The Jewish National Fund: A Protective Womb for Israel & Jews, Defying the Horror of Pittsburgh’s Synagogue Killings

I recently returned from attending my first Jewish National Fund Annual (JNF) Conference. On the one

Penny S Tee at JNF Annual Conference

Penny S Tee at JNF Annual Conference

hand, it was a lovefest for Israel and Jews. Am Yisrael Chai (the Jewish Nation lives). On the other, what happened during the conference exposed the underbelly of hatemongers in the United States.

I had newly become part of the JNF Speakers Bureau so I attended the conference to help understand more fully what that meant. JNF’s mission has been to ensure a strong, secure and prosperous Israel for the Jewish people everywhere for decades and they accomplish it through their drive, sophisticated planning and always with heart.

It all seemed to fit. As my book, “Blasted from Complacency: A Journey from Terror to Transformation,” is being finalized and published by the end of the year. I thought given my love of Israel, the collaboration made sense.

JNF is the quintessential Jewish mother that continually births successful projects and watches them grow nurturing them throughout each phase of the operation. Beyond finding other mishpachah (family) that share your same project interests, seeds of an idea that a member wants to pursue to help Israel often finds allies to make it a reality. After the project’s “birth” it continues to be supported to impressive heights, often yielding additional related new ventures.

I was struck by the atmosphere that felt like family amongst the members that permeated the conference. Although there were hundreds of participants, it was clear by the greetings of hugs and kisses that these people had worked together for years and looked forward to meeting again at least annually. And unlike many organizations, new members like myself were welcomed warmly, encouraged to share their talents and invited to participate in whatever passion for Israel attracted them.

It was a conference of mensches (people of noble character). They made me feel proud to be Jewish. The Jewish values of Tzedakah (charitable giving), Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and love your neighbor like yourself was obviously taken to heart and I was surrounded by generous acts of loving kindness, Gimilut Hasadim, around every corner.

As Rabbi Hillel in 30BCE-9CE said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

2018 JNF Annual Conference

2018 JNF Annual Conference

No matter who I met, their love of Israel, willingness to act and interest in helping, was apparent. These were people all with an activist soul willing to use their own personal skills for good. What was not to love? Most you wouldn’t recognize although there were definitely notables like Marlee Matlin, the Academy Award winning Actress and Activist.

There were also those long-tenured JNF members held in high esteem from their membership like Dr. Sol Lizerbram, Ronald S. Lauder and Jeffrey E. Levine.

I heard story after story of how Russell Robinson, JNF’s CEO facilitated multiple members to accomplish whatever their big dream was to help Israel. I couldn’t help but notice the sincere warmth from the members toward these leaders as well as their affection toward the membership. No wonder this organization was thriving in a world competing for people’s attention and donations.

The JNF raises significant funds to support their strategies through collaboration with partners whether they’re financed by members, concerned Jews throughout the diaspora and within Israel, or by organizations and companies all over the world.

It was held this year in Phoenix, AZ, next year it will be in our capital in Washington, DC — it seems a necessary venue given the essential need today for our Jewish voices to be heard, and in 2020 it will be in our beloved Israel! I can’t wait.

It was one of those occasions that I could truly describe as having found my “peeps.” I suspected it would be true, but to experience it was uplifting.

I had always known about the JNF. As a girl I remember bringing coins to Hebrew School to put in the metal JNF box so we could plant trees in Israel. Still today, planting trees is a primary focus — making the desert bloom.

The justifiable pride for Israel with their extensive portfolio of innovation (known as the Start-up Nation), humanitarian efforts extended from Israel throughout the world and determination, despite their rough neighborhood some of whom try to annihilate them on a daily basis, was palpable.

But then on Saturday terror struck that affected me down to my kishkas (guts). The murders of 11 blameless Jewish worshippers on October 27, 2018, the worst hate crime against Jews in recent U.S. history.

With the growth of anti-Semitism that I often write about, I was deeply saddened but not surprised. Egregiously at a newborn’s celebration of life, a b’rit mila, innocents were killed.  May there memory be a blessing upon those who loved and knew them.

Then as I was coming out of one of the sessions and passing by the main entrance, I was shocked to see a man come in the front door and unfurl a Nazi flag. He was immediately taken away by security. Case closed, or was it?

Later we heard of Palestinian protestors kept outside by the heightened security well beyond the hotel gates. We had been kept safe within our JNF womb. The JNF creed of positivity for Israel and not giving the haters power had been maintained.

Finally when we returned home, a temple in the bedroom community of Irvine, Congregation Beth Jacob, was vandalized as F_ck Jews F_ck had been spray-painted in red on the temple outside wall. Is this what we’ve come to as a society?

Given the demonstrations against Israel directed at our Jewish college kids by the Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel (BDS) and Students for a Just Palestine (SJP) and incitement on campuses across the U.S. and Europe, I had feared the probability of more violence against Jewish students. Our students can be attacked verbally and sometimes physically although I prayed that I would be wrong and Peace would prevail.

It’s hard to believe that in 2018 Jews on many college campuses can be physically confronted and/or attacked and resolutions passed with the intention to prevent the universities from associating with Israel.

Anti-Semitism today is often portrayed as anti-Israel. Disturbingly, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported in 2017 anti-Semitic incidences surged by 60%.

In Israel, IDF soldiers walk the streets protecting citizens with their machine guns dangling casually on their shoulders like purses. Jews are threatened daily by the possibility of terror attacks from missiles, bombs, car rammings, stabbings, and now fire and explosive-bearing balloons and kites. Their enemy is out in the open.

I pray that our people won’t succumb to a similar need to be protected here at home in the United States. Today many may think that thought absurd, but we wouldn’t have predicted the Pennsylvania massacre nor the untenable situation for our college kids on their campuses—the public and often fellow Jews aren’t aware of the battleground the students face just trying to get an education.

