TORONTO — If you try to call an Israeli around Passover, there’s a good chance they’ll be away from home on a tiyul.
More than just a hike, a tiyul combines exercise, fresh air and communing with the land. Or, as an Israeli visitor to Toronto put it recently, “exploring the land through your feet.”
Facilitating the people’s urge to trudge are field schools – modest guest houses –operated by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), a 60-year-old organization that maps out nature trails across the country.
The NGO has a longstanding support group in the United States and it recently launched a Canadian version, the Canadian Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Last week, SPNI’s director of foreign relations and resource development, Uri Goldflam, was in Toronto to meet with Canadian supporters and describe the good works SPNI is doing to keep Israel green and ecologically friendly. The Canadian wing of the organization is still at “the embryonic stage,” he said, though it has a corporate structure and is entitled to issue tax receipts for charitable donations.
Its Canadian spokesman, Allan Shiff, said the organization wants to attract friends of Israel who have an interest in environmental issues.
In Israel, “exploring the land through your feet is branded into the Israeli culture,” Goldflam said. SPNI operates field schools in Ein Gedi, Har Meron (near Safed), Achziv Beach (near Nahariya) and at the Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert, to facilitate those visits.
SPNI boasts 45,000 member households in Israel, while 800,000 people have been exposed to the organization’s activities, whether hiking its trails, staying at its field schools or participating in adult education programs.
Of course, SPNI is much more than an organization that facilitates nature walks, Goldflam continued. It has a broad agenda on the environment – everything from water use to the wellbeing of flora and fauna. Right now “the biggest challenge is open space,” Goldflam said.
Israel is a tiny and crowded country but one that looks to get more and more crowded in the future. In 2020 there could be as many as 11 or 12 million people living there, up from seven million today. That would make it the most densely populated country in the OECD, the 27 most economically developed countries in the world.
SPNI recognizes the need for development, but it cannot be done at the cost of Israel’s open spaces and ecological integrity. “We need clean air, open space, bicycle routes. We’re talking about raising the quality of life in existing cities,” Goldflam said.
One proposed development SPNI opposes would see the creation of 10 communities in the Negev Desert between Beersheva and Arad.
Building new communities is part of the Zionist ethos, but SPNI would like to see Zionism defined as strengthening existing communities, not building new ones, Goldflam said.
A builder by profession, Shiff said development should only go ahead when environmental concerns are taken into account. If the water and air aren’t clean, it’s not just the animals that will suffer; the people will suffer.”
Shiff said he became acquainted with SPNI during a hiking trip to Israel he and his wife, Helaine, took a year and a half ago. All his arrangements were made through SPNI’s New York office and he wondered why there wasn’t a SPNI office in Canada to facilitate trips like his.
Later, he received a call from the New York office informing him Goldflam would be visiting Toronto in May 2011.
Goldflam saw Canada as fertile ground for a support group. Canadian Jews and others are strong supporters of Israel, they care about nature and have proven to be very generous to Israeli NGOs, he said.
Goldflam met Shiff and a few others, and after a brainstorming session, they put together a plan to launch a Canadian SPNI group. The organization received its charitable tax status last June.
Creation of a local office will make it easier for Canadians to support SPNI’s activities. It’s also a way to get young people, who might otherwise not be supporters of Israel, to attract their interest through environmental issues, Shiff said.
“My vision is that every Jewish family… would have a stake in the nature and landscape of Israel,” Goldflam added.