It all started with water

Enthusiastic supporters of Jewish National Fund-USA’s work explain how they came to pivot on innovative projects in Israel.

The Wittcoff-Broida Family joins Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran Founder Major General (res.) Doron Almog,  Avi Wortzman Director of Aleh Negev, in commemorating  Roma Wittcoff’s contribution to the Aleh Negev Rehabilitation Hospital in memory of her grandson,  Jeremy Adam Werl. (photo credit: JNF-USA)
The Wittcoff-Broida Family joins Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran Founder Major General (res.) Doron Almog, Avi Wortzman Director of Aleh Negev, in commemorating Roma Wittcoff’s contribution to the Aleh Negev Rehabilitation Hospital in memory of her grandson, Jeremy Adam Werl.
(photo credit: JNF-USA)
‘I was a Zionist in belief, but I never really did anything for Israel in practice,” said Mark Wittcoff, 57, a Los Angeles-based asset manager in the field of commercial real estate, who assisted numerous local community causes and charities, such as the UCLA Health System, YMCA, and Meals on Wheels, but never applied his considerable talents to Zionist organizations. “I was always involved in the general community, as an important expression of our Reform Jewish values,” he said.
Until recently.
Sitting at breakfast in a Jerusalem hotel, at the conclusion of an intensive, two-and-a-half-week family mission to Israel, Mark and his wife, Dr. Laura Scherck Wittcoff, who have become dedicated, enthusiastic supporters of Jewish National Fund-USA’s work, explained their new outlook. What caused them to pivot to JNF-USA projects in Israel? Smiling, Mark explained that it all started with a speech about water.
In March 2017, Mark’s stepmother, 95-year old Roma Wittcoff, attended a JNF-USA event at her Phoenix senior citizens community. The speaker was Talia Tzour Avner, JNF-USA’s chief Israel emissary, who discussed JNF’s efforts in Israel in developing alternative water sources, advancing Israeli agriculture, and improving water quality.
Roma was moved and wanted to help. Together with her late husband Raymond – Mark’s father – and her oldest daughter Melanie, the family decided to fund development of the scenic waterfall promenade in the Western Galilee town of Ma’alot-Tarshiha, near the Israeli-Lebanese border. The promenade, which overlooks the town’s man-made Monfort Lake, enables locals and visitors to walk, run, and cycle amid magnificent views of the lake and the surrounding hills. Part of the waterfall promenade project is a system that filters and cleans the water in the lake. Melanie then invited Mark and Laura to join them in supporting the project.
“I became very interested in the subject of water,” said Mark. “I started reading and I realized that what Israel is doing with water is cutting-edge. This is for the world. It’s not just for Israel. Israel is the example. I sent an email to my stepmother and my stepsister and I said, ‘I’m all in.’
“The Scenic Waterfall Promenade is an expression of what my father’s values were, and how we were brought up,” Mark said, “which was inclusion to help everyone. As Jews we are ecumenical – we bring together everyone – both Jews and non-Jews alike. This project is collaborative, and most of all, innovative.”
In the summer of 2019, enthused and energized, Mark and Laura went to Israel, seeing the sights and spending time learning about JNF-USA projects. After returning to the United States, they became major donors and decided to implement their own personal strategy for supporting JNF-USA’s work in Israel.
“We don’t view ourselves as philanthropists, or as wealthy people. We’ve always worked for a living; we have been self-supporting, and we will remain that way. Our commitment to JNF-USA and how we operate is that for every dollar we give, we’re going to raise at least $10.” Given that Mark and Laura have donated $1 million to JNF-USA, their goal is to raise an additional $10 million from high-end donors in his field, as well as from among members of Mark’s family.
Mark, who has served as a member of the board of directors of eight non-profit organizations throughout his working life, noted that JNF-USA is the most impressive, accountable, and transparent non-profit organization with which he has ever been associated. “They get results, and what they are doing in Israel brought us here.” 
Like Mark, Laura grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and was raised with a charitable, civic sense of responsibility. On their trip to Israel this past summer, Laura learned how Israel contributes to the world on a global level by visiting different JNF-USA projects. “I knew that Israel contributed to the world globally,” she said, “but I really didn’t understand that the concept of ‘Tikkun Olam,’ repairing the world, is a core value when you think about how Israelis contribute to the world.
“That is how I want to live my life. When you give and you give openly and freely, you get back. That is a Jewish core value and it’s an Israeli value from a global perspective.”
Laura, who trained as a social worker, now works in non-profit organizational development and is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Southern California. With her newfound connection to JNF-USA, she is using her professional expertise to help the organization’s affiliates in Israel refine their message and share their stories with a larger worldwide audience.
Said Laura: “I have worked in non-profit organizations for the last 25 years, and rarely do you find an organization that is not just lay-supported, but whose structure is lay-led. To me, JNF-USA’s tag line ‘Your Voice in Israel’ is the collective voice that supports having a global impact.”
For Laura, what makes JNF-USA’s work in Israel special is the way that it unites people. “When you bring communities together – whether by bringing people with special needs together with the non-special needs world, or whether it is the Arava Institute that educates Jews, Jordanians, Palestinians and individuals from other countries, Israel is making a statement to its neighbors: ‘Not only are we here to stay, we want to give. We don’t just want to take.’”
In addition to their support of the Waterfall Promenade Project, Mark and Laura are promoting additional projects in the Western Galