With only twenty-five dimes we could pay for a tree to be planted in the John F. Kennedy Peace Forest, Jerusalem Victory Forest, or Bar Kochba Forest. On the Sunday closest to Tu B’Shvat we would always receive a bag of dried, tasteless fruits supposedly from Israel. Along with that came a certificate from JNF, Jewish National Fund, stating our tree had been planted in memory or in honor of whomever we had specified when we had saved up the required amount.
I remember being taught how important those trees were to Israel to help restore the soil that had eroded over the years. Now that I am living here I see how many parks and nature reserves have beautified our land and I am thankful to all those children who brought their coins to religious school year after year. JNF did not solely rely on the religious school children, though. Many homes had the blue and white JNF tzedakah box sitting on their counters and these too helped to build the forests.
We learn in the Bible that when the children of Israel settled the land there were many trees in the mountains of Efriam where Shilo is located. (See Joshua, Chapter 17) During the rule of the Ottoman Empire most of those trees were chopped down and their wood used for train tracks. When I moved to Shilo there were still just a few trees and therefore not many birds. JNF did not start planting trees here until a few years later. It was up to us to beautify the land and several local people took the responsibility for this. One of the most interesting is Moshe Kessler.
Moshe began his life in the Jewish neighborhood of Harlem in New York. He was always a Zionist along with being a proud American and he insists there is no contradiction there. When World War II broke out he did not wait to be drafted. Wanting to be sent to fight the Nazis he enlisted. Instead of being sent to Europe he was shipped to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. While serving there he earned two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
Without any false modestly Moshe bluntly describes himself as a good soldier. “I did everything I could to follow my own belief that America was a great country and we were in the right.”
Following the war he met his wife, Malka. “I liked her,” he says. “She was a very nice person.” She was and still is not only nice, but also strong, spunky, and most supportive of her husband. She followed him to Lafayette, Indiana where Moshe studied in graduate school at Purdue University and later in Brooklyn Law School. He passed the New York State Bar Exam and became a trial lawyer.
Before their seven children were born they took the time to do some travelling. Moshe loved reading about the places before they visited them and then meeting the natives. Probably his most exotic trip was not a vacation, rather a visit to Mississippi in 1964. He spent about a week there interviewing all sorts of people about the disappearance of the three civil rights workers. They were found, after bribes were paid, buried deep under a cement dam. Later, that same year, the Supreme Court of the United States changed the concept of “separate” being “Equal”.
He was a good trial lawyer and also represented many poor people as clients. At the same time, one of his favorite hobbies was raising trees. Four of his grown children had made aliyah and in 1981 he and Malka moved to Israel to grow trees.They arrived at Beit Canada, an absorption center in Jerusalem, and began looking for a place to make their home. Travelling the length and width of the country they decided that Shilo was the best place for them to settle. However, they were in their late fifties, already, and those in charge were not interested in accepting such an “old” couple.
Moshe was not a trial lawyer for nothing. He fought to be accepted in Shilo and they finally were. Later, he fought for help in getting land for his tree farm. Now, thirty years later, he has to his credit dozens and dozens of trees which were planted in Gush Shilo. Thanks to him and others the sound of birds chirping and singing has returned to Shilo and its hills.