NYJL looks at both the JNF and KKL and the work they are doing in Israel
By Maxine Dovere
On a chamsin—desert hot—July day, New York Jewish Life had a unique opportunity to meet with Daniel “Danny” Atar in in the Tel Aviv office of Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (KKL), the Israeli cohort of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Atar was elected director of KKL Worldwide in 2015, charged with overseeing the land-reclamation organization founded in 1901. Known in Israel as “KaKal,” it works in close coordination with the New York-headquartered JNF.
Two weeks later, in his office in New York, JNF CEO Russell Robinson told NYJL, “The two organizations have the same narrative—a shared history—the same vision for Israel that Theodor Herzl had—a dream to secure the land of Israel and the Jewish people. The story of JNF-KKL is not about tanks and planes. The story of JNF-KKL is the repurchase of the land….We could have made a good case for possession based on biblical ownership. We took the harder route: to repurchase the land that would result in Israel.”
Despite the distance, Robinson is very “hands on” with JNF projects, traveling to Israel almost every month; Atar is on the ground on a daily basis. Seated at his desk one floor below the conference room where David Ben Gurion held Israel’s first cabinet meetings, the recently elected KKL world director is a figure of strength and dedication.
In our exclusive interview, Atar defined Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael as an “organization for the whole of the Jewish community. Our audience is the Jewish people. Our mission is to enhance the connection between every Jew and the state of Israel….We at Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael get the idea that brothers should not be separated. Keren Kayemet works to strengthen the Jewish people, to receive everyone and not enter government politics.”
Atar is a Zionist. His Moroccan-born parents made aliyah in 1956. A sabra, he served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He was a delegate to the Gilboa Regional Council from 1994 and was elected to Knesset on the Zionist Union List in 2015. He resigned his seat upon being elected KKL director. Atar is married to Chaya, an artist, and is the father of three.
He told NYJL, “We are a small people. We cannot afford to throw any part away. It’s a catastrophe,” he said, referring to studies suggesting that, should current trends continue, 700,000 Jews will leave the community by 2025. “We must do all that we can so that these 700,000 Jews won’t leave the culture.” He expressed hope that each person could find an “individual way but remain part of the Jewish people.”
Atar is dedicated to significantly increasing the Jewish population in Israel’s northern and southern regions. KKL plans to bring half a million new residents to the Galilee and one million to the Negev, areas the director categorized as “the weakest points in Israel….If Israel doesn’t strengthen the Galilee and the Negev, it will be difficult to protect Israel. Encouraging the young to stay in the Negev and the Galilee is essentially good for the state.
“There is much to do, much to do. We are beginning a major project for the Jewish world in the Galilee and the Negev. Everyone must understand all that is occurring. We want to bring the young [Israelis] back. Every project Keren Kayemet undertakes will be in the Galilee and the Negev.”
Atar said that there has been “good progress” in the South. “Now, it’s important to bring the energy to the North.”
“The question,” Atar posed somewhat rhetorically, “is what do I say to the youth in the United States? I say it’s most important to be part of the Galilee and the Negev. KKL seeks the best method to connect, to bring youth to visit Israel. Each one who comes becomes a shaliach—an emissary.”
KKL brings delegations of professionals to Israel and organizes special trips for teachers from secular and Christian schools. “The Christians,” he noted, “understand that there is much to do.”
In coordination with the Jewish National Fund, KKL is active on university campuses. Following its historic approach, it builds support person by person, group by group, from the small group to the larger one to the general population.
Those who “lead the academic world are leaders around the world,” said Atar. “If you build on campus today, you build for the future. We want to bring knowledge of what we do to the campuses.”
He stressed the importance of telling students the truth about Israel. “The only negative stories they hear are about Israel. No one speaks about Syria, Yemen or Lebanon. Keren Kayemet will work on the campuses, independently and in cooperation with other pro-Israel groups, to tell the real story.”
In its early years (KKL-JNF was founded in 1901), communication between America and Israel was difficult, explained Robinson in New York; it took six weeks for a letter to be delivered. In America, representatives would talk to small groups, asking people to believe in a dream—and to fill the iconic blue boxes, a means of fundraising to achieve the Zionist mission of establishing the Jewish state.
“We’re still telling the story,” Robinson said. He reflected Atar’s words, saying, “That story now has a new direction—actually two new directions: north and south, the Galilee and the Negev. KKL-JNF is working to increase the Jewish population in these areas by encouraging regional development, improving transportation and providing subsidies to companies that move to Israel’s north. Today, it’s a new world. Connectivity is the whole difference.
“Donors used to ask, ‘Why drag people to the desert?’ Eighteen years ago, suggesting an investment in the desert caused laughter. Beersheba was a wild dream. Even sophisticated philanthropists laughed. They don’t laugh any more. We’ve gone from laughter to ‘wow.’”
