All of us have stories of how the pandemic has kept us from seeing loved ones who live oceans away.
And what about loved ones who died oceans away?
I’ve been to several funerals and shiva houses over Zoom in the past year. While it’s the best that can be done right now, the feeling of helpless separation cannot be overcome.
Recently, I learned about a moving initiative here in Israel that aims to connect Jews across the world by commemorating covid-19 victims.
The sponsoring nonprofit organization, Ayelet Hashachar, is lining a half-mile promenade in Israel’s northernmost city, Kiryat Shmona, with olive trees. Each tree will represent one Jewish community somewhere in the world, serving as a living memorial to members of that community felled by the coronavirus.
Visitors to the site can access information about each community — individual eulogies, historical anecdotes, and any other information the community wishes to include — by pointing their smartphone’s QR reader to a code provided next to the tree.
The promenade is called Shvil HaChaim, the Path of Life.
Rabbi Shlomo Raanan founded Ayelet Hashachar — the name refers to a morning star and is shared with a nearby kibbutz — in 1997, with the vision of uniting religious and non-religious Jews in Israel through a variety of programs promoting mutual respect and tolerance.
He noted that diaspora Jewry has supported Israel in many ways before and after the state was founded in 1948. “We felt that the time had come for us, here in Israel, to show them our solidarity and support during this very challenging time,” he said.
“The coronavirus brought about separation and disconnect. It separated people from their loved ones, often forcing victims to die alone. This memorial accomplishes the opposite, bringing communities together and fostering connections.”
He explained that trees, particularly olive trees, signify revival and are “a perfect metaphor for the Jewish people,” citing a verse in the book of Job: “For a tree has hope; if it is cut it will again renew itself and its bough will not cease.”
“Even when it looks lifeless, the olive tree still retains vitality deep inside,” he said. “Olive trees are also very adaptive; they survive tough periods and can live for thousands of years.”
Kiryat Shmona itself is a testament to this tenacity.
The name of the city commemorates eight Jewish militiamen, commanded by Joseph Trumpeldor, killed in that area in the 1920 Battle of Tel Hai during the Franco-Syrian War. Its proximity to the Lebanese border has made it a frequent target for terror and rocket attacks, perhaps most infamously the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine massacre on April 11, 1974, that left 18 people dead — half of them children — and 16 injured.
Despite the hardships associated with leading a border city, Kiryat Shmona Mayor Avihay Shtern has been working hard to advance business development and attract residents and tourists. A food-tech innovation hub is one of the new projects taking root in there.
“I am proud and gratified to have this opportunity to reach out to diaspora communities and commemorate their covid victims,” Mr. Shtern said.
He expressed his wish that the Path of Life will serve as “a living history lesson” for locals as well as the many visitors who are sure to flock back to the Upper Galilee once the pandemic wanes.
“I think it’s important for us to remember, and for the children of the future to know, what happened during this period,” he said. “The coronavirus will soon disappear, but we must never forget those who were lost to the disease.”
Dignitaries, including Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog, attended the opening ceremony for the promenade on March 4.
Rabbi Raanan said he welcomes inquiries from community leaders and members interested in having their community represented by a tree on the promenade. He has web developers ready to build mini-sites free of charge.
He’s even offering the opportunity to dedicate entire olive groves in neglected tracts of land in the Galilee, Negev, and Jordan Valley.
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