Czech Republic Volunteers Fly in to Work in Carmel Forest

“Contrary to popular belief in Israel, most people in the Czech Republic respect the Jewish nation and Israel." - Rudolf Vrba, volunteer
Six volunteers from the Czech Republic, hailing from different professional fields and backgrounds, came to Israel especially to volunteer for 10 days in the Carmel Forest, an annual tradition since the great fires there in 2010. Each visitor had a story to tell about how he got here.
Thursday, January 19 - The buzz of chainsaws and the thudding of shovels punctuated the ambience of the sunny winter morning in the Carmel Forest near the Ofer Junction, where six volunteers from the Czech Republic were hard at work.
Their mission was to begin the preparation of a new 40-kilometer off-road bicycle track, which is being planned to meander through the hilly area’s dense woodland. The massive piles of tree cuttings and debris onsite belied the fact that this was the only the volunteers’ second day on the job. 
Stanislav Bocek, the leader of the group, said that they hope to get even more done on that day because the previous day was very wet and stormy. 
“We are here in Israel to work and to contribute. That is why we came, and that is what we all volunteered for. The more we will do in the nine days that we are here, the happier we will be. ”
The group members stopped for a short rest that morning to go to the nearby KKL-JNF offices to meet Yehudit Perl-Strasser of KKL-JNF’s European Desk, KKL-JNF Projects and Events Director Mira Zer, and other KKL-JNF officials who had arrived to welcome them. Also attending was Michael Kraus, who is a childhood friend of Michal Pacovsky, President of KKL-JNF Czech Republic.
Yehudit Perl-Strasser presented the guests with a brief explanation of the work of KKL-JNF.
“Unlike most European countries, Israel does not have a Forestry Ministry or any other government ministry that is charged with forestry. Since the beginning of the last century, well before the establishment of the State, all forests came under the responsibility of KKL-JNF.  That is not surprising because almost all of the trees in this country, including those in this forest around us, were hand planted by people like you, who volunteered to assist KKL-JNF.”
Yehudit pointed to the KKL-JNF logo on the shirt of Yaakov Cohen, the manager of the KKL-JNF offices in the Southern Carmel Range who was hosting the group and said: “The three colors of our logo describe the three major spheres that KKL-JNF is involved in. Green represents tree planting and nature conservation. The blue symbolizes water and all aspects of water management. After the heavy rains you witnessed yesterday, you probably think that Israel has abundant water supplies, but that is not the case. We experience a severe lack of water and we have to be creative to overcome this problem. And lastly the brown is for the earth, and activities such as land reclamation, the settling of new communities and road laying.”
Bocek, who has accompanied groups to Israel several times during the last 10 years, in turn pointed to the badge on his jacket which bore the words: “Aid for the Carmel Forest” in Hebrew and Czech , around the images of a pine tree and an oak tree.
“This is our badge and logo. Our initiative began in 2010 when my colleague Karl Kana, who is a veteran forest engineer, heard about the severe fire in the Carmel Range which killed 44 people and damaged a large part of the forest. He decided that he needed to help and realized that there were others in the Czech Republic with the same feeling. One thing led to the next and Karl soon had an invitation from Dr. Omri Boneh, KKL-JNF’s Chief Scientist and Head of the Northern District, to come and help. We have been coming once a year ever since. Last year we came twice. The second visit last year was just two months ago, in November, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Czech Republic.”
The current group was staying at the nearby village of Kerem Maharal in a house that was made available by a local resident. The visitors were delighted to hear that Kerem Maharal was founded in 1949 by Czech immigrants who had survived the Holocaust.  ‘MaHaRaL’ an acronym of the name of the 16th century chief Rabbi of Prague, Moreinu HaRav Loew.
Mira Zerhanded each participant a KKL-JNF T-shirt with the words “KKL-JNF volunteer” emblazoned in green across the front, accompanied by the KKL-JNF logo. She asked each guest to tell her why he had decided to come and volunteer in Israel.The first person to answer was Roman Sova who was sporting a pair of long peyot, ritual sidelocks, and displaying his tzitziot, ritual fringes. While working outdoors, he wore a woolen hat that bore the words Na Nach Nachma Nachman, a phrase associated with the Hassidic Rebbe of Breslov Rabbi Nachman.
“I have a wife and three children and we live as practicing Jews”, said Sova. “My father’s mother was Jewish and that always fascinated me. When I married my wife and she told me that she also had Jewish roots, I decided that I had found the path in life that I was looking for. Coming to Israel to volunteer to help build the country is a natural part of that.”
Petr Jezek, who is an IT specialist and speaks English, was translating Roman Sova’s words. He told Mira that he believes he also has Jewish roots. “I was examining our family tree and it became obvious to me that I had a Jewish connection. My theory was confirmed to be true by the anger generated by my grandfather when I questioned him about it.  He was an outspoken anti-Semite.” Petr said that he had warm feelings for Israel and had no incentive to volunteer in any other country.
This was the second volunteering stint in Israel for Rudolf Vrba, who said: “Contrary to popular belief in Israel, most people in the Czech Republic respect the Jewish nation and Israel. We are mostly Catholic and we all know where we came from.”
Pavel Kana,who works in a steel mill back home,said that he loves Israel. “I heard about this initiative from a friend who had participated in the past. The possibility to come and volunteer for KKL-JNF in the Carmel Forest has become well known in church circles back home. I think there are more applications to attend than places available.”
Dalibor Pisula told Mira that he came on board because he wanted to get away for a break and he heard from a friend what a good time was to be had in Israel. “I was touched to hear that we came to work in the forest at the time of the Jewish festival of Tu Bishvat, which is the New Year for trees. It appears that the timing of the trip came from above.”
During the festive tea break, Omar, the group’s driver, took the opportunity to teach his passengers a few words in Hebrew. While holding up a piece of sliced orange he pointed to the fruit and said: “Say after me, ‘Tapuz’.” ‘Tapuz’ they all repeated in unison.
Later back in the field, while sawing through the low branches of a tree alongside the bicycle route, Stanislav Bocek said that there were indeed more applicants than places available and that people often have to wait for the next trip. “Our work is also supported by our churches and we receive donations to further this cause”, he said.
Mira Zer asked the participants to compose an itinerary of places around Israel that they would like to see, and that she would arrange to facilitate the visits. Bocek thanked Mira and KKL-JNF for the hospitality and the offer. He reminded her that they had come to work and that tourism was a lesser priority for them.