The billion-dollar mission for Israel

Sowing the seeds of hope: JNF-USA leaders talk about their vision for the future.

December 8, 2016 11:33
Israel fire

Putting out fires around Jerusalem last month. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 Lauren Kaufman-Bergmann, 30, not only loves her work for the Jewish National Fund, but she met her husband through JNFuture, the leading environmental NGO’s branch for young people.

Kaufman-Bergmann has chaired JNFuture’s national board in Washington DC for the past four years. On December 4, she returned to her home state of Florida to marry Nelson France, who happens to be JNFuture’s director of campus and high school activities.

“As if the simcha of getting married wasn’t enough, the fact that Nelson and I met at a JNFuture event and that Jewish National Fund plays such an important part of our lives, both professionally and personally, makes it all the sweeter,” Kaufman-Bergmann tells The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview.

LAUREN KAUFMAN-BERGMANN.(photo credit: Courtesy)

JNFuture’s goal is to engage the next generation of Jewish National Fund donors and leaders in the United States, she says.

“We are a group of young people between the ages of 22 and 40, dedicated to furthering JNF’s mission in Israel, spreading the word to young professionals in the US, and raising money to benefit the programs and projects that JNF supports,” says Kaufman-Bergmann.

“Most importantly, we aim to bring young leaders to Israel to experience JNF firsthand, and come back to the States and help build one of our chapters around the country.”

She has big dreams for JNFuture, which currently has more than 1,000 members in 18 chapters in cities across the US, and is the fastest growing division of JNF donors.

“Our next trip to Israel is this month. It’s a volunteer vacation, a service trip, and we’re going to add a visit to either plant trees for reforestation efforts in areas damaged by the recent fires or visit victims of the fires, so that the young leaders who we bring to Israel can see the impact of JNF for themselves,” she says.

“I’m also already working on our big trip to Israel next May to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. I’m going to be bringing 100 young leaders on their first JNF experience to see the great work we do on the ground.”

Kaufman-Bergmann attributes her involvement with JNF to her upbringing.

“I grew up in a Zionist home and in a family that taught me you have to give back to the community that gives to you,” she says.

“I was privileged to visit Israel at a young age, and immediately started my connection to the land – not only because of my strong Jewish identity but because of what Israel symbolizes, and the resilience of the Jewish people.

When JNF came into my life, it was during a period that I was looking for a way to give back. I wanted something that focused on environmental consciousness.

I wanted something that valued people, and I wanted something that would have a tangible impact.”

Regarding her own plans, she looks forward to “a long and prosperous relationship with the organization.”

“I believe in the Hebrew expression, midor ledor, from generation to generation. Nothing happens unless we sustain it and pass it on to the next generation. With JNFuture, I feel that I’m giving to the next generation,” she says.

“JNFuture is the way that I feel like I’m leaving a lasting impression with my community here, and to the country of Israel, which I love so much. The leaders I work with at JNF, like our CEO, [Russell F. Robinson] and our president, [Jeffrey E. Levine], are like family to me. I’m JNF for life.”

JEFFREY E. LEVINE.(photo credit: Courtesy)

FOR HIS part, Levine has put engaging the younger generation at the top of his agenda since assuming the presidency of JNF-USA in 2013.

“Getting young people involved has certainly become a priority during my presidency at the Jewish National Fund,” Levine says.

“What we are trying to do is get young people interested in their Jewish roots and Israel through JNFuture or programs at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. We have learned you can get young people interested in Jewish history and their Israeli connection through Birthright or our missions to Israel.

We have also learned that the way to engage young people is through increasing awareness of issues such as sustainability or human rights, which are high up in their minds and very strong in the State of Israel.”

Levine says that the way the Jewish National Fund rallied so swiftly to help Israel out in the wake of the fires that raged across the country toward the end of November – many of them blamed on arson – is a good example of how the organization works.

“I feel very fortunate to be part of the Jewish National Fund of the USA because our organization, which comprises more than 2,000 lay leaders and nearly 200 professionals, is in a position to respond immediately to any needs Israel has at any given time,” he says. “Because of the network of contacts that we have through our relationships and through our current database, which is in excess of 2.5 million households, we are able to reach out and communicate with all of our donors here in the United States to respond to any situation as it occurs in the State of Israel, including the recent fires.”

Levine says his organization’s “Billion Dollar Roadmap” campaign for Israel, unveiled in 2013, is almost halfway there.

“Together with all of you,” he told its October conference in New York City, “we have propelled our organization forward, well on its way to achieving the 10-year Billion Dollar Roadmap we introduced just a short few years ago. Today, we are nearing $400 million and going strong.”

On November 29, the 69th anniversary of the UN’s Partition Plan, the JNF held its annual #GivingTuesday campaign, which this year was called “Doubling Your Impact” because every donation made to JNF was matched by the Gene & Marlene Epstein Humanitarian Fund and JNF Chairman Ronald S. Lauder.

To what does Levine attribute the organization’s financial success? “We are a layperson-driven organization.

