Monday, April 27, 2009 10:14 AM
"On Monday, July 8, 1997, the Jewish world watched as delegations from all over the world prepared to enter Israel's Ramat Gan stadium with great fanfare. The Fifteenth Maccabiah Games were about to begin. The Australian delegation, one of the first to cross the bridge over the Yarkon River leading to the stadium, was also one of the largest – 373 sportsmen and women, demonstrating the warmth and support of Australian Jews for Israel. In one terrible moment, everything was destroyed. The bridge collapsed, leading to the deaths of four athletes and the injury of many others."
KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler was speaking at the dedication ceremony of the Yarkon River and Surroundings Rehabilitation Project on Sunday, April 26, describing how the Australian Jewish community rallied to rehabilitate the heavily polluted river, the primary cause of the Australian athletes' deaths.
"As we bear our shame for this human failing, you, our friends from Australia, came to our aid. Those who were in dire need of consolation consoled us. You decided to support the rehabilitation of the Yarkon River and its environs, a decision that moves us to tears. This year in July, we will once again be celebrating the Maccabiah Games, and once again, the Australian delegation will be one of the two largest delegations participating. It has been an honor for us to have KKL-JNF serve as the bridge between Israel and Australia and to help you realize your vision for the river. In one word – todah – thank you."
Sights from the rehabilitation project. Photo: KKL Photos Archive
Along with World Chairman Stenzler, the audience at the dedication ceremony included two JNF Australia missions currently visiting Israel; His Excellency James Larsen, Australian ambassador to Israel; Ms. Yael Dayan, Deputy Mayor of Tel-Aviv Jaffa; Mr. David Pargament, General Director of the Yarkon River Authority; KKL-JNF Deputy Chairman Yigal Yasinov; and federal presidents of JNF Australia from the past, present and future: former Federal President Michael Naphtali, outgoing Federal President, Ron Ferster, and Graham Leonard, the incoming Federal President. The ceremony was expertly emceed by Mr. Rob Schneider, CEO of JNF Australia, himself one of the main forces behind the rehabilitation project.
Tel-Aviv Jaffa Deputy Mayor Yael Dayan, who represented the mayor, Ron Huldai, thanked KKL-JNF for this gift to her city and promised that the municipality would make certain that future generations will always remember the Yarkon positively: "I also have a personal connection to Australia. My family lived in the north during World War II, and there were Australian soldiers stationed there. They would let us wear their hats, which, as children, we loved. When my father, Moshe Dayan, lost his eye, he was together with an Australian soldier by the name of Griffin, who helped evacuate him after his injury. A few years ago, my mother spoke in Australia and a few hours after her speech, she received a call from Griffin, giving her a sense of a closure. Thank you for your gift. We will never forget your commitment and generosity."
Efi Stenzler remarked that the Australian ambassador to Israel, His Excellency James Larsen, was "not just a friend of KKL-JNF, he is more like family." The Ambassador himself said that the Yarkon rehabilitation project represented a positive reaction to a terrible disaster: "I believe that relationships between countries are about relationships between people, and I greatly admire the Australian people who were so badly affected, yet chose to support an environmentally sustainable project carried out by KKL-JNF in Israel. I am both honored and also humbled to be here today. I have no doubt that this project will stand the test of time."
Yarkon river. Photo: KKL Photos Archive
The concluding speaker at the ceremony was Ms. Lynn Zines, the widow of Warren Zines, one of the four people who lost their lives at the bridge tragedy. "It is with mixed emotions that I stand here today, representing both myself and the other families affected by the Maccabiah bridge tragedy. My journey has been long, hard and arduous. This tragedy took the life of Warren, my childhood sweetheart, who was a dedicated husband and father, and put a smile on the face of everyone who met him. For a long time, I was not certain whether or not to attend this ceremony, and now that I am here, I know that I made the right decision. Warren and I shared a deep love for Israel, and I can not imagine a greater mitzvah than this project, which is about rebirth and revitalization. I pray for the safe return of Gilad Shalit and for Israel's peace and prosperity. Happy Israel Independence Day to us all!"
The moving ceremony concluded with the unveiling of dedication plaques honoring some of the major supporters of the project, many of whom were present in the audience.
