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Today it’s commonly accepted that environmental concerns are also national security and economic priorities. Modern foreign policy, thankfully, includes environmental justice. Most nations have embraced this truth in the past few decades, but for more than 113 years, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has been a leader in Israeli environmental issues for this specific reason.

Almost everyone has heard of the practice of planting a tree in Israel, and many have done just that in times of celebration and sadness. While planting trees may be the activity for which the JNF is best known, there is so much more going on.

Since first envisioned in 1898 and then created in 1901, the Jewish National Fund has evolved into a global environmental leader by planting more than 250 million trees, building over 240 reservoirs and dams, developing over 250,000 acres of land, creating more than 2,000 parks, providing the infrastructure for over 1,000 communities, and connecting thousands of children and young adults to Israel and their heritage. But the JNF is also an economic development engine, a job creator, a neighborhood builder, a prodigious fundraiser, a champion of diversity and a coordinator of exchange programs for students, professors and young professionals.

Here at home, the Jewish National Fund harnesses the talents of professional staff and committed volunteer leaders. Regionally and nationally, the leadership of the JNF is a “who’s who” of dedicated neighbors who are at the top of their fields.

Jeffrey Levine is president of the Jewish National Fund. He spoke with New York Jewish Life publisher Michael Tobman and bureau chief Maxine Dovere, answering a wide range of topics. Below are his edited responses.


NYJL:  Are you having fun?

JL:  There’s an expression: if you enjoy your work, then it’s not work. I feel this way about being Jewish National Fund-USA’s president.  It is a big obligation that I can do in a way that has balance as JNF is a very good organization and our true strength is in our lay leaders and staff.  First, the professional staff:  there are less than 200 paid professionals in five zones that cover 37 cities and a full time staff of five in Israel to monitor the programs and payments.  It’s our obligation to donors to ensure that their dollars are being used properly. JNF has the most actively involved and committed lay leaders, both donors and workers, of any organization I know.  I can delegate to both the professional and lay leadership.  I’ve been in the building business for some 40 years, so getting things done well and in a timely way is always a priority.  We all have control issues, but there comes a point when you know when to delegate.

NYJL: Delegating empowers people and organizations, what does that look like in JNF?

The strength of JNF depends on everyone involved, never one person. We hold national board meetings, regional meetings, and discussions with working groups about specific constituencies and demographics. Participation is almost 100 per cent, whether in person or electronically.  There are also meetings in different parts of country throughout the year and, of course, the annual national conference.  The 2016 event was in New York; in 2017, the South Florida region will host the conference in Hollywood.  1,200 attended last year; we expect many more this year.

The reality is that people have been an essential part of JNF since time immemorial.  We now need to address the changing demographic of the Jewish people.  We lost massive parts of the Jewish population because of the Holocaust, and currently face the challenges of assimilation, inter-marriage or simply lack of participation.  The ‘same old, same old’ methods no longer work.  Young Jews may not feel the visceral connection.  JNF is trying to engage the next generation.  The founders understood that what made the Jewish people survive is dor le dor (generation to generation).  It’s what our faith teaches us in terms of values, morals, tzedekah (charity) and commitment.

NYJL: Sometimes, the easiest thing for leadership to do is what’s been done before, which may be OK, depending. From what we hear – we have a few colleagues in common – you’ve taken on new projects & efforts. What have you built on, and what’s been novel?

JL: Admittedly, some efforts had not been as successful as they should have been.   But, there are exciting changes.  One is JNFuture . JNF has created events to attract young people, structured around their issues of concern and how they live and communicate online.  For example, tikkun olam (repairing the world) is of great importance, especially to the Gen X and Gen Y demographic. The Jewish community is not new to social movements.  They have an appropriate fear of global warming – things like climate change, carbon emissions. Environmental issues are powerful motivators, and JNF has always been at the forefront of environmental concerns as a part of nation building and security.

JNFuture started in New York with a conference on environmental issues.  It is now the fastest growing donor cohort in JNF. “The under-40 population is becoming part of JNF while learning how to combat the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction) movement and the rapidly evolving pro-Palestinian movement.   One of JNFuture’s  most successful recent events was “Shabbat in the Desert,” held during a Las Vegas convention – which is a  Shabbat networking opportunity based on our  New York “Shabbat in the Park,” that annually brings out more than 500 people – and which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this June.

