The 1st Sustainability and Community Conference

Despite the rain and the traffic, 170 participants and over 40 speakers gathered at the Hansen House in Jerusalem on March 1 to learn, share ideas and network to promote sustainability in their communities. The conference, hosted by the Heschel Center, The Jerusalem Municipality, the Goethe Institut, and Aroma Israel Cafe, invited the UK-based organization Bioregional Inc. co-founder Pooran Desai who served as keynote speaker and workshop facilitator during this fascinating day. Mr. Desai shared his personal story and ideas from around the world for how to implement the ten principles for sustainable living, a model adopted by the Heschel Center about a decade ago to serve as the basis and guiding principle for the Center for Local Sustainability at Heschel.

“The first step towards sustainability is partnership”, said Lorit Lebovitz, Director of the Center for Local Sustainability at the Heschel Center, “and this is what we were trying to convey and create at the conference.”

In addition to Mr. Desai, the conference was honored to host two speakers from Slovania and Germany, hosted by the Goethe Institut.

“Sustainability is a tool to create abundance in a place where it doesn’t exist”, said Matan Yaakov Golan, a community entrepreneur in the Center for a Sustainable Neighborhood who spoke on another panel. “The environmental movement is often preaching about an environmental crisis and global warming, and telling people what they cannot do,” continued Matan, “it scares people away… We need to change our language and dream together what we are able to do and celebrate life, but not on anyone’s expense.”

One of the first projects Matan worked on was in one of the worst neighborhoods in Beer Sheva, where he started a community compost program. He and his colleagues trained a few teenagers to collect and treat organic waste from the community and paid them a salary for their work. They went from door to door to introduce themselves and ask residents to separate their trash. The personal touch, the work inside the community and the direct follow through made the difference. Within a month, 80% of the families separated organic waste entirely. The compost produced fertilizer for the community food garden and every family that contributed organic waste received a fresh mint leaf branch from the garden. “We learned that through sustainable planning that takes in consideration the environmental, economic and social aspects, one can overcome many challenges that regular businesses were not able to deal with.” concluded Matan.

In one of the panels about a collaborative economy sat David Kurtz, the chairman of the steering committee for Co-Housing Israel, an organization that is dedicated to building housing for retired individuals who want to live together collaboratively. This panel also had representatives from the Tel Aviv municipality and the Jerusalem municipality who shared how they promote grassroots initiatives to promote urban sustainability.

“The high demand and the high attendance is an expression for the strong yearning to work towards sustainability, community, entrepreneurship and cooperation to promote a prosperous, just and sustainable economy”, says Victor Weis, executive director of the Heschel Center.

The conference ended with a presentation by Yoav Dunetz, director of community and culture in the Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon, who shared his success story. In just a few years he and a team of citizens managed to turn their town into a place where residents choose to live, despite their remote location and the financial challenges.

The conference showcased many initiatives – local, national, governmental and private – that create meaningful difference in the lives of residents: making use of public spaces, urban nature, creating cross-sector collaborations and encouraging community involvement towards sustainability.