Among its projects in the south, the JNF funds infrastructure investments in the Arava, the central Negev area that, despite receiving only about two inches of rain annually, has become Israel’s garden, producing prize-winning wines, melons, tomatoes, peppers and other export-quality agricultural products. With KKL-JNF assistance, the area’s population has increased by 50 percent in less than a decade—from 5,000 to 7,500.
Atar told NYJL that increasing the Jewish population and maintaining the Jewish identity in the Galilee region is a primary concern. The last time there was a Jewish majority in all of what is considered the northern portion of Israel “was towards the beginning of the 1970s,” said Ofir Shick, CEO of Lev BaGalil— Heart of the Galilee—which is dedicated to preserving a Jewish majority in the Galilee. Shick noted that most Israelis consider the area as the “bed and breakfast of the country; only for vacations, but not a place to live.”
KKL is working to change that perception. Providing housing, enhancing economic development and creating support services that attract new residents is an integral part of KKL’s program.
Seventeen community centers—the first scheduled to open in Nazarat Elite in December 2017—“will provide the best possible resources of Israel without cost to the participants, including internships and mentoring. It’s a project every community in the world can adopt; everyone must know English, math, chemistry, physics,” Atar said, inviting every Jew in the world to help.
“If we begin a specific project now, it takes about two years’ work to complete,” he said. He described a “twinning” structure that makes it possible to support a personal project from small enterprise to major educational effort. “Everyone can come and help within the framework.” He noted that Israeli Arab students are eligible to participate.
At its New York headquarters, NYJL asked Robinson how the JNF is engaging the demographic groups termed Gen X and Millennials.
“Bringing them closer to the land—closer than ever—telling the story, educating, involving, being part of Israel. JNF is sending hundreds and hundreds of 25–40-year-olds to Israel every year.”
Israel is part of Jewish life. The JNF conveys its message through a range of contemporary activities.
“Our Shabbat-in-the-Park/Desert/etc. programs are always oversubscribed,” said Robinson. “Shabbat dinners at home often gather more than a hundred—mostly young—people from every religious background. It’s young people meeting young people. The Millennials are deeply concerned and connected to today’s Jewish life and Jewish opportunities. The last 10 years have witnessed a change in participation. JNF is helping to keep the story of the Jewish people of today and tomorrow alive. It’s learning how to partner. Israel is part of Jewish life.”
Echoing the words of Danny Atar, Robinson stressed that there is nothing political about it.
Asked what he saw as the JNF’s most significant challenges, Robinson said ‘”It’s conveying the positive story. We have to keep telling the positive story and assure that we talk about the successes. When Jewish papers—our primary means of communication—are constantly trying to rip the Jews apart, that’s a challenge. The challenges are for us to express with as much excitement and fervor about how our team is winning!….Nobody has given this world more than the Jewish people….The real challenge is partnership, not being deterred or detoured by conversations of nonsense or worse.”
Robinson recalled the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “In the midst of the worst time, King said, ‘I have dream,’ not a nightmare. At JNF, we have a dream that started 116 years ago.”
NYJL asked Robinson to list some of the “shining stars” in the JNF firmament.
“Our stars are a community of young people in the North—the next leaders of Israel—Jews who have a connection with the Diaspora, eyeball to eyeball,” he replied. “Our stars are in the Negev, from Beersheba to Eilat, making 50 percent of the land come alive!”
Robinson noted the culinary constellation that the JNF is fostering in the upper eastern part of the Galilee: “We’re changing the Galilee into the culinary capital of the world! It will be a center for food technology. The world is going to come to Israel’s North for the finest food in the world.”
He next referenced the Alexander Muss High School, a JNF partner. The Kfar Saba school offers a “semester abroad” program for American high school students. Participants receive full academic credit in their home schools. Robinson called the program “an integral part of connecting Jews to the Jewish community.”
Since 2012 when Muss and the JNF partnered, the program has almost doubled, increasing from 800 to 1,500 students. The JNF looks forward to increasing the number of participants to 5,000.
“These kids will be the leaders of investment in Israel for the next 60 years,” Robinson said. “They have self-selected themselves as leaders. After 12 to 16 weeks they come back as ambassadors. The Muss experience helps participants get into the best colleges. They are shining stars—the next generation. They’ll look back and say, ‘Wow! We built the movement of the Jewish people connected to the land of Israel—with all due respect to Herzl!’”
KKL-JNF also affects positive change outside Israel. Atar told NYJL that Argentina has requested KKL’s help in solving its water problems. Assistance will be provided to that government through the local Jewish community, through what Atar described as both a technical and a diplomatic approach.
In a throwback to its early roots, KKL-JNF will open its newest field office in April 2018 in Poland, home to early halutzim pioneers, among them a young oleh (immigrant) named David Grun, soon known as Ben-Gurion.
“The fallacies of our demise are overstated and not true,” noted Robinson in a nod to Mark Twain.