just took a group of Chicago-based educators that I’m hosting to plant trees near Jerusalem. I love the moment when visitors realize that although they’ll be back home in a few days, the tree will grow and thrive here in the Promised Land for years to come.
Some Jews, like my father, come to Israel, plant, and remain here. Others do their planting and head home, but with a strengthened connection to Israel. Trees and the nature of Israel unify us, as Diaspora Jews, olim and sabras; as people who choose different ways of expressing our love for Israel.
I see this every day of the year with my travel company, Israel Experience, not just during the few days on either side of Tu Bishvat. Israel has many sophisticated tourist experiences to offer, but our visitors say some of their most magical moments are simply enjoying nature – hiking, visiting rivers and springs, and checking out the growing range of ecological attractions.
One of my favorites is the Salad Trail, close to the Gaza border, where tourists see innovative technology being medical herbs, carrots of various colors, and other crops you wouldn’t expect to see growing in a desert.
It’s an experience that brings together love for the land, innovation, and solidarity with Israelis who live with the hardship of Gaza rockets. The trail also generates a two-way dialogue: The visitors get a slice of real Israeli life, and their Israeli guides gain insights into the culture of Diaspora Jewry.
Think tanks and academics are so busy these days dealing with what they see as the tough question of how to engage Diaspora Jews with Israel. Sometimes I wonder whether the answer is, in part, much simpler than they realize.
Get retro. Instead of dragging Diaspora visitors round museums about early immigrants or to historical seminars, take them out of the cities to experience the joy the pioneers felt holding the earth in their hands and planting. Because once you’ve helped to make the land flourish, you have a ready-made connection here for life.