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After the Fire, a "Bottle Tree" Brings Christmas to Haifa
Thursday, December 23, 2010 1:14:00 PM

This year, Christians living in Haifa are having trouble finding a real Christmas tree — earlier in 2010 a devastating forest fire that killed 43 people also wiped out more than 5 million trees in the nearby Carmel Mountain range, making it harder for them to justify using "real" trees to celebrate the holidays.

Coincidentally, on the day the fire started to rage out of control, Hadas Itzcovitch, a young Tel Aviv University lecturer who teaches at a special science program for gifted high school students at the school, was putting the finishing touches on a Christmas tree commissioned by the City of Haifa. Developed with her father Ernest, an artist, the tree was built on a metal frame and included thousands of light-filled water bottles hanging down as branches. The bottles were collected in the community, and energy-conserving LED lights lit the boughs of the "tree."

But on the day when the tree was to be erected, she could smell the smoke from the fire, and saw its flames burning on the mountain. "I thought that it might be bad taste to erect a Christmas tree when all around us the fires were burning out of control," says Itzcovitch, who instructs students in novel ways to use recycled materials and conserve energy.

A message for the environment

But the City of Haifa urged her to continue, so the important holiday symbol dedicated to the city's three monotheistic religions would not be lost. They had commissioned the tree from Itzcovitch more than a month before the fire for the city's "Festival of Festivals," which celebrates the Muslim Eid, Christian Christmas and Jewish Hanukkah holidays.

At the meeting, city officials asked for a tree that was 6.5 yards high, to be erected at a busy intersection. Itzcovitch told them that for the same budget she could build the tree twice as high if she did it with recycled materials. City officials were delighted with the idea and the important environmental message the tree would send to the residents of Haifa, a coastal city along the Mediterranean Sea in Israel. The multicultural city would not only see the tree as a sign of peace between the religions that live there, but also would teach he importance of recycling and living in harmony with nature.

Exposing youth to more than a holiday tradition

It was coincidental and ironic, says Itzcovitch, that the fire started burning out of control just as the "bottle-tree" was being raised. She does not discount the environmental message of protecting our world's resources, which she also spreads through her design work — and teaching at local colleges and universities.

Itzcovitch lectures at the Unit for Science Oriented Youth of Tel Aviv University's Joan and Jaime Constantiner School of Education. It provides a variety of courses for the fostering of excellence to a wide range of populations, including gifted students.

"I am working with gifted kids that want to learn about science," says Itzcovitch. "We teach them about energy-saving science projects, and how to 'upcycle' materials. It opens their minds to environmental issues just before they head to university," she says.

Although Itzcovitch herself is Jewish, she likes the message her Christmas tree sends for peace, and because it's made of recycled materials, it can be used every year. If the City of Haifa agrees, she proposes to keep adding a yard's worth of height to the tree each year — to celebrate the holidays, and remind city residents about the importance of environmental preservation.

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