The Memorable Moments Mission, one of the two Australian delegations currently in Israel, spent the day leading up to the ceremony visiting different sites along the Yarkon River and learning about how the rehabilitation project actually works. Their guide was David Pargament, the General Director of the Yarkon River Authority, who began his explanations about 14 kilometers upstream, near the Hod Hasharon industrial park. We stood on a nearby roof from which we could see the bulldozers hard at work. Mr. Pargament explained about what they were up to: "The first 7.5 kilometers of the Yarkon, from the headsprings at Rosh Ha'ayin until this site, are clean and unpolluted. This is where the trouble starts, so in order to deal with it, we are creating what we call 'constructed wetlands' here. Effluents treated at a purification plant two kilometers away will be channeled to the two parallel systems you see being built here. Although they might look like large pools, in fact, they will not hold water, but will fill and empty with water five to six times a day. The systems will be filled with aggregates and eventually covered by vegetation, so visitors will see green lawns and paths. The water that has been treated in this matter will then be channeled to the Yarkon, where it will run freely until the Seven Stations site, about seven kilometers downstream, where it meets the sea water in the estuary.
"Dealing with a major project like the rehabilitation of the Yarkon River is very complicated, because there are so many public and private factors involved, many of them with conflicting interests. For example, the farmers who have been using the river water until now. It's very nice to have the water running in the river, but what of the farmers' source of livelihood? In order to meet that challenge, we are building a pumping station near the Seven Stations, which will have two pipelines. One will provide water for the irrigation of the Yarkon Park, while the other will channel the water to the east, where it will be used for agriculture. In this manner, the river will be restored and the farmers will still have water for their crops.
Initiation ceremony of the project. Photo: KKL Photos Archive
"There is something I want to say to you as head of the Yarkon River Authority. JNF Australia decided to back this project before municipal and governmental authorities realized just how important it is. After you were on board, I could say to the various authorities, 'Look, the Australians, who suffered such a terrible tragedy as a result of our neglect of the Yarkon, are supporting the project. It's your backyard, and the least you can do is to help clean it up.' You were and are critical for the project's success."
The delegation's next stop was a difficult one – the site where the Maccabiah bridge actually collapsed. After a few quiet moments of commemoration, Mr. Ron Ferster, outgoing Federal President of JNF Australia, spoke to the group: "This is a very emotional moment for us. We remember those who lost their lives unnecessarily and those who have been scarred forever. My daughter and wife were on the bridge when it collapsed. It is our responsibility to ensure that as a result of our efforts, the life system that we are helping to create here will be better than the one we were brought to then. Standing here today, along with the bitter memories, I have a sense of satisfaction about what has been achieved and I am reminded that hope reigns supreme."
In answer to questions from the group asked while standing on the bridge, David Pargament explained that life was indeed returning to the Yarkon River: "I would say that we are about 60% of the way through the rehabilitation project. As you see, ducks and other wildlife are already to be seen, and the Yarkon lavnoun (bleak), a fish sort of like a sardine that is endemic to the river, has been reintroduced to all sections of the Yarkon and is thriving. We want the river to be able to repair itself, and for it to be able to do so, we need more water and better quality water. That is what a lot of the rehabilitation project is about."
After a visit to the Seven Stations, where an ancient water mill is being reconstructed, one of the members of the group, Naomi Elias, told us that she was in Israel for the first time. "We have been here about a week, and I am so happy, I think this must be the best way to see Israel. My only connection with KKL-JNF in the past had been buying a few trees, but now I see its part in building a modern and vibrant country. I've found it to be absolutely fascinating."
The significance of the Yarkon River and Surroundings Rehabilitation Project is perhaps best expressed in the inscription engraved on the stone at the new Donor's Appreciation site:
"The Jewish National Fund of Australia has dedicated the Yarkon River and Surrounds Rehabilitation Project in blessed memory of the victims of the 1997 Maccabiah Games bridge collapse: Yettie Bennet, z"l; Elizabeth Sawicki, z"l; Greg Small, z"l; Warren Zines, z"l and in honor of those who survived this terrible ordeal.
"The Jewish National Fund of Australia, with the help of its generous supporters and benefactors, has undertaken this project as a living legacy for the benefit of all who will now be able to enjoy the revitalized river and parklands."