Work began in 2007 to change garbage into a ‘green lung.’
As prime minister Menachem Begin greeted Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on his historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, he warmly took his hand and proclaimed, “In Jewish tradition, there is no greater achievement than turning an enemy into a friend.”

Israel has a stellar reputation for transforming the negative into the positive.

We drained the swamps of the north and created lush soil. We pioneered drip irrigation and made the desert bloom. We perfected the process of desalination and daily turn seawater potable, making acute water shortages a thing of the past.

Add now to this impressive list the grandiose project of Ariel Sharon Park, destined to become one of the greatest wonders of modern Israel.

We begin our story with the massive garbage dump known as Hiriya (ironically, the ancient, original site of Bnei Brak).

Located in the very center of the country, its repugnant sight and smell was the first thing that “welcomed” visitors arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport. An ever-growing mountain of refuse – housing no less than 16 million cubic meters of waste, enough to fill the Azrieli towers 25 times – it spouted noxious gases and polluted nearby streams; it attracted thousands of seagulls that constituted a major threat of “bird strikes” to incoming and outgoing flights.

It finally was shut down in 1998 and converted into a transfer station, moving the waste to the southern Negev.

Spurred on by the vision of the Beracha Foundation and Martin Weil, given final approval by the Sharon government in 2005, the site – which is as large as the city of Bat Yam – is being converted into a massive, magnificent park of 800 hectares that will be three times as large as New York’s iconic Central Park. Bicycle and running paths, picnic areas, ponds and gardens now dot the site, with plans for cafes, a bird-watching center for 200 species of birds and a 50,000-seat amphitheater for concerts and plays in the planning.

But what is most impressive is the ecological miracle that has occurred here.

Work began in 2007 to rehabilitate the mountain and change garbage into a “green lung.” Among the many achievements:

• Methane gas, which was literally exploding when the dump was active, is now pumped into a textile factory in Azor, emerging as a clean gas that powers the factory rather than polluting fossil fuels. Eighty gas wells drilled at the site collect the gas trapped in the landfill; the plant generates all the electricity required by the Hiriya site and sells the excess to the Israel Electric Corporation.

• Rainwater, which once oozed out of the mountain and polluted the Ayalon and Shapirim streams, now collects into underground storage pools used to irrigate the foliage on the mountain and fill the lovely ponds.

• Building materials that formerly went to landfills are used to build the terraces that cover the mountain, allowing for step planting and protecting the site.

• Streams within the park are widened, helping to avoid the flooding of the Ayalon Highway; the earth is then used for new soil that adds to the greenery surrounding the mountain.

• Garden waste is sorted, and tree trunks are sent to the Hiriya carpentry shop to be recycled into wooden furniture, such as benches and garden accessories, for use in the park.

• One adjoining facility utilizes biological subsystems to reduce the weight of municipal waste by more than 90%, producing bio-gas to create electricity and recover glass and metal in the process.

There is also a recycling plant for tires and another that turns plant prunings into ground cover that Israelis are encouraged to use instead of water-guzzling grass.

• As hundreds of trucks unload their cargo from throughout central Israel, more than 80% of the waste is sorted and reused; only 20% will end up in landfills.

• At the visitor center, virtually everything (including the building itself, which was once a huge compost shed) is recycled. Furniture and accessories are made out of tires, cans and bottles, as is a gigantic, colorful ceiling fixture. Even the employees’ kitchen is a treasure trove of found-object décor. At lectures and workshops, visitors can learn from the experts how to change behavior patterns to help protect and rejuvenate the environment.

As I toured Ariel Sharon Park recently with expert guide Joanna Maissel – an immigrant and the park’s only native English- speaking guide – she explained her passion for this program. As we looked out upon the huge expanse of open space stretching out before us, she told me: “The green land of Israel is rapidly vanishing. We have an opportunity here to save one of the last great, green plots in this country and give it as a present to the residents of central Israel.

“While it’s important to build housing for our growing population, we need to save these magnificent spaces for ourselves, for the flora and fauna that need room to survive, for our children and grandchildren and all future generations to enjoy.”

Ariel Sharon Park is one of Israel’s best kept secrets; it must be seen to be fully appreciated.

It is a great place to take the entire family, to see both science and nature at work, to marvel at the way our amazing country has employed technology and the spirit of innovation to enhance the quality of our lives and restore nature to its pristine state.

In a part of the world where the planet’s resources are all too often abused and abandoned, this fantastic slice of the Garden of Eden is, quite literally, a breath of fresh air.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;