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Hasidism of collaborations

Research on bird migration led to bringing hearts closer together in Israel, to aid farmers and to a life-saving project with the Air Force

wing to wing The motorized lander on a research flight with Yossi to Leshem (photo: Eyal Bartov, courtesy of Halat)
wing to wing The motorized lander on a research flight with Yossi to Leshem (photo: Eyal Bartov, courtesy of Halat)

    Right now, when we are sitting on the balcony and counting migratory birds, hundreds of thousands of herons pass over the skies of Israel on their way from cooling Europe to warm Africa, to spend the winter days there. They stop here for refreshment, fill their bellies with frogs and rodents and continue on, along the Syrian-African divide. But it turns out that despite the pastoral appearance, the condition of the Hasids, like many other wild animals, has deteriorated greatly due to the human influence on their habitats. The decline of nesting Hasids in Germany was the background to the appeal of the German Max Planck Institute to Prof. Yossi Leshem from the School of Zoology, who picked up the gauntlet and began to investigate the path of migration and stopping of the Hasids, with the aim of improving their situation in nature. This research paved the way for nothing less than a cross-border project between schools in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, to a life-saving joint project with the Air Force, to help farmers with biological control and to create cooperation between countries along the Hasidic migration route. And believe it or not, this is just the beginning.

    Recalculate route

    It all started when a significant decrease in the Hasidic population was diagnosed in West Germany, as a result of damage to their natural habitats and the development of modern agriculture. "For the Germans, Hasidism is the harbinger of spring," says Prof. Leshem. "They usually nest in Europe in the spring months, raise their offspring there, and in the fall go on a journey in search of an alternative source of food. Every year they return to the same nesting sites, and are considered guests of honor in Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries."

    In order to test the degree of damage of modern agriculture on Hasidic migration, Prof. Yossi Leshem decided to lead a special research project, shared by the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Tel Aviv University and the Society for the Protection of Nature. "The idea was to study the migration route of the Hasids and study their stopping points, in order to try to protect them and the natural areas," he explains. "We attached satellite transmitters to 120 Hasidic women in Germany and the Beit Shean Valley and started tracking them. It was the first time they tried to follow a migratory bird in person. Each bird was fitted with a transmitter with a personal frequency, and with the help of the French Argos satellite that orbits the earth every 90 minutes, we were able to get a very precise location on the bird up to a range of ten meters."

    Hasid and her name is Fatima

    The study became a hit in Israel, and was named 'The migratory birds know no borders'. In collaboration with the former Minister of Education, Prof. Amnon Rubinstein, Prof. Leshem established a project in which school students will follow the migration of birds. "It was important to me to bring the younger generation closer to this magic. That's how we set up אתר אינטרנט, where the students could follow the broadcasted birds online. This site is still active today, and birders from all over the world keep up to date with birding news and feed their own bird sightings, which have become an invaluable database." Within a year, 200 schools joined the project, and almost every child in Israel knew how to tell about the migration route and the stopping points of Hasidism. The project spread its wings, and with USAID's American funding and encouragement for the research authority, Prof. Nesham turned the project into a Middle Eastern heartthrob: "Children from Jordanian and Palestinian schools joined the project and also began to follow Hasidism," he recounts with sparkling eyes. "There was a time when children and youth from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority would come to the Beit Shan Valley to closely observe the Hasids that they followed throughout the year, and we would travel to visit them, when this was still possible."

    In order to make the research something personal that would speak to the hearts of the children, Hasids were given names instead of serial numbers. "We called them Christian, Muslim and Jewish names. It's much nicer to follow Princesa, Fatima or Nurit," says Prof. Leshem.

    A leap forward in understanding migration

    Thanks to the study of Hasidism, other important studies were born. In Germany, according to Prof. Leshem, there are already thousands of Hasidic women who are broadcast. "Over the years, we have been able to get the exact timing of when the hassidas come and when they disappear from our area. It can be predicted literally at the level of days. In addition, we learned exactly at what height they fly, and that gave us some ideas." One of these ideas gave rise to a joint and life-saving project with the Air Force - 'Fly in peace with the birds', thanks to which the number of air accidents caused by collisions with birds decreased drastically by 76%, saved 1.5 billion dollars for the defense budget, and of course most importantly - saved the lives of the pilots ( and birds).

    Another project contributed a lot to farmers in Israel and abroad. "Since we have such accurate information today, the farmers know how to flood their fields before the hasids arrive, and then the weevils, which damage their crops, come out of their holes. If you really do it at the right time, the Hasids can easily eliminate entire fields, and this is what is called a WIN WIN for all parties."

    A group of about 3000 Hassidic women camping in the Tirza burial ground in the Jordan Valley (photo: Oren Rosenfeld)

    The possibility of spreading the importance of nature conservation along the migration route of the birds has also become a study in itself. "We learned about their permanent stopping points, in order to know where to keep them more and when, and we realized that we can give the 'parking' points of the birds to other countries as well. This is how we developed relations with the countries along the Syrian-African divide: Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, which are on the path of Hasidism, so that they can maintain it there as well." In addition, Prof. Leshem is in contact with relevant parties in those countries and teaches them the educational activity, which he considers to be of utmost importance.

    "We used to have to learn about the weather to see when the hassidas would arrive. Today, thanks to Hasidism, we can give information to soothsayers", says Prof. Leshem with satisfaction. "At the time, when we started the research, the broadcasting technology was revolutionary. The satellite to which the signals from the Hasid were transmitted would circle the earth every 90 minutes, and every time it passed over the Hasid, it would give its location. Today, every given minute, you get the information including the bird's altitude, altitude and flight speed, and you can learn a lot from this about thermals (hot air currents)."

    "I think the most important message is that with the help of Hasidism, and also other birds of course, it is possible to connect nations, and this is an equally important story. We managed to connect here between science and citizens, we reached students, who would not have learned about migration without this project, and along the way we also promoted peace in the Middle East", concludes Prof. Leshem. The relationship with the Palestinians and the Jordanians in the field of research and education has tightened, and Prof. Leshem dreams of the day when students can once again come to the Beit Shan Valley.

    Doing PR for Hasids. Prof. Leshem is interviewed by German television, the large network Deutsche Welle (photo: Oren Rosenfeld)

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