Ultra-Orthodox Becoming Rooted in Israel through Nature
By Marlee Michelson
The centrality of nature to the Israeli ethos is undeniable. Its citizens are infatuated with the country’s incomparable natural beauty and celebrate it constantly. Boasting some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, diverse eco-systems, and unique wildlife, Israel’s abundant biodiversity serves as a key component of the population’s vibrant culture and history.
Still, many Israelis struggle with discerning the difference between loving nature and preserving it, which begs the question: How does a nation that so strongly values its natural resources lack such a basic understanding of conservation?
In 1999, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) began addressing this disconnect by establishing a Community Garden Initiative. With the support of municipalities across the country, SPNI coordinates community gardens and executes creative sustainability programs in neighborhoods that lack access to sufficient environmental education. Though there are now 70 community gardens in Jerusalem and hundreds throughout Israel, SPNI is actively implementing more targeted solutions to encourage participation among Israel’s diverse populations.
One of the highest priorities is the engagement of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where the concentrated educational curriculum pays little attention to environmental awareness. SPNI’s Community Garden Project is filling this educational gap by teaching green practices in a way that respects their limitations and embraces their distinctive culture.
“We focus on educating about nature and sustainability in a way that compliments their lifestyle,” explained Amanda Lind, the Community Gardens Coordinator for SPNI Jerusalem. The ultra-Orthodox community garden program is designed specifically to respect and support their deeply religious values, such as segregating gardening time for each gender and abiding by the laws of the Shmittah (Sabbatical) year. Thus far, these tailored programs have been very successful, bringing together segments of the ultra-Orthodox population that have never before had the chance to connect with nature or each other.
Though it is not part of SPNI’s mission to encourage every ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel to cultivate a community garden, the project is willing to take root wherever there is interest. “It is up to the community to approach SPNI when they are ready to partake in the initiative, at which time concrete plans are made to lay the groundwork for grassroots movements,” explains Lind.
“Creating green spaces requires work and dedication and presents an important opportunity for communities to take responsibility of their own area. In order for them to take ownership, it cannot be forced.”
Currently, the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Choma HaShlishit and Maalot Dafna boast thriving communal gardens. Having taken the initiative to contact SPNI for support, these neighborhoods continue to enjoy a healthier environment and a more cohesive community.
The project provides unique learning opportunities for all ages, especially for children. The gardens appeal to Cheder (ultra-Orthodox elementary school) students who spend all day inside studying and have never had the opportunity to connect with nature. “Instead of destroying trees, which is often the case for children in these neighborhoods who find themselves without a constructive activity, they’re planting trees and making positive contributions,” Lind said. “It gives them a sense of purpose and responsibility, and they love knowing that they have the ability to change a space and make it beautiful.”
The children engage in activities such as designing the layout of the garden and planting the trees, herbs and vegetables. This provides them with opportunities to interact with nature. At a young age, these students have begun to understand the importance of environmental sustainability and appreciate its value in their communities.
The project has also been successful in promoting inclusion, allowing teenage girls with Down syndrome from the ultra-Orthodox community to receive focused environmental education alongside their peers. A joint initiative with the local community center, this sister program teaches its participants how to grow and sustain plants and provides practical gardening experience in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood. As a reward for their contributions to the community, SPNI staff members take the participants to the Botanical Gardens, where they can learn even more about the beauty and diversity of Israeli flora.
“After years of work with the ultra-Orthodox community, we are now seeing serious changes in terms of how these neighborhoods relate to nature. There is a desire to connect and preserve, as well as an understanding that they must share this knowledge with others,” Lind added. “SPNI will provide support to any community that is willing to take the initiative.”
Through its educational and hands-on programs, the project is transforming insular communities across the country into eco-friendly educators. By providing easy access to the tools and knowledge necessary to make a difference in their immediate surroundings, SPNI has motivated ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to look beyond the fences that divide them and work together to cultivate the kind of growth that will help shape the future of nature in Israel.