Is there a unique connection between women and philanthropy? Shelly Shor Gerson, co-chair of Jewish National Fund-USA’s (JNF-USA) Women for Israel, in Cincinnati, Ohio, thinks so. “Women have a from-the-ground-up sense of the whole – not just building buildings, but thinking of everything,” she said. “We are mothers and have that sense of taking care of others that appeals to us,” added Lynne Merriam, JNF-USA’s board president of Tampa, Florida. Gerson and Merriam are leaders in Jewish National Fund , a group of female philanthropists who share a passion for building a prosperous future for the land and people of Israel. Through the organization, women connect with each other on many levels – professional, emotional and ideological – with the common goal of changing lives in Israel and supporting the ongoing development of the Jewish homeland. Contributions from women comprise 20% of JNF-USA’s annual campaign. “Many of us are very philanthropic, and many of us have money in our own right,” said Merriam, who founded a successful company conducting clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies. “We have quite a few lawyers and doctors in our ranks, and as women we are powerhouses with a strong philanthropic sense.“Women for Israel has enabled me to be philanthropic in a way that I always wanted to be.”And it’s not just talk. Gerson and Merriam are matching all donations up to $1 million through May 31 for JNF-USA’s month-long Women for Israel campaign.
For Gerson, supporting JNF-USA has been a family tradition for three generations – so much so, that she and her daughter Alana Gerson Levi, are co-chairs of the Ohio Valley Women for Israel group. “There’s a lot to be proud of being Jewish,” says Gerson, “and Israel mirrors how I feel inside. JNF-USA is a wonderful vehicle that helps turn Herzl’s dreams into reality. Israel is not just a land – it’s a miracle. I believe in the JNF mission.”Alana shares her mother’s sentiments. “For over 2,000 years we had a dream of going back to the land of Israel, and collectively that was accomplished, but it was just the beginning of the road. Since 1901, JNF-USA has been there and their plans are well thought-out and well-strategized. JNF-USA has a proven track-record that time and again proves it is capable of creating a more prosperous Israel.”
Merriam had visited Israel for decades, but, she admitted, “I always felt like a tourist. I never felt like I was a part of it and didn’t get to know people.” It was when she became active in JNF-USA that her feelings changed. “JNF is where my heart is. It is a forward-looking, warm, and familial organization. Now, I know people from all over Israel and the US. We are there for each other.”Merriam, whose adult son, Rod, has disabilities, is a member of Jewish National Fund’s Task Force on Disabilities, and is a proud JNF-USA supporter of LOTEM-Making Israel Accessible, the leading organization in Israel that offers accessible hikes and educational nature activities to children and adults with special needs. “My husband and I, together with Rod, have always been always hikers and campers. We’re outdoor people.”Over the past year, LOTEM has taken 35,000 children with special needs on school trips, made 19 museums and heritage sites accessible for all, and reached more than 50,000 individuals at its weekly nature clubs across the country. The physical centerpiece of LOTEM’s activities is in Emek HaShalom (Valley of Peace), an ecological nature park in northern Israel, near the town of Yokneam. Participants with special needs join in creative workshops, pressing olives to make olive oil, harvesting wheat, making flour, baking pita bread, crushing grapes to make wine, and drawing water from an ancient well. “Everything we do here is the old-fashioned way,” says JNF-USA-LOTEM liaison Gaylee Schif. On a recent visit, the 40-acre park echoed with the sounds of young visitors participating in the workshops, as the fragrant smells of plants and flowers floated through the air and the bright sunlight made its way through the trees.Schif explains that the park, which last year hosted more than 8,000 children with special needs, has visitors from special needs schools as well as schools which integrate special needs students into the regular curriculum. Of note, Emek HaShalom features “The Path of Creation,” the only hiking trail in Israel built for all-terrain wheelchairs, which allows wheelchair-bound participants to join hikes. “Every stop along the trail represents one day of creation and one element in nature,” says Schif. “Women raise money with their hearts,” said JNFuture National Chair Stephanie Kelman of Phoenix, Arizona. (JNFuture is JNF’s division for 22-40-year-olds.) “I’m not saying men don’t, but women are able to reach other women on a more emotional level and relate to some of the issues that we’re working toward a bit more personally. I predict Jewish National Fund-USA is going to be a ‘women-run’ organization in the next 20 years, for sure.”
This year alone, the number of women on JNF-USA’s national board doubled and more women are stepping up to fill roles on local boards and committees. Almost half of the leadership positions at Jewish National Fund across the US are held by women – including 22 national board members, 19 local board presidents, and 150 task force members. “In 2013, women contributed a little more than $11 million to our annual campaign,” said San Diego attorney and JNF-USA National President of Women for Israel Myra Chack Fleischer. “In just six short years, that number ballooned to more than $22 million – an incredible 100% increase.”In 1999, Women for Israel was founded under the leadership of Terry L. Katz of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In almost two decades, JNF-USA’s Women for Israel has become a powerhouse within the organization with over 50,000 donors across the country contributing more than 25% of the dollars raised each year to improve the quality of life in Israel for all who call it home. In fact, one of JNF-USA’s largest and most successful initiatives started out as an idea that was developed through Women for Israel.“The town of Zukim in the Arava [located in the Negev Desert] was a brainchild of JNF-USA women,” said JNF’s former National Women for Israel President Nina Paul of Cincinnati, Ohio. “Where there were once only sand dunes a new community has developed that is both entrepreneurial and a great tourist destination. That vision helped inspire JNF’s campaign to develop the Negev and bring to life Ben-Gurion’s dream.”“That JNF vision encompasses bettering the life of everyone in the land of Israel,” said Merriam. “Our vision is bigger than the projects themselves: to enhance the land and see what is needed. Everything we do improves the quality of life of the people in Israel.” This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund-USA.