Participants in the Heschel Center’s Environmental Fellows program – solving environmental issues through social change.Migrant workers manoeuvre through a south Tel Aviv neighborhood traffic peddling reams of colorful fabric on their rickshaws. Muslim women dressed in hijab zigzag around fresh carrot juice stands to enter wholesale clothing shops; a young woman in platform heels carries a half-finished canvas to a nearby art school.

These images, mixed with the heady smells of an oriental spice market and car fumes, are typical on Herzl Street in south Tel Aviv – a place where cultures from the east and west meet and sometimes collide.

It is appropriate then that in the midst of this action, you can find the headquarters of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, an environmental education training facility devoted to helping cultures from the east and west live in harmony.

“Our approach is solving environmental issues through social change in Israel,” says American-born Dr. Eilon Schwartz, the founder and director of Heschel, “We never dissociate the environment from the society that lives in it, making our environmental approach attractive and different from models used in other western countries such as America and Australia.”

Advisor, mentor, and educator to green organizations, politicians, universities and religious communities – the Heschel Center is arguably the heart and mind behind Israel’s environmental movement.

If you open a newspaper in Israel and read an environmental expose – chances are staff from the Heschel Center had a hand in it; same is true if you hear about Muslim religious leaders learning about recycling practices in Israel; or that art schools in Jerusalem are teaching courses on sustainable design.

Housed with other non-governmental organizations in Tel Aviv’s ‘Green Building’,
Heschel Center’s activities range far and wide. But at its core is a one-year Environmental Fellows program that disseminates culturally relevant environmental education to communities across the country. The fellows, who consist of journalists, lawyers, architects and politicians, meet once a week at the Center where they are given the language and skills needed to integrate environmental practices into every aspect of their career. About 20 fellows a year participate and learn everything from the basics of lobbying in the government on green issues, to setting up their own environmental businesses.

“Our strategy is not on victories or issues,” Schwartz told ISRAEL21c. “We are doing capacity building for a whole society. We show leaders how to plan a different and sustainable vision for agriculture and transportation and one that includes community involvement.”

Admitting that environmental victories are important, Schwartz credits other Israeli green organizations for taking that lead.

“Instead, we find a cadre of leaders that will lead individual sectors and network amongst each other. We are not just working with ecologists or lawyers or environmental scientists. And people get excited about that,” he said.

People like Hussein Tarabieh, an Israeli Arab from Sakhnin in Israel’s north, who is using skills from his Heschel fellowship experience to establish peaceful ties between like-minded Israelis and their Palestinian neighbours.

Tarabieh graduated from the first class of Heschel Fellows eight years ago. As the general manager of his town’s environmental education center, Tarabieh made the once-a-week journey to Tel Aviv for a year to learn how to communicate green issues better.

“I knew how to present scientific environmental evidence to people who came through my center,” says Tarabieh who teaches youth and adults, “but Heschel helped to give me the language in a social context that people in my community could really absorb.

“The establishment of the Heschel Center and its programs has helped promote and accelerate the environment movement in Israel, mainly in the area of leadership activities. All the people that learn there get a new vision for their work toward a sustainable Israel,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Today Tarabieh teaches about 50,000 people every year, where he transmits policies of Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection to an Arab-speaking population that might otherwise not receive this information at schools or at work.

But Tarabieh is not stopping at his hometown. He recently signed an agreement with politicians in the Palestinian Authority to help transfer the much-needed basics of environmental health to Palestinians. In the Gaza Strip, for example, the raw sewage of two million people gets dumped straight into the sea without passing through a processing plant.

“I am using environmental education as a bridge of peace to promote green and energy conservation activities,” Tarabieh said.

Nisreen Mazzawi, an Israeli-Arab woman and environmental activist who studied as a Heschel fellow last year, has run a successful class for Arab women living in the north.

“Arab people in Israel aren’t really associating environmental issues with politics and the economy, but this class was amazing for them,” Mazzawi told ISRAEL21c.

With all that experience behind it, the Heschel Center is ready to take on the world. Schwartz said he is currently working with Brown University to put together a coalition of like-minded partner organizations from around the world, to learn from each other’s work; and with the Wuppertal Institute in Germany, to co-develop initiatives in environmental purchasing.

“One of Israel’s greatest strengths is that the country is an ideal beta site for testing environmental policy and projects,” notes David Pearlman Paran, Heschel’s resource development coordinator.

“Israel is a small country, and some sectors are relatively undeveloped when it comes to environmental education, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Paran added, pointing to Bedouin villages in Israel’s south as an example.

Once a nomadic people, Bedouins now look to establish the basic infrastructure of modern life such as electricity and running water in their villages, some remotely located. A recent project, developed in part by Heschel, outfitted an entire village with solar panels to serve the community’s basic energy needs.

To further facilitate the Bedouin’s transition to western life, a Heschel fellow is helping to implement a low-interest microfinancing loan system in their communities, so that every family that wants to, will be able to afford solar panels.

“Maybe we can help the Bedouins skip the stage that the west went through of using polluting fuel such as oil,” suggests Paran. “As Israelis, and living in a small country where information travels quickly – we can learn from the mistakes that other countries have made, and can present good arguments as to why developing communities should use solar power straight away.”

The urban environment in places like Tel Aviv, notes Paran, is also a priority for Heschel’s educators who often go to schools or are called on by tourist operators to give “sustainable city” tours. Paran also makes himself available at the drop of a hat, to give contacts and research to journalists reporting on the environment.

Recently, Paran was proud to report on a pilot project initiated by Heschel, which will be used to show Israelis how to green the urban office space. Among its other projects Heschel has also set up a support program for university graduates studying ecological economics, and is about to launch a new sustainability education and action center for Israelis traveling in Katmandu, Nepal.

“We are the bubbling core of movements for social and environmental change in Israel,” said Paran.