Will people realize these lethal shots are warnings that need to be stopped now? Will brazen hate crimes continue, or will U.S. citizens finally put their foots down and say, STOP IT! BIGOTRY IS UNACCEPTABLE TOWARD ANY GROUP!

When Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel, famous Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor was asked why he was present to protest another genocide when he obviously wasn’t directly involved? He answered that when he needed help as he suffered in the concentration camps, others didn’t come. Will they help us now?

I enjoyed our particular group of locals with whom I had dinner, coordinated by our kind and helpful Director, Lisa Grier. I was taken aback when I discovered that I was sitting next to Robert Sylk. Not that I knew who he was at first, but later discovered his father had purchased the ship Exodus 1947, known as the “Ship that Launched a Nation.” The passengers were mostly Holocaust survivors who tried to enter British Mandatory Palestine in 1947 later made famous by Leon Uris’ book and the film starring Paul Newman, Exodus. What an honor.

Robert Sylk is no slouch himself. He has many accomplishments and awards and is an active community leader, philanthropist and businessman.

A series of acts of loving kindness affected me more personally when after having a charming, fun Uber ride to the conference center one morning, I left my cell phone in my driver’s car. Oey, how do you spell panic? Within its case was my phone, credit card, license…see my point? Was someone now buying that new tv they had been coveting? How was I going to get on the plane in a couple of days without identification? Was it in her car? Had I dropped it?

Between the conference worker at the front desk with her calming smile, and use of her phone to contact Uber (not an easy task if you don’t need a ride) and a recent temple friend who happened to be at the conference unbeknownst to me until I ran into her amidst my tsuris (problem) when she let me use her phone for the internet to find Uber’s number, I knew I was in friendly hands.

The call to my husband shall we say wasn’t as pleasant when the Find my Phone app on my phone wasn’t accessible. I recently had changed the password and was too upset to remember what I had changed it to…this was an obvious example of why there is that bumper sticker easily available…sh_t happens.

The piece de resistance was when my angel of an Uber driver called the conference center as I was standing there and said she was on her way, cell phone in hand, responding to the continuous buzzing coming from the back seat where calls to my vibrating cell phone (sound turned off out of respect for the conference speakers) let her know she still had a visitor in the car that someone was trying to reach.

How do you spell gratitude? I felt blessed. Let’s just say beyond the Uber $15 charge for lost items left in the car, she received probably her biggest tip for the day (I didn’t know she received the fee anyway from Uber…I’m telling you just in case you ever have a similar issue, and I hope you never will.) Oey. Thank goodness for Lady Clairol.

While at the conference, I was able to get a taste of the myriad projects to get involved with and while writing this blog I became familiar with JNF’s seven areas of focus.

Can you believe that donors and others who love Israel today can actually help build the country of Israel, from infrastructure like houses and increasing water supplies, all the while allowing for those with special needs to be provided for with equal access to thrive?  After all, as a country, it’s only 70 years old and needs our help. The projects include:

  1. Community Building: With ninety percent of Israel’s population living in the Tel Aviv-Haifa-Jerusalem Corridor, the JNF concentrates on moving people into the Negev in the south or the Galilee in the north by making it more hospitable to new families whether through building houses or planting trees. It was so exciting to hear that in 2018, people were still participating in helping others become modern pioneers.
  2. Disabilities & Special Needs: With nearly 13% of Israel’s citizens considered physically or mentally challenged, improving the quality of life in Israel for all its citizens is a JNF goal, pledging that “no member of Israeli society is left behind.” If you have one of these challenges, JNF helps to ensure your talents are assessed and you can still serve with pride in the IDF, equal to all of your fellow Israeli citizens. Additionally JNF provides unparalleled rehabilitative services, medical care and special education for people with severe disabilities, helping them reach their potential for communication and development while not neglecting the opportunities provided by enjoying nature through hiking and even therapeutic horseback riding.
  3. Education: JNF is the largest provider of Israeli engagement with U.S. Jewish youth of all ages from kindergarten to college. Their Blue Box Bob collections from the young to plant trees are reminiscent of my youth. Additionally numerous outreach trips are provided, many free of charge or low-cost like the college years Birthright trips or study abroad programs at the Alexander Muss High School, which educates students regarding programs about water and water conservation, the environment & sustainability and special needs and inclusiveness.
  4. Forestry & Green Innovations: Since their founding the JNF has planted over 250 million trees in Israel! Amazing, through the JNF donations they help turn the desert into forests.
  5. Heritage Sites: More than 150 heritage sites are made available to the public — some dating back to ancient times, some to Israel’s rebirth during the first Zionist settlement in the 1800’s and others to its 1948 War of Independence — all powerful symbols that inspire Israelis and Jews throughout the diaspora. There’s even the 9/11 Living Memorial located in Jerusalem’s Arazim Park, which commemorates the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and stands as a reminder of shared loss and a call for collective understanding.
  6. Water: JNF has been a significant factor in making Israel 100% water independent. Can you imagine a country largely comprised of desert that has managed their water so effectively that they are #1 in the world currently recycling 85% of their water? The country with the second best record for water recycling is Spain with 25%. I found this impressive. The JNF has contributed significantly by building 250 water reservoirs. The next goal is to increase water recycling to 95%. We wish them luck and I’m sure they will achieve their latest goal.

So that’s my introduction and what might be yours as well to the Jewish National Fund. Just like when I went to Israel, it felt like I was at home.

I suppose what happened and what we learned about was a microcosm of the United States. In many places, positive change is happening, yet in others we still can find the scourge of intolerance and bigotry.

I’ll be writing future blogs on the JNF because I learned so much in the sessions, I couldn’t describe the information in just one.

I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…

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