(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Bob Levine will pay his 81st visit to Israel this November, where he will take part in the inauguration of the Pipe Bridge over the Beersheba River; an important stage in the development of Beersheba River Park. For Bob Levine, this represents a landmark in his volunteer work for KKL-JNF USA and the enormous help he has provided for its extensive activities to promote the further development of Israel. Levine attributes his involvement in KKL-JNF to “a green patch in the middle of the desert.”
Levine spotted the aforementioned green patch from the window of the plane that carried himself, his wife Helen and their two children to Eilat over 40 years ago. “In 1968, I suggested to my wife that we spend a month in Israel," he says. "This was my second visit to the country, after a prolonged absence – my first visit was in 1951. On the flight to Eilat I looked out of the window as we flew over Beersheba and the surrounding desert, and quite suddenly, I saw a big patch of green standing out against the yellow desert background. Right from the beginning of the flight, I saw how green was slowly taking over the country, and that what had been brown and yellow south of Rishon LeZion and Rehovot in the early 1950s was now in 1968, all green cultivated land. That green patch in the desert around Beersheba moved me to tears, and I started to ask people what it was. My sister, a Jerusalemite, suggested that I approach KKL-JNF to try finding out from them what I'd seen. I described to the people at KKL-JNF what I'd seen from the plane, and they identified it almost immediately. ‘Yatir Forest,’ they told me. 'How did a forest come to be in the middle of a desert?' I asked. ‘Through one tree at a time,’ the KKL-JNF staff member answered. At that moment I made a decision: if the Israelis could plant a forest in the desert, then the least I could do was to help them raise money for this effort.”Since that conversation in 1968, Levine has spent a significant amount of time in the air, flying back and forth between Israel and his home in New Jersey. His inner conviction that the work of KKL-JNF is vital has made Levine the most successful fundraiser for KKL-JNF projects in Israel in the entire United States. When he is not busy raising money, Levine works as a lawyer and an accountant.
The seeds of Levines’s commitment to Judaism and Israel were planted by his family, who lived in Brooklyn, New York. “As a youngster, I joined a youth group for young Zionists in Brooklyn, which eventually became one of the first chapters of Hadassah’s Young Judea movement,” he says. “This was my first encounter not just with Jewish history, but also with Hebrew songs and folkdances, all under the leadership of Norman Sheynin, an inspiring educator who made a great impression on me. He also recruited me as a madrich (instructor) for the Tel-Yehuda summer camp in 1949 and 1950. Everyone there except me spoke Hebrew, and I particularly remember that the composer Shmuel Freshko was one of the madrichim. It was at that summer camp that I met Helen, who would later become my wife.”
In 1951, Levine's activities in Young Judea had got him noticed, and he was asked to head the first young people’s delegation on a volunteer mission to Israel. “A young woman headed the group with me, and together we were responsible for 18 youngsters. On this trip to the young State, we traveled only as far south as Beersheba. Among other things, we spent a few days working at Kibbutz Hatzerim, which had only just been founded and didn’t even have a dining room yet. They set us down beside a pile of wooden planks that had been used for building and we had to take out all the big nails and straighten them so that they could be re-used. At meal time they served us something that from a distance looked like sour cream or yoghurt with blackberries in it, but when we went over to fill our plates, all the ‘blackberries’ that hadn’t drowned flew away! They turned out to be flies, but we ate, because we were hungry, we were young, and we knew that in the Israel of 1951, there was food rationing and there were transit camps where tens of thousands of people lived in huts made of tin and cloth.”
After that first experience, Levine accompanied dozens of other groups large and small on visits to Israel. Some were groups of donors whom Levine had convinced to come and see for themselves what needed to be done if the situation in this small young country was to be turned around. Everything he does is done out of a profound conviction, along with great personal charm, irresistible enthusiasm, and always, with optimism.
Levine never sets out on a trip without his magic kit, a small case containing a few items of standard conjuring equipment. “I like to perform conjuring tricks, and on a number of occasions they’ve helped me out in unusual situations,” he explains. “Once, shortly after the peace agreement with Jordan was signed and the borders were opened, I went with around 250 JNF supporters to spend a few days touring Jordan, after their visit to Israel. We arrived at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge and after we’d crossed over, we stopped at the Jordanian border control. The process took a long time in those days, and it was conducted in a small hut that was later replaced by the new border terminal. Our huge pile of passports was handed over to one of the Jordanian officers, and we embarked upon what we expected to be a long wait. Next to my bus I noticed a group of curious Jordanian children, and I went over to them. I took my little tricks out of my case and began to entertain them, without knowing a word of Arabic, of course. The children’s delighted shouts attracted the attention of the Jordanian officer, who came over to us to see what the fun was all about. He was very impressed. ‘I wish I could do tricks like that,’ he said with a smile. ‘You can,’ I told him, and added, ‘let’s see you perform a different kind of trick by conjuring up our 250 passports from that hut, all stamped and authorized!’ The officer smiled again, went over to the hut, and after just a few minutes came back with the box full of the stamped passports.”
After he returned from his second visit to Israel in 1968, Levine began to wage his campaign for the recognition of KKL-JNF as an important Jewish organization in the US. He established the first JNF Council within the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA); most of the council activists had never visited Israel, and were working for a cause of which they had no close personal knowledge, except for what they had learned through people like Bob Levine.
Levine has worn and continues to wear many 'hats' in KKL-JNF USA. Before he became involved in his life work, he had assumed a number of important roles in Jewish American organizations; including Israel Bonds, the World Zionist Organization and Hadassah. During his decades of activism on behalf of KKL-JNF, he has seen Israel change and develop in front of his eyes. In parallel, he has also watched KKL-JNF change and grow in order to accommodate to these developments. “What strikes me today,” he says, “is the construction boom with its large number of cranes on the one hand, and on the other hand, the large number of cranes of a different sort that flock to the Hula Valley every winter. I like this analogy of the two different types of cranes. The two most significant events that have taken place in Israel in my opinion, are the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 and the way KKL-JNF activities have conquered the desert and pushed back its frontiers. In recent years, KKL-JNF’s role has been undergoing a transformation, and more emphasis has been placed on water conservation and applied agricultural research. KKL-JNF, while still deeply involved in the development of the Negev and the Arava, has directed some of its attention to the care of Israel’s historical sites in places like Rehovot and the blockade-runners’ (ma`pilim) detention camp at Atlit.”
On his 81st visit to Israel, Bob is still striving to enlist donors and supporters for the country’s continued development. “Recently I’ve been trying to raise funds from wealthy people inside Israel as well, whom I meet socially or through my work,” he explained. “We’ve yet to see how far I’ll get in the course of my next 80 visits to the country. My involvement with Israel is a love story that began on my first visit in 1951, and it just keeps getting stronger with the passing years. I have only one regret; that as a young man I didn’t spend more time with my children. I know that if I had immigrated to Israel as my sister did, that wouldn’t have happened.”
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