“What is the main defining characteristic of the COVID-19 era?” asks well-known public activist Rabbi Shlomo Raanan.

“The coronavirus brought about separation and disconnect,” he replies. “It separates between countries, divides communities and splits families. It’s about being lonely and alone.

“My goal is to foster connection. Every Jew has an intrinsic connection to Israel. Let’s help them develop that connection and make it grow.”

Rabbi Raanan’s organization, Ayelet Hashachar, has recently launched a unique initiative to foster connection with Diaspora Jewry: a beautiful promenade in Kiryat Shmona to commemorate the Jewish COVID victims from around the world. But what makes this half-mile long walkway unique are the more than 100 olive trees lining the path. Each tree will represent a different Jewish community from across the globe, serving as a vehicle to commemorate members who passed away from the coronavirus. Visitors to the site can learn about the communities and members who succumbed to COVID by simply standing next to the tree and getting the story on a dedicated app via a QR code. Each community will have its own minisite, featuring eulogies, historical anecdotes, and any extra information that the community wishes to include, for a bona fide living memorial.

“Throughout the years, Diaspora Jewry has always been there for Israel,” says Rabbi Raanan, explaining what inspired him to reach out to Diaspora communities and provide this free service. “We felt that the time had come for us, here in Israel, to show them our solidary and support during this very challenging time.”

The significance of the location of the commemorative promenade is not limited to the fresh air and the stunning views of Mount Hermon that Kiryat Shmona affords. Israel’s northernmost city is no stranger to bereavement — its very name commemorates eight people, including hero Joseph Trumpeldor, who were killed while defending the area. More recently, the proximity of Kiryat Shmona to the Lebanese border has made it a frequent target for terror and rocket attacks.

Kiryat Shmona is a symbol of Jewish determination and tenacity. Off the beaten track, it needs to invest twice the effort to make itself relevant to the center of the country. Despite the hardships associated with being a border city, Mayor Avihay Shtern, has been making great strides to promote development and attract residents. The growing foodtech industry and the establishment of large academic institutions are examples of those efforts.

“I am proud and gratified to have this opportunity to reach out to Diaspora communities and commemorate their COVID victims,” says Shtern. “There are many memorials, but I’ve yet to see one honoring those who succumbed to the pandemic – even though we’re almost a year in, and it’s taken such a heavy toll globally.”

Shtern notes that the kilometer-long walkway, to be named “The Path of Life,” will serve as “a living history lesson” for local residents as well as the many visitors and tourists who flock to the Upper Galilee.  “I think it’s important for us to remember, and for the children of the future to know, what happened during this period. The coronavirus will soon disappear, but we must never forget those who were lost to the disease.”

A grand opening ceremony for the promenade was held on March 4, with the participation of the mayor, Rabbi Raanan, senior public figures, as well as Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac (Buji) Herzog.

Each Tree, a Unique Story

Rabbi Raanan sees special significance in planting trees as commemoration. “There is a beautiful 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.’ Trees signify revival, particularly olive trees,” he says. “They are a perfect metaphor for the Jewish People. Even when it looks lifeless, the olive tree still retains vitality deep inside. Olive trees are also very adaptive; they survive tough periods and can live for thousands of years. It’s certainly appropriate that the olive tree is the symbol of the State of Israel.”

Currently, the COVID victim commemoration project has aroused great interest worldwide. Rabbi Raanan welcomes community leaders and members who wish to have their community represented by a tree on the promenade. Rabbi Raanan’s staff of web developers will prepare a dedicated minister for each community, complete with relevant text and visual material free of charge. “The coronavirus separated people from their loved ones, often forcing victims to die alone. This memorial accomplishes the opposite, bringing communities together and uniting people.”

Rabbi Raanan has plans galore to connect Diaspora Jewry with the Land of Israel. Parallel to the commemoration project in Kiryat Shmona, he will offer interested communities the opportunity to plant not just one tree but an entire olive orchard. “There are vast tracts of land across Israel that are neglected, and illegal squatters take advantage of the situation. Communities can plant their own orchards in areas of national importance – the Galilee, the Negev, the Jordan Valley,” he explains.

The Katz family from the Los Angeles area, donors and close friends of Rabbi Raanan (supporters of this tireless visionary invariably become friends), is enthusiastic about the tree-planting project in Israel’s north. “Today, after the coronavirus lockdowns have upended traditional schooling, I think we need to think of creative ways to engage our children. This project, which is literally a living museum, has tremendous potential to teach and inculcate important values, and I look forward to seeing it becoming operational in the very near future.”

Rabbi Raanan is overflowing with ideas to build bridges between Jews of different backgrounds, thereby fostering unity. His landmark Chavrutah program was established over two decades ago with the aim of encouraging dialogue between secular and religious Israelis. The program now features close to 20,000 people studying in partnerships, in Israel and abroad.

Ayelet Hashachar has a plethora of projects that all share a singular aim: to heal the divisiveness that plagues Israeli society by eliminating mistrust between sectors, thereby breaking stereotypes and encouraging mutual respect.

For more information about  how to have your community featured in the Path of Life COVID victim commemoration project, please contact Email: pathoflive@ayelethashachar.org or Tel: +97252-617-6222