Eighty-seven-year-old Bob Levine of Teaneck, New Jersey, might not look like the classic image of a pioneer.
But wherever he travels in Israel’s desert Central Arava region, that is what he is called.
Levine and his wife, Helen, came to Israel with friends and family last week on his 98th trip to Israel. The group visited sites in the Arava and throughout Israel that the Levines sponsored, dedicated or raised money for through Jewish National Fund- USA.
“Bob has been involved in the growth of the Arava from the start, facilitating many projects that improved the quality of life in the region,” Central Arava Regional Council head Eyal Bloom said. “We see Bob as a real partner, friend and a member of the Arava family, and we are proud to work with him and Helen on the region’s continuing development. Bob provides an example of an enthusiastic Zionist who does not just talk Zionism, he does Zionism.”
Between visits to the region’s much needed medical center, impressive scientific research-and-development center and crocodile farm, Levine received praise for his tireless work in making the desert bloom.
“He believed in this region when it was just sand and flies,” Central Arava Regional Council Resource Development director Noa Zer said about Levine. “Yes, we still have sand and too many flies, but we now have so much more.”
Levine first came to Israel as a counselor on the first Young Judaea mission to Israel in 1951. He fell in love with the country but did not come back until 1968, when he saw what JNF had done to develop the country.
Since then, he has served as JNF’s vice president of education, vice president of campaign, national treasurer and chairman of the organization’s budget and finance, labor relations and missions committees.
He has brought more than 600 people to Israel to see the country through JNF’s eyes.
“I fell in love with this part of the country, not because of the climate, but because of the people here,” Levine told The Jerusalem Post in the Arava. “The hospitality in this area of one Jew helping another Jew is nothing like what I see in the US. What the people here have done is amazing.”
Levine spoke about the successes of agriculture in the Arava, where more than 50% of Israel’s fresh vegetable exports are grown, despite climate conditions that are far from ideal for farming. That success is being studied by students from developing countries at the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, an agricultural school that is supported by JNF.
“For me, seeing the Arava was a dream come true, because I saw it’s possible,” a student at the school from Kenya, named Felix, told Levine’s group. “If Israel is able to succeed in agriculture in a desert environment, it shows me my country’s problems can also be overcome.”
At the R & D center that Levine and his group visited on the trip, scientists develop crops and agricultural techniques for adapting cultivation to the extreme temperatures, aridity and water salinity of the Arava.
“You don’t expect such scientific research in the desert,” Levine said. “Their discoveries of what will grow and won’t grow has helped the world. Israel sends people across the globe to teach them what and how to grow. All of that happened in a country besieged by the world and endangered by its neighbors. The people here are still concerned about how to improve life, and they do it with a smile on their faces.”
Speaking of improving the world, many believe that Levine also had a helping hand in advancing peace prospects between Israel and Jordan.
The same day the first Oslo peace agreement was signed between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 1993, longtime JNF Board of Directors chairman Moshe Rivlin told Levine no peace deal would succeed without water. Levine facilitated a million dollar gift to JNF for reservoirs, which the donor wanted built half in Jordan. That was not possible, because Israel did not have relations with the Hashemite Kingdom.
So the reservoir was purposely built close to Jordan to make sure the Jordanians noticed it. Six months later, the Jordanians called JNF and asked for help building their own reservoirs. JNF responded that it could not do that without peace with Israel.
The peace agreement between Israel and Jordan that was signed in October 1994 has a large section on water cooperation.
“I think my meeting at that time did have a positive impact toward Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan,” Levine said. “That story makes me proud of my relationship with JNF, and it speaks volumes of the impact JNF has, and how a donor can make a huge difference.”
Zer said Levine has been involved in helping bring people to the Arava for decades. She said it is hard to persuade people to move to the region because it is far from the center of the country and its challenges are significant.
Water in the region must be treated before it can be drunk, because it is salty, so all water in the seven communities is treated before it comes out from faucets. Earth is brought from other regions and treated, because the land in the region does not readily facilitate agriculture.
But from a Nahal outpost at Ein Yahav, the Central Arava has expanded to 4,000 people in seven communities, who have 550 family farms that support the region.
The fastest growing of the communities, Tzukim, was formed 14 years ago with help from JNF and is now up to 100 families.
“Our agricultural success is a scientific wonder,” Zer said. “Bob and JNF have played a very significant role in enabling that success.”
Zer told the group that desalination is only done for the small domestic population of the area. Salty water can be used for crops, including delicious dates that were given out on the trip.
“Every drop of water is evaluated here to use as best as we can,” she said. “In the future, water will be the world’s most desired commodity, more than gold, more than oil. You meet your accountant once a year, your rabbi once a week, but you meet your farmer three times a day at the dinner table.”
The medical center, research facility and international campus have brought a strong population to the region. Now the municipality is embarking on an effort to double the region’s population in a decade.
“We wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t think we had the backing to attract young people,” Zer said. “Bob has taken a leading role in all of JNF’s work in the region. He is not the top donor but he is certainly one of the driving forces and the pioneers of the Arava. We can say he is Mr. Arava.” This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.