By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — What’s your image of the Jewish National Fund? For most Jews, it’s the iconic blue box and raising money to plant trees in Israel.
“Most people think you put money in a tin can for trees, but it is so much more,” said Fonda Arbetter, a JNF supporter who helped host an informational gathering at the home of Fredell and Allan Shulkin on Nov. 2, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
Founded in 1901, JNF played a key role in building the infrastructure and purchasing the land that would become Israel. Yet its North Texas presence has fallen off over the years, leaving mostly memories of blue boxes.
JNF’s local, regional and national leadership is trying to update its image, spread the message of the organization’s current goals and generate excitement and support in the Metroplex.
Current and potential supporters got a chance to meet with and hear from some of those leaders, as well as the Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman. JNF Chief Development Officer Rick Krosnick and Southwest Senior Campaign Executive Chuck Caughey spoke, and Southwest Executive Director Reagan E. Weil was also on hand.
“It is evident this community wants JNF to be active here,” Krosnick said afterward. “At last night’s event, the age of the people spanned from early 40s to 80, and our message of JNF being a big tent for the Jewish people resonated with them.”
Hoffman, the featured speaker, is the chief political correspondent for the Post. While he talked more broadly about Israel and his experiences, he touched on some of the key problems JNF is working to address.
“JNF is Israel beyond the conflict, what’s beautiful about Israel, and that’s why I like speaking for it,” he said. “It highlights the consensus we can be proud of.”
He told a story about how his son wanted to see the country’s biggest playground. It’s an indoor playground — because of rocket fire across the Gaza border — built by JNF in Sderot.
And that’s the part of the country people need to focus on, he said.
“The key to Israel’s future is settling the Negev,” Hoffman said. “If we don’t settle the Negev, we’re in trouble.
“People think that Israel is successful now, but they don’t realize the gap between the haves and have-nots is one of the widest in the world. Those have-nots require immediate assistance.”
The cost of living in the center — the economic hub of the land — is rising fast. Real estate prices in Tel Aviv have surpassed Manhattan, Krosnick said.
As a result, JNF has focused on the Negev and Galilee. Krosnick said this is a chance for younger Jews, who might think the work of building Israel is done, to get involved.
“We have raised more than $461 million from 400,000 donors in just the last four years,” Krosnick said. “Those dollars are supporting our vision to build the Negev and Galilee so all of Israel’s citizens can have the best quality of life for the next 70 years.
“We must create the conditions to support 500,000 Israelis moving to the Negev and 300,000 Israelis to the Galilee. This is the only solution to help the economic climate where the average Israeli, who is tethered to the expensive center, can find a better quality of life to support their families.”
Krosnick mentioned projects like the building of health care facilities and homes for farmers along agricultural corridors, such as the border with Jordan. Many young people have left these communities that provide most of the nation’s exports, but now they are interested in coming back. JNF has increased the housing stock by 30 percent.
JNF’s seven areas of work include community building, water solutions, disabilities and special needs, research and development, education and advocacy, forestry and green innovations, and heritage site preservations.
Arbetter said she saw these in action throughout the land. Although she had gone to Israel three times before, she saw the relationship between the nation and JNF in a new way.
“Jay (her husband) and I took a private tour two years ago, but we saw things with JNF we never could with a private guide. You have to do both to get a good overview,” she said.
“We got to see actual projects that JNF was in charge of. If you are with JNF, Israelis treat you like royalty.”
Arbetter became involved after meeting Alyse Golden Berkley, president of the board for the Los Angeles area, at a wedding.
“She told me what she and her family did in Israel, and I thought that was very cool,” Arbetter said.
When she went on a JNF mission to Israel this year, there were Jews from across the U.S., but she was the only one from Texas. She’s hoping to help spread the message enough so that things change.
Arbetter said Dallas is very involved with AIPAC, Jewish Family Service and the Federation, and she’d like to see the local community embrace JNF the same way.
“What I experienced in Israel, I wanted to share with my friends and acquaintances in Dallas,” she said.
Caughey has been working over the past year to build up interest in the region. He said he sees an opportunity, and cited the organization’s complete focus on Israel, and how 86 cents on every dollar goes directly to the cause.
About 100 people attended, and had a chance to hear about JNF’s work from Arbetter, in addition to the professional speakers.
Krosnick said the format, where people hear speakers and mingle, has given JNF a chance to really tell its story.
He also mentioned that there are programs for high school and college students who want to get involved, as well as those for young professionals.
“JNF is here for the long haul, and we have a long-term vision to connect our friends in the Dallas area to Israel as lifelong partners of the land and people of Israel through Jewish National Fund,” he said.