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Building bridges over divided communities - The work of Jerusalem Botanical Gardens

Volume 8 Number 1 - April 2011

Sue Surkes

French:  Passerelles entre communautés divisées: le travail des Jardins Botaniques de Jérusalem
Spanish: Construyendo puentes en comunidades divididas: el trabajo de los Jardines Botánicos en Jerusalén

Nowhere are ethnic, political and religious tensions starker and seemingly more intractable than across the Arab-Israeli divide. Sue Surkes reports on a courageous initiative launched by Jerusalem Botanical Gardens to bring Arab and Israeli children together through the medium of plant education.


What is the role of a botanic garden, in a city claimed by three world religions that is home to people speaking more than 100 languages?  This is the challenging question to be answered by the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens (JBG), a 45-acre green lung in the centre of Israel’s biggest and fastest growing metropolis.

The Gardens, located next to the Hebrew University campus and close to Israel’s parliament, supreme court, and museums, are custodians of the country’s largest plant collection, holding some 10,000 species.

Three years ago, management of JBG passed to Oren Ben-Yosef, a young, energetic, Jerusalem native looking for a challenge. Since then, he has reorganized the Gardens’ staff and championed a huge growth in activities. At 180,000, annual visitor numbers have already more than doubled.  “I came to the Gardens knowing nothing about plants”, says Ben-Yosef, who trained as a social worker, then worked in education, and eventually became a consultant to Israel's Nature and Parks Authority on content design.  “We are putting ourselves on the map by developing more activities for a wider range of audiences”. Jim Farley, a past president of what is now the San Diego Botanic Garden Foundation, told me that "plants grow people." This is so true that we have adopted the motto too. “Whether it's gifted children or convicts doing community service; whether it's able-bodied or special needs youngsters, or adults who have suffered head injuries … we see that this place benefits them all.”

Finding a common ground

The principal fault line in Jerusalem runs between Jews and mainly Muslim Arabs. Children from each side speak different languages (Hebrew and Arabic) and study in their own schools. Social contact between them is next to nil. But a year before Ben-Yosef began his new job JBG piloted a coexistence course which has since gone from strength to strength.

Plants are the common ground on which mixed groups of 9- to 11-year-olds come together, for hands-on activities to do with subjects ranging from spice and olive oil production, to the creation of home cures from plant extracts. The youngsters communicate freely using a sort of pigeon tongue, or in creative non-verbal ways, and their teachers are on hand to translate when necessary. Nine meetings are held at the Gardens, but for the tenth meeting children visit each others’ schools for planting – an event of great pride for the hosting children, parents and teachers alike.

Plants are not only politically neutral, they form an important part of the daily lives and traditions of both communities so that youngsters from either background are able to contribute equally to the experience and knowledge base of the other. For many children, this is the only opportunity they will have to meet peers from the ‘other side’, and it is therefore a critical tool in efforts to break down stereotypes.

This year, JBG plan to design a young environmental leadership course that will be adapted for different populations according to their specific needs and sensitivities. The idea is to bring groups of young people to the Gardens for a year of workshops on plants and leadership. Graduates will then take their knowledge back to their own communities, spending two years helping to create community or school gardens and/or butterfly gardens. “This is a new direction for us,” says Ben-Yosef. “We would be very happy to hear from other Gardens running programmes of this kind.”

‘The almond symbolizes diligence’

Also included in JBG’s sights are ultra-orthodox Jews, who account for just under a quarter of the city’s population. These children attend separate schools and have negligible contact with the modern world. Boys, in particular, focus on the study of religious texts and pay scant, if any, attention to secular subjects such as science.

“We're bringing orthodox kids out of their study halls into the fresh air for nature-related experiences they would otherwise have much less of,” says Leah Garzon, JBG’s director of education. One project involves sending Garden staff out into the religious community, to build school gardens together with children and their teachers. A new initiative is to provide teacher training for young orthodox teacher trainees.

