The Heschel Center wants to promote awareness for sustainability in Israel by supporting activists and multipliers.
Although the matter has been gaining momentum around the world for quite a few years, in Israel, sustainability isn’t yet prevalent in public discussion. But for those who are on board for that goal there is one organisation which serves as a home - the Heschel Center for Sustainability. The centre was established in 1998 with a goal of creating a new horizon for prosperity and growth based on the development of environmental, social and economic capital. It is named after the American Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who preached for the love of creation and showed optimism and appreciation for human potential. The main activities of the organisation are to create connections between people and ideas, to create a critical mass for change and to identify and support the initial efforts and the change-agents, as the emerging core with the potential for creating substantial and widespread change.
Network with Kindred Spirits
“We see ourselves as networkers”, explains David Dunetz, the centre’s current CEO. “We see ourselves also as a home for people who want to engage in sustainability and to implement it, so they’ll have a source that draws ideas, energy and people. We have training and strategic development programs; people come, learn, and go out and spread the knowledge and insights in many and diverse initiatives. You can call our role leadership and change development.”
In 2011 a social protest erupted in Israel, which took to the streets over a million people calling for a more just distribution of resources, and initiated a long-term thought process about the interests of the general public – as opposed to the interests of the power-group that is well connected to the government. Even though some people say the protest didn’t change a thing, a variety of social initiatives in Israel have since emerged in different fields - economics, environment, education and society. All of these relate in essence to sustainability and to the public’s ability to live together in the long run. The Heschel Center seeks to empower these forces that feed on the knowledge it has to provide in regards to the development and distribution of such initiatives.
Training people in key positions
Dunetz explains that the center currently is active on two fronts: It encourages initiatives and promotes change coming from communities. “The base programme of the center upon which all programmes were built is the fellowship programme. We invite people who are in a position from which they can create a change - from the private sector, inside companies, from the public sector, in governmental offices and from the civic sector, in change-oriented organisations. It’s a diverse group and they go through a year of development and ‘charging’. Today there is a community of over 250 graduates, who are sustainability enablers is their respective fields.” The participants of the programme include men and women, jews and arabs, from Israel’s centres and the periphery, and the graduates of the program leave it with not only a developed personal vision and tools for implementing it, but also with a vast network of leading professionals from a variety of fields.
Lorit Leibowitz is the Director of Local Sustainability at the Heschel Center. In her view, the local scene has great potential for leveraging sustainability. “It’s a scale in which it’s easier for people from the community and from the local authority that want change to succeed and influence. We try to give tools to the local forces so that they’ll be able to promote sustainability and to transform and make ideas and new perceptions in the field of sustainability.” One of the channels through which the local sustainability centre promotes change is by conducting courses and training for officers in local authorities.
More liveable city
Another example of the organisation’s activity is in local sustainability centres, through a model called “sustainable neighborhood”. According to Leibowitz, “The idea is the look on a neighborhood scale, since that’s a place where it’s sometimes easier to start change. Also because the level of identification of the residents there is higher, and also because it enables the municipality to examine one specific area and not the entire city, which often seems impossible. Many people do things themselves, for example citizens that promote more bicycle paths or the shading of streets. Sustainability is everything that leads to the creation of a place in which everyone will be better off living.”
The first neighborhood in which this project took place is the Bitzaron neighborhood in Tel Aviv. It consists mostly of two-story houses built around little streets, and at the entrance to every house there is a small piece of land. Some of the participants of the course organised by the Heschel Center wanted to learn permaculture. The city funded the course and in return everyone who participated undertook to help other neighbours build a garden. “It’s not only an environmental project but it also improves the life of the local community”, says Leibowitz. This year the Tel Aviv municipality will add five more neighborhoods to the sustainable neighborhood model, and two neighborhoods in Jerusalem have entered the project in 2014.
There are still many new challenges regarding sustainability, state Leibowitz and Dunetz. Leibowitz concludes that “We still have much work to do on the awareness level and also on the system level, to take care of how the local and main authorities perceive sustainability. Today, it is at best perceived as a subject that needs to be promoted, as a closed division inside a specific office. The change we would like to achieve is for it to be part of a wide worldview, so that not only the Ministry of the Environment will operate according to this view, but that also the Interior, Finance and Economy ministries will. Sustainability will be like a pair of glasses through which decision makers look when planning the future.”