The centrality of nature in the Israeli ethos is undeniable. Its citizens are enamored with the country’s incomparable natural beauty and constantly celebrate it. Boasting some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, diverse ecosystems and unique wildlife, Israel’s abundant biodiversity is a key part of the population’s vibrant culture and history.
Yet many Israelis struggle to discern the difference between loving nature and preserving it, raising the question: How does a nation that values its natural resources so highly lack such a fundamental understanding of conservation? ?
In 1999, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) began to address this disconnect by creating a community garden initiative. With the support of municipalities across the country, SPNI coordinates community gardens and runs creative sustainability programs in neighborhoods that lack access to sufficient environmental education. Although 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 engaging ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where the focused educational program pays little attention to environmental awareness. SPNI’s Community Garden Project fills this educational gap by teaching green practices in a way that respects their boundaries and embraces their distinctive culture.
“We focus on educating about nature and sustainability in a way that complements their way of life,” explained Amanda Lind, community garden coordinator for SPNI Jerusalem. The Ultra-Orthodox Community Garden Program is designed specifically to respect and support their deeply religious values, such as separating gardening time for each gender and observing the laws of the Shmittah (gap year) year. So far, these tailored programs have met with great success, bringing together segments of the ultra-Orthodox population who have never had the chance to connect with nature or each other before.
Although it is not part of SPNI’s mission to encourage every ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Israel to cultivate a community garden, the project is ready to take root wherever there is interest. “It is up to the community to approach SPNI when they are ready to participate in the initiative, at which time concrete plans are made to lay the groundwork for grassroots movements,” says Lind.
“Creating green spaces takes hard work and dedication and presents an important opportunity for communities to take responsibility for their own area. For them to take ownership, it cannot be forced.
Currently, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Choma HaShlishit and Maalot Dafna boast thriving community gardens. Having taken the initiative to reach out to SPNI for support, these neighborhoods continue to enjoy a healthier environment and a more cohesive community.
The project offers unique learning opportunities for all ages, especially for children. The gardens attract students from Cheder (Ultra-Orthodox elementary school) who spend all day studying indoors and have never had a chance to connect with nature. “Instead of destroying trees, which is often the case for children in these neighborhoods who find themselves without meaningful activity, they plant trees and make positive contributions,” Lind said. “It gives them a sense of purpose and responsibility, and they love knowing they have the ability to change a space and make it more beautiful.”
Children participate in activities such as designing the layout of the garden and planting trees, herbs and vegetables. This gives them the opportunity to interact with nature. From an early age, these students began to understand the importance of environmental sustainability and appreciate its value in their communities.
The project was also successful in promoting inclusion, enabling adolescent girls with Down syndrome from the ultra-Orthodox community to receive targeted environmental education alongside their peers. A joint initiative with the local community center, this sister program teaches its participants how to grow and care for plants and provides hands-on gardening experience in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood. As a reward for their contributions to the community, SPNI staff members take participants to the Botanical Garden, where they can learn even more about the beauty and diversity of Israeli flora.
“After years of working with the ultra-Orthodox community, we are now seeing serious changes in terms of these neighborhoods’ relationship with nature. There is a desire to connect and preserve, as well as an understanding that they need to share this knowledge with others,” Lind added. “SPNI will provide support to any community that is ready to take the initiative.”
Through its educational and hands-on programs, the project transforms island communities across the country into eco-friendly educators. By providing easy access to the tools and knowledge needed 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 to shape the future of nature in Israel.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Forward.