“Trees appear in the Old Testament as symbols,” says guide, Malkah Abuloff.  “The almond symbolizes diligence – and for good botanical reason. It is the first tree to flower in the spring yet its fruits take a long time to mature and can last for years. The mulberry, though, does everything quickly. It’s here today, gone tomorrow. If you blink, you’ll miss the flowers. The fruits are hardly on the tree before they over-ripen and fall. The girls I took round listened wide-eyed when I went into these biblical analogies. It’s a perspective they haven’t heard before.”To reach broader audiences interested in biblical plants, Christians and Muslims among them, JBG are currently upgrading a Bible Path. This means new plantings, new ‘outdoor classroom’ areas, attractive interpretational aids in Hebrew, Arabic and English (an audio-visual guide will add several more languages) and innovative programming. “In biblical times, people were farmers; they were surrounded by plants,” says content designer, Tamar Linchevsky. “The Bible uses plant metaphors to guide human behaviour. It’s a language people understood.”

Online – the flora of the Holy Land

One exciting new venture involves JBG’s head scientist, Dr Ori Fragman-Sapir, who is developing an international online course on the flora of the Holy Land. Several botanic gardens have already expressed interest in taking the course on.

The online studies – aimed at amateur plant and gardening enthusiasts, botanists and bible scholars alike - will conclude with an optional one-week botanical tour of Israel lead by Dr Fragman-Sapir, a leading authority on wild Israeli flora. Israel sits at the junction between Europe, Asia and Africa, and with some 2,500 native species, is rich in biodiversity.

The Jerusalem Botanical Gardens are divided into geographical sections, a fact that is helping staff to develop a new mission statement and strategic plan. “Geography, diversity of all kinds, and the links between people and plants will underpin the direction we take,” says CEO, Ben-Yosef.  “Plants, in all their diversity, manage to live together. Perhaps they can help us to do so too.”



Certaines choses sont tout simplement instinctives et la curiosité des enfants pour la nature semble être l'une d'entre elles. Le langage secret entre les enfants et les arbres, la boue, les pierres, les bâtons et les fleurs peut transformer les jardins botaniques en hauts lieux de création de passerelles par-delà les barrières raciales, politiques, religieuses et linguistiques.

Les Jardins botaniques de Jérusalem (JBG) sont situés dans une ville construite sur les fossés entre Israéliens et arabes; juifs, musulmans, et chrétiens; religieux et laïques; ainsi que les locuteurs de différentes langues.

Les programmes innovants du JBG utilisent les plantes pour encourager la coexistence et le contact entre différents groupes. L'un des projets rassemble des groupes mixtes d'enfants juifs et arabes pour qu'ils réalisent des activités pratiques sur des sujets allant de la préparation d'épices à la fabrication de parfums et de cosmétiques à partir d'extraits de plantes. L'une des dix rencontres consiste en un échange de visites entre les enfants d’une école à l’autre pour effectuer des plantations – un évènement d’honneur pour les enfants qui accueillent, de même que pour parents et enseignants.

Un autre projet invite des garçons ultra-orthodoxes à sortir de leur salle d'étude pour mener des activités dans les jardins.


Parece ser que entre las cualidades intrínsecas de los niños se encuentra su curiosidad por la naturaleza. Existe un leguaje invisible entre ellos, los árboles, la tierra, las piedras, ramillas y flores que hasta cierto grado pueden ser utilizados por los jardines botánicos como herramientas para construir puentes a través de barreras raciales, políticas, religiosas y lingüísticas.

Los jardines botánicos de Jerusalén (JBG) se encuentran entre poblaciones israelíes, judías, musulmanas y cristianas; religiosas y laicas; y además con diferentes idiomas.

Los programas innovadores de los JBG utilizan las plantas para animar la co-existencia de grupos de niños árabes y judíos, así juntos disfrutan actividades en temas variados como son preparación de especias, perfumes, cosméticos, todos ellos extraídos de plantas. Se efectúan unas 10 reuniones y en una de ella, niños padres y profesores visitan entre ellos a las diferentes escuelas, con eventos de ‘sembrar’ en el que todos ellos participan por igual.

Como parte de otro proyecto, en este caso, alumnos de las escuelas ultra-ortodoxas, es el traer a los niños de ellas para actividades en los mismos jardines.



Sue Surkes
Education Officer
Jerusalem Botanical Gardens
The Hebrew University
Givat Ram, 91904
91904 Israel

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