Why did organizers of the recent American Public Gardens Association conference include two Israelis in a panel discussion on public gardens as agents of social empowerment?

Because the Social and Environmental Hub at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens is unlike anything the world has ever seen.

Cofounders Lior Gottesman and Adi Bar-Yoseph travel widely to talk about the Jerusalem model for making botanical gardens relevant to the lives of city dwellers.

Lior Gottesman, cofounder of the Social and Environmental Hub of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, in the tropical conservatory. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Lior Gottesman, cofounder of the Social and Environmental Hub of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, in the tropical conservatory. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

“I’m really passionate about connecting the environment and people in a sustainable way,” Gottesman tells ISRAEL21c on a tour of the 32-acre facility surrounded by seven neighborhoods, the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus and the Gazelle Valley urban nature park.

“A lot of people, when they think about green issues, imagine tree-hugging hippies. For me it has to do with social justice and social inclusion, food security and other super important issues in cities.”

 ‘We see ourselves as enablers for people who need something from the gardens and can contribute something to the gardens.’

Gottesman, 30, was hired two years ago to coordinate 21 social-environmental programs running separately at the gardens by a variety of Jerusalem nonprofits for populations such as adults with mental illness or autism, veterans suffering from PTSD, prisoners, senior citizens, Holocaust survivors and Arab schoolchildren.

Zel Lederman, a curator at the gardens from 1994 to 2004, felt that uniting Jerusalem’s environmental organizations around a collaborative hub would maximize efficiency, transparency and potential. His family’s philanthropic foundation partnered with the California-based Leichtag Foundation to plant the seeds.

A seniors and Holocaust survivors program at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Photo: courtesy
A seniors and Holocaust survivors program at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Photo: courtesy

“We felt we needed a new concept that would inspire people and put the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens on the map. And we needed to bring the communities of Jerusalem into the picture,” Lederman tells ISRAEL21c.

“Lior spent a year mapping the needs of 70 organizations working in environment and sustainability in Jerusalem, and developing a master plan. For the past eight years, since the arrival of Oren Ben-Yosef as director general, the motto of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens has been “Plants Grow People.” Suddenly we see this blossoming in a new way.”

The Social and Environmental Hub’s Sustainable Gardens in Kindergartens program is a hit. Photo: courtesy
The Social and Environmental Hub’s Sustainable Gardens in Kindergartens program is a hit. Photo: courtesy

Among the hub’s first sponsored projects were the Kaima hydroponic greenhouse where high-school dropouts grow marketable greens at the Botanical Gardens; a unique interconnected garden planted at the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem by seven organizations including the Onya Collective; and mini gardens established at 10 Arab, 10 haredi and 10 secular Jewish preschools.

By next year, the hub and its members will be anchored in a building next to Kaima’s greenhouse, constructed to high green standards by volunteers using repurposed containers.

Change agents accepted into the hub — environmental entrepreneurs, environmental artists and designers, urban planners, social activists, gardeners and urban farmers — will have access to the professional staff of the botanical gardens, from Head Gardener Eli Becker to Head Scientist Ori Fragman-Sapir.

The hub’s staff, from top clockwise: David Mendelbaum, Maayan Shiri, Lior Gottesman, Adi Bar-Yoseph, Nir Lahav. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Botanical Gardens
The hub’s staff, from top clockwise: David Mendelbaum, Maayan Shiri, Lior Gottesman, Adi Bar-Yoseph, Nir Lahav. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Botanical Gardens

Gottesman describes some of the current and future participants.

There’s Abigail, an urban planner who dreams of a garden on every Jerusalem roof but doesn’t have the facilities or resources to offer training. Adi hopes to set up 52 urban food forests in Jerusalem in the next three years and needs to learn which plants to grow. Yuval, head of a startup for water solutions in developing countries, receives business development support and R&D facilities.

“We can save them all a lot of time in finding connections and gaining knowledge,” says Gottesman, who has a master’s degree in sustainable economics.

“They’ll do networking through events and an online platform, and we’ll even have a local currency, lira Yerushalmi, that allows all the different services to be exchanged. In this way, the Hub facilitates a strong professional network.”

The Hub eventually will house an accelerator for ag-tech startups as well as social-environmentalist volunteers and interns from other countries.

“We see ourselves as enablers for people who need something from the gardens and can contribute something to the gardens,” Gottesman explains. “We provide a supportive framework to create an atmosphere where serendipity can happen. It will be a place where people can demonstrate what they do and where they can train and work together.”

Arab Jerusalem teens learning about sustainable gardening at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Photo: courtesy
Arab Jerusalem teens learning about sustainable gardening at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens. Photo: courtesy

Gottesman expects the Social and Environmental Hub to be 70 percent self-sustaining within five years. One source of income will be a social gardening company under the auspices of Israel’s Dualis Social Venture Fund. Nonprofit and for-profit enterprises will be able to rent outdoor spaces as well as offices in the garden’s bucolic setting.

Lederman already considers the new project a success. It will be included as a case-study chapter in a book from Cambridge Press, he points out, and Gottesman is constantly being invited to speak at botanical gardens and at conferences of global organizations including Botanic Gardens Conservation International  and the IUCN World Conservation Congress.

“For many people, botanical gardens in the 21st century are just irrelevant, and across the world there are efforts to change this by bringing in new audiences,” says Gottesman. “What we are doing here in Jerusalem is taking it to a new level. And we built it in a way that can be copied in other communities.”

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