Our leaders, our societies and our affiliation groups all get like-minded people involved, and I cannot begin to tell you how much effort they put in.

We have people in 45 cities across the US and in each place we have very active, hardworking, committed presidents, committees, and campaign leaders, all of whom truly believe in what they are selling: the land and the people of Israel.

In addition, we have been blessed with wonderful professional leadership, starting from Russell F. Robinson – the head – and on down.”

JNF-USA is an independent branch of the larger Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet LeYisrael (JNF-KKL), which was established in 1901. Now under the leadership of the world chairman, Daniel Atar, Israel’s primary environmental NGO has developed 250,000 acres of land, planted more than 250 million trees, built 200 dams and reservoirs, and established more than 2,000 parks.

Following the recent fires in Israel, which destroyed some 10,000 acres of land, including forests, open space and gutted almost 600 homes, JNF-USA stepped up its fundraising efforts to help the nation recover and assist its Israeli partner organizations with resources and aid.

“This disaster has been especially brutal not only for the many thousands of residents forced to leave their enflamed homes, but also for us, the principal caretaker of the Land of Israel, because of the destruction it caused to the environment and landscape,” says Atar.

“These fires set us back many years and it will take a lot of time and effort to rebuild and regrow.”

“For a week our beloved homeland was engulfed in devastating fires forcing hundreds of families to abandon their homes on the front lines,” adds Robinson.

“We are on the ground in Israel every day improving lives, but now we are needed more than ever. To answer the great need, we launched a special campaign for the intensive reforestation of areas destroyed by fires, as well as providing critically needed firefighting trucks and equipment.”

JNF-USA’s fundraising efforts included raising $10 million; 550 new firetrucks at $125,000 each; 10 new fire stations at $1 million each; placement of fire suppression systems in inclusive parks; new fire watchtowers, and emergency assistance for housing, repairs to homes and businesses.

Asked what his vision for the future is, Levine says: “We are focused on the north and south and boosting those region’s economies, developing new communities and laying the infrastructure to support the next 100 years of Israeli growth. I think the biggest issue facing Israel is peace, and God willing, we will have peace in our time. My vision is to continue building Israel as a healthy and strong Jewish state.”

Asked if he enjoys his job, Levine laughs, saying he doesn’t know whether he took it on through divine intervention or cosmic coincidence.

“My birthday happens to be on May 15, the day of Israel’s independence. The other thing is that I grew up on a street in Brooklyn that happened to be named Herzl Street. Some people say I was born to be president of the Jewish National Fund...”

NINA PAUL, who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, has been involved with JNF for more than 30 years. Terry Katz created the initial Sapphire Society (women giving a minimum of $5,000 per year) back in 1999. Paul helped establish the “Women for Israel” (WFI) four years ago together with past president Louise Dabrow.

NINA PAUL.(photo credit: Courtesy)

WFI consists of three giving levels: the $360 “Women’s Alliance,” the $1,800 “Chai Society” and the $5,000 “Sapphire Society.”

After a dazzling 30-year career in the jewelry industry, Paul was all in.

“We formed a national board, an executive board, and I became president one year ago,” Paul says. “What I love about my role is that I get to travel around the country, meet so many wonderful women who share a love of Israel.”

Over the past four years, the WFI’s campaign has grown to $20 million.

It is “the obligation of every Jew in the Diaspora to support Israel as our homeland,” Paul says.

“We need and deserve this country and it’s imperative to the world that Israel remains strong and relevant. There is no other organization that I know of that is completely ‘Israel.’ From the minute one wakes up until one goes to sleep, JNF is there providing the best quality of life possible, joining forces with numerous partners with a common goal,” she says.

She loves the JNF’s philosophy of inclusiveness.

“My motto has been ‘unity of community’ and it applies perfectly to JNF and our partnerships. If one truly wants to make a difference, there is some way for everyone, be it environmentally or dealing with people with disabilities,” she says.

“JNF makes sure that no individual is left behind as our Jewish values teach us. One example is we provide beautiful experiences in nature for people with disabilities and abused women, along with their children through our partnership with Lotem [an Israeli organization offering activities in nature to people with special needs].”

The biggest challenge facing Israel and the Jewish people today, she believes, is educating the masses.

“Ignorance is what creates fear and hatred. Educating our young and providing them with the proper tools to combat BDS and the negativity that is pervasive today regarding Israel is crucial.

JNF, once again, steps up to the plate with investing in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, the Caravan for Democracy on college campuses and our Positive Israel campaign. Bringing educators, Jews and non-Jews, to see the real Israel has proven extremely effective.”

Asked about her own dream, Paul says, “My hope for the future of JNF is that we continue to tell our story, continue educating everyone we can about the vastness of the work we do. I have great faith in our future, as our JNFuture leadership is outstanding. I had the privilege and honor of being a mentor this past summer to a group of 20 young future leaders. We are in great hands.”

Related Content

Yellow police tape lies on the road as federal agents work at a crime scene in the town in Mexico
September 17, 2019
NY Jewish day school admin arrested for ‘production of child pornography’