Meet Beer Sheva’s veteran “green” activist

AACI Beer Sheva’s veteran “green” activist, Ethelea (a.k.a. Leah) Katzenell, tells about environmental action in the capital of the Negev:

When I arrived in Beer Sheva in 1972 on the day before my 22nd birthday, I was young, energetic and in love with the pristine desert surroundings. It was so different from the American commercialism, superficiality, soot and smog, and I decided to strike my roots in the desert soil of this small, newly forming academic town. By September, I’d rented a tiny ground-floor apartment in Shekhunah Aleph, which, at that time, had no paved sidewalks or streetlights and little greenery. However, the daily desert winds did blow around the trash carelessly discarded by inconsiderate people so that many undeveloped spots were littered like garbage dumps. So in the fall of 1972, I prepared a stock of large bags, a batch of colorful bow-tie ribbons on safety pins and a small gift package. I then called out all my neighbors to join me in a one-hour clean-up campaign – offering the one who picked up the most trash a prize. It was a fun event for adults and children which called their attention to the need to keep things clean. This may have been the first community clean-up campaign held in Israel!

By the late 1970s, as an active AACI Southern Branch Board member, I was one of a group of volunteers, along with Joan Avigur, Ahuvah Mitbah and others, who tried to get paper recycling started in Beer Sheva. We convinced the Israeli paper company to put out paper collection bins, but often they were set on fire—and finally the Fire department vetoed the public recycling of paper. Only secure bins remained in certain institutions, like at AACI and at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Library (where I work).

In the early 1980s, we placed recycling boxes for spent batteries in all the photo shops, post offices and, of course, in the B.G.U. Library – which are periodically collected by the postal service and taken out to Ramat Hovav for proper handling – to prevent their poisonous acid from seeping into and polluting the soil and the water supply.

Through AACI, we also lobbied to prevent smoking in public places and for the passage of the national law prohibiting this (finally passed in 1983). Remember that secondhand smoke is no less of a killer than smoking yourself! Again, we persevered and succeeded.

Having accomplished this, in the 1990s we moved on to coordinate an arrangement between the regional plastics company, “Aviv Plastics,” and the Beer Sheva Municipality, whereby the company set out collection bins all over the city for people to dispose of their used (non-refundable) plastic items. The company collected these bottles regularly at its own expense and recycled the plastic, transforming it into outdoor furniture like inexpensive park benches and electric poles (green, durable and waterproof) for use in public areas. This arrangement also helped the city fulfill its mandatory annual recycling quota. By law, all Israeli cities are obliged to recycle a certain percentage of municipal waste. In addition, if we do NOT bury all those voluminous bottles and containers in the local landfill, the landfill can accommodate our garbage for ten years more.

I’m among the founders of Earth’s Promise (at:, whose mission is: “To improve and safeguard the quality of Israel’s environment by creating replicable grassroots models of sustainable urban development.” We have created a large, successful community garden at the Kalisher Absorption Center, which now serves as a model for both urban agriculture and intergenerational community action. We have also established a citywide network of composters and offer ecological training courses.

By the year 2000, my pet project was finding practical/artistic uses for recycled pastel-colored plastic fruit/vegetable bags. I tried to convince the local colleges that teach art teachers and all the community centers that offer handicrafts classes to instigate special courses in “Recycling Art” or “The Art of Recycling,” which would include the creative reuse of clean plastic bags as raffia material, for the crocheting of colorful, flexible, durable, waterproof sunhats and handbags, or the forming of game balls, etc. Plastic bags are terrible for the environment, because all petroleum-based products give off toxic fumes when burned and aren’t biodegradable when buried.

As a longtime member of local, regional and national “green” organizations, ranging from “Amutat Beer Sheva Yeruka” and “Negev Bar-Kayama” to “Adam, Teva ve-Din” and “Greenpeace Israel,” I sit on the Municipal Environment Committee as a delegate for the citizenry. I have attended many meetings between the third sector and leaders of Israeli industry as part of a campaign to promote transparency, “responsible care,” environmental awareness and cooperation across the board – to achieve win-win scenarios for the economy and the environment.

In 2005, I instigated a project to identify environmental problems in all 15 residential neighborhoods in the city. I “drafted” and trained 50 volunteers, showing them what to look for in the public domain (e.g. rusty objects, exposed wiring, standing water, potholes in sidewalks & roads, etc.) and how to effectively report such things to the Municipality for repairs. I also asked them to share what they’d learned with others, especially their children.

Now Beer Sheva is among those few cities in Israel at the forefront of “green” action. The city has agreed to participate in a national trial – to separate liquid and solid wastes in the homes. The city is promoting the “green” education of the public and is currently implementing a special citywide program for the recycling of: plastic, paper, cardboard, batteries, used clothing, electronic parts, CDs — setting out dedicated bins in all the neighborhoods. My latest, personal project is to get glass recycling into the program as well. Wish me luck!

All in all, it’s lovely living in Beer Sheva, especially as the city becomes cleaner and more beautiful every day – eternal urban oasis.

“My Oasis in Beersheba”

by Ethelea Katzenell

To awaken to the lovely sound
Of birds in morning song,
To the touch of light,
Warm sun on my cheek.
To rise in tranquility
And gladly face the day.
The cool morning breeze
Blowing the past behind me.
My home, my private garden,
Sanctuary, safe haven, Eden.


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