NYJL: How is JNF incorporating new media into its outreach efforts?

JL: We likely have the largest digital data base in the Jewish world.  Our active donor and contact list is larger than 700,000, and there are over three million contacts in our general files.  JNF raises more money online than through any other method. JNF has no boundaries concerning involvement for its leadership – one of our lay leaders, Robert “Bob” Levine, (not related), has been to Israel 98 times.

When JNF began purchasing land from the Ottoman Empire in 1901, a condition of sale was that the land be “worked.”  Possession of a place was shown by working the land, by agriculture: planting a tree met this requirement.  JNF activity started soon after the Dreyfus Trial and the Fifth Zionist Congress.  Theodore Herzl understood the need for a national state for the Jewish people.  Land purchases made by Keren Kayemet Le Yisrael – JNF in America – helped define the borders of the modern state of Israel  By 1948, JNF had purchased 13 % of the land of that became Israel.  Since its work began, JNF has planted about 250 million trees. Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees in 2017 than it did a hundred years ago.

JNF has taken responsibility for the replacement of the trees destroyed by the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.  44 Israelis lost their lives in the Ason HaCarmel – – The Carmel Disaster, and over 12,000 acres and 74 buildings were burned.  JNF immediately responded.  It provided 150 highly maneuverable fire pump trucks purchased with contributed funds.  These pumpers are the latest evolution in the fight against terror by arson.  These trucks are small, agile vehicles that can get to fires quickly….Not that fires are anticipated, but there are good results when needed.

NYJL: A lot of Jewish philanthropy in New York, and truthfully philanthropy generally, maybe depending on the generation, had focused on Manhattan. Not being at all down about what we called “the city” growing up, tell us about JNF’s efforts outside Manhattan, specifically in Brooklyn and Long Island. For example, I know Laura Mardiks at JNF has been coordinating outreach to South Brooklyn’s Sephardic community. 

JL: I was a Brooklyn boy too, so I understand that question. While there is nowhere with as much diversity as New York City, JNF has many Boards in many places.  In the New York region alone, there are active boards in Long Island, North Jersey, South Jersey, and Westchester.  Ken Segel, who is Albany based, is very active, as is Michael Kessler who is doing outreach to the Persian Jewish community.  There is a wide range of religious and cultural diversity.   It’s about engaging people, especially young people, at all levels.  JNF has a major connection to Birthright.  We’ve also created an adjunct program – an alternate Spring Break opportunity.   For a small copayment, young people can come to Israel and have the experience of working as a volunteer.  Some kids have helped clear debris after the Carmel fire; some plant community gardens for Ethiopians in Be’er Sheva while others painted bomb shelters in towns near the Gaza border.  It’s an opportunity to bond with their peers and the State of Israel.   JNF wants to include all Jews.  We’re happy to engage everyone with the State of Israel!

JNF is very involved in Jewish Leadership training.  The Campus Fellows program is specifically for Jewish college students with leadership potential.  This program creates educated, enthusiastic leaders for JNF and the Jewish community. For those already involved, the experience provides expanded tools for leadership. Similarly, students attend our Alexander Muss High School in Israel to experience studying abroad and earning valuable life lessons, all the while building a better personal connection to Israel and Judaism.

NYJL: What have you found most surprising about this position? 

There are some things you don’t know about until you’re in the job. I’ve been happily surprised at the serious level of cooperation between the various Jewish organizations. As president of JNF, I sit on the Board of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. COP fosters cooperation, and it’s about working together, not in competition.

NYJL  Does JNF have “outreach” efforts beyond the Jewish community? 

JL: JNF is actively engaging with many Christian groups who believe in Israel.  We recognize that anti-Semitism is synonymous with anti – Israel activities, especially on college campuses.  To actively combat this, JNF has multiple programs for professors and students, Jews and non-Jews, to visit and experience the “real Israel.”  One project, Faculty Fellowship Summer Institute in Israel, brings non-Jewish university professors, on a trip to Israel. They meet and work with their Israeli peers and their cooperative efforts are inspiring.  To date, 100 professors have taken part.  A similar program, Caravan for Democracy, allows non-Jewish students leaders to visit at no charge and we encourage them to see Israel from the inside out with no pretense, no misinformation, no outside bias – just their own eyes. 68 kids from across the U.S. took part this past January. The end result: Rhetoric, we should all remember, is very different from reality.  When the Fellows and Caravan students see that all kinds of people, from every religion, can live together in Israel, enjoy equal rights and inclusiveness, it’s amazingly powerful.

