I Do Not Travel Light

by Sherri W. Morr

I mean to travel light; I just cannot seem to pull it off. When going to Israel for example, I start with several pair of khakis, jeans, sun dresses, and around 20 tee shirts (the requisite 2 for each day). But then all my insecurities come out and things get thrown in … fancy dress or two in case of unanticipated upscale event, jackets in case of extreme cold, rain wear because you never know, an assortment of shoes that would bowl over any security guard, and of course beach attire, because well, its Israel and who knows, I may get to the beach.

That’s just the clothes. It’s the emotions that take up the most room when I travel to Israel.

This past week along with the Carmel Forest fires raging, my own emotions have flared. After all, these are our trees that are burning, all our trees. Trees that were planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) for birthdays, college graduations, weddings, bar mitzvahs, deaths, and every imaginable simcha. Money the office staff collected and donated to buy trees in honor of a Jewish colleague. Sunday school children filled their blue boxes and sent the money to Israel to plant trees. My parents bought stamps, I filled slotted cards with dimes and quarters … all money sent to Israel to buy trees. And now, those trees, those green representatives of our lives in the Diaspora and elsewhere, have been burning all week. It has filled my heart with pain and sadness.

Having worked at JNF for 12 years I know what it takes to raise the money for a forest. I know the energy required to get to every synagogue and talk about the importance of trees to Israel … that yes the green offers lush landscaping, but the need for oxygen, the stability of the soil on hillsides is critical to the need to have trees. And so as they burned, all 5 million of them, over 12 acres, part of me cried.

Over the years of working in Jewish non profits, and speaking to many donors, some people kind of scoffed at all this tree planting. More trees they would say? Why? In previous fires, smaller ones, when the need was great for fire trucks, sometimes these same people were shocked that Israel’s fire system was so limited, sparse even. I guess Israel had other priorities. War, security, absorption … all these take time and money. Israel just did not have the sort of fire trucks and other heavy equipment necessary to fight major fires. Perhaps they hoped for no fires; perhaps they believed that Israelis were so grateful for their parks and recreation areas, they would always be careful, obey the rules, and not jeopardize the precious trees that made up those beautiful and valuable spaces that provide a welcome break from all too often tense life in Israel.

My first trip to Israel in 1969 was filled with awe and wonder. Disbelief that all this could exist in a desert. Huge universities, flower beds overlooking the beach, people living in hi-rise buildings; it seemed to me as though it had all been built on sand. I thought I would move there, make aliyah; be a pioneer, settle the land so to speak, maybe even be a big fish in a little pond. But it was not to be, and so every trip during the last 30 plus years, opens up all the wounds and pain of that decision. Every time I get the bags down and start the process of tee shirts and khakis, sooner or later the pang returns. Not living in Israel has made me a fierce Zionist, not the marching kind, nor the holding of placards, or writing letters to editors. Instead I just work steadfastly to connect people to Israel, one way or another. It has been highly satisfying, and still continues to be. One day aliyah may come, who knows.

What I do know is the need to carry forth the emotional and financial responsibility, whether to plant trees or buy fire trucks and equipment, or to send money to support a university. This is what we can do. This is what we must do.

Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in San Francisco.