Left to right: Rabbi Dov Bakst, presidential advisor, Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog and Rabbi Shlomo Raanan at the March 4 launch of the Ayelet Hashachar initiative to create a promenade in Kiryat Shmona to commemorate Jewish COVID victims from around the world. (photo from IMP)
“What is the main defining characteristic of the COVID-19 era?” asks public activist Rabbi Shlomo Raanan. “The coronavirus brought about separation and disconnect. It separates between countries, divides communities and splits families. It’s about being lonely and alone. My goal is to foster connection. Every Jew has an intrinsic connection to Israel. Let’s help them develop that connection and make it grow.”
Raanan’s organization, Ayelet Hashachar, has recently launched an initiative to foster connection with Diaspora Jewry: a promenade in Kiryat Shmona to commemorate Jewish COVID victims from around the world. More than 100 olive trees will line the kilometre-long walkway. Each tree will represent a different Jewish community from across the globe, serving as a vehicle to commemorate members who passed away from the coronavirus. Visitors to the site can learn about the communities and members who succumbed to COVID by standing next to the tree and getting the story on a dedicated app via a QR code. Each community will have its own mini-site, featuring eulogies, historical anecdotes and any extra information the community wishes to include, for a bona fide living memorial.
“Throughout the years, Diaspora Jewry has always been there for Israel,” said Raanan, explaining what inspired him to reach out to Diaspora communities and provide this free service. “We felt that the time had come for us, here in Israel, to show them our solidarity and support during this very challenging time.”
The significance of the location of the commemorative promenade is not limited to the views of Mount Hermon that Kiryat Shmona affords. Israel’s northernmost city is no stranger to bereavement – its very name commemorates eight people, including hero Joseph Trumpeldor, who were killed, in 1920, while defending the area. More recently, the proximity of Kiryat Shmona to the Lebanese border has made it a frequent target for terror and rocket attacks.
Kiryat Shmona is a symbol of Jewish determination and tenacity. Off the beaten track, it needs to invest twice the effort to make itself relevant to the centre of the country. Despite the hardships associated with leading a border city, Mayor Avihay Shtern has been making strides to promote development and attract residents. The growing food-tech industry and the establishment of large academic institutions are examples of those efforts.
“I am proud and gratified to have this opportunity to reach out to Diaspora communities and commemorate their COVID victims,” said Shtern. “There are many memorials, but I’ve yet to see one honouring those who succumbed to the pandemic, even though we’re almost a year in, and it’s taken such a heavy toll globally.”
Shtern noted that the walkway, to be named “the Path of Life,” will serve as “a living history lesson” for local residents, as well as the many visitors and tourists who flock to the Upper Galilee. “I think it’s important for us to remember, and for the children of the future to know, what happened during this period. The coronavirus will soon disappear, but we must never forget those who were lost to the disease.”
A grand opening ceremony for the promenade was held on March 4, with the participation of the mayor, Raanan, senior public figures, as well as Jewish Agency chair Isaac (Bougie) Herzog.
Each tree, a story
Raanan sees special significance in planting trees as commemoration. “There is a beautiful verse in the book of Job: ‘For a tree has hope; if it is cut it will again renew itself and its bough will not cease.’ Trees signify revival, particularly olive trees,” he said. “They are a perfect metaphor for the Jewish people. Even when it looks lifeless, the olive tree still retains vitality deep inside. Olive trees are also very adaptive; they survive tough periods and can live for thousands of years. It’s certainly appropriate that the olive tree is the symbol of the state of Israel.”
Raanan welcomes community leaders and members who wish to have their community represented by a tree on the promenade. His staff of web developers will prepare the relevant text and visual material at no charge.
“The coronavirus separated people from their loved ones, often forcing victims to die alone,” he said. “This memorial accomplishes the opposite, bringing communities together and uniting people.”
Raanan has other plans to connect Diaspora Jewry with Israel, as well.
Parallel to the commemoration project in Kiryat Shmona, he is offering interested communities the opportunity to plant not just one tree but an entire olive orchard. “There are vast tracts of land across Israel that are neglected…. Communities can plant their own orchards in areas of national importance – the Galilee, the Negev, the Jordan Valley,” he said.
Of established projects, Raanan’s Chavrutah program was started more than two decades ago, with the aim of encouraging dialogue between secular and religious Israelis. The program now features close to 20,000 people studying in partnerships, in Israel and abroad.
Ayelet Hashachar’s goal in all its projects is to heal the divisiveness of Israeli society by working to eliminate mistrust between sectors, thereby breaking stereotypes and encouraging mutual respect.
For more information about how to have a community featured in the Path of Life commemoration project, email [email protected] or call 97-252-617-6222.
– Courtesy International Marketing and Promotion (IMP)