NYJL:  How has your professional experience as a builder influenced your approach to the JNF presidency?

JL: In leadership generally, whatever the position, it’s about the tools you bring to the job. Buildings don’t get built because a lot of people are working together. I tend to be an inclusive, welcoming person.  I hope that has helped me bridge the “involvement gap.”  My passions are for building as well as for Judaism.  Both in America and in Israel, people are actively expressing their passions.  Remember Occupy Wall Street? People were seeking solutions.  A similar thing occurred in Israel – it was called the Cottage Cheese Revolt and was about a lot more than cottage cheese.  While Israel is a modern wonder, there is still a great disparity between the wealthy and the poor.  We have to bridge that gap.  The issue is largely about the affordability of housing, which is a concern we understand here in New York City. In my business, I’ve built along the rezoned Williamsburg waterfront, and also affordable housing in other parts of Brooklyn, and in the Bronx.

NYJL: What specifically is JNF doing in Israel’s Southern region? 

JL: 80 percent of Israel’s population lives on 20 percent of its land, in the triangle between Tel Aviv,Jerusalem and Haifa.  The prices of housing have become unaffordable for many.  During Ambassador Ron Lauder’s presidency, JNF became very active in the development of the Negev, especially in the area surrounding Be’er Sheva, one of the fastest growing areas in Israel. The area is being transformed: and with JNF built  a wonderful historic site  at Abraham’s Well, the new Be’er Sheva River Lake Park (more than twice the size of NYC’s Central Park) and invested in infrastructure and parks allowing it to become both a a major tourist attraction and a place to live.  The movement of the government’s cyber-security headquarters to the Negev along with the growth of Fortune 100 companies putting down roots there has spurred development throughout the area.  The OR Movement, Tor HaMidbar, and the Lauder Employment Center are partners creating new peer-centered communities, as is ALEH Negev, a rehabilitative village for adults and children with severe disabilities in the Negev region.

Another child-focused project of special importance to JNF is the JNF Indoor Recreation Center in Sderot. Situated directly across the border from Gaza, S’derot often is the front line for incoming missiles – during official hostilities and not.  To help allow children to play safely in this area, JNF built a 21,000 square foot indoor playground and community center that is, in essence, a bomb shelter.  It’s changed the children’s freedom to play and just be kids.

Another of JNF’s partners in the South is the Arava Environmental Institute. The Institute’s work is involved with farming, water and peaceful coexistence to study these sciences – things like drip irrigation and training farmers in Israel and from other parts of the world in the art of agricultural security and drought mitigation. Project Wadi Attir, part of our JNF Blueprint Negev campaign, works with Bedouin communities to develop a model for sustainable desert community farming that could be adopted throughout the Middle East and other arid parts of the world. Israeli agricultural technology enhances life around the globe!

NYJL: Does JNF create similar programs in Israel’s North?

JL:  Absolutely!  Go North, a development program focused on the Western and now Eastern Galilee region, has brought significant new activity to the North.  JNF has built a tourist center in the coastal city of Acre (Akko), and is working with local businesses – wineries, dairies, farm-to-table restaurants, boutique B&B’s, craftspeople, and others.  A regional “super Chamber of Commerce” has since developed – all to draw more people to the area to visit, and to stay and find successful work and living opportunities.  When people spend money, they make jobs and the local economy grows exponentially.   Our projects work with every Israeli community. In the North, many businesses employ or are owned by Israeli Druze, and we help to improve the quality of life  for all Israelis, regardless of religion, color or ethnicity.

Recalling Herzl’s resolution and the creation of the JNF 115 years ago, Levine also emphasized that JNF works tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish nation, planting the seeds for the next generation.  “The determination that guides me,” he mused “is that every victory we have, every mind we change, is another step forward on the path to a strong and secure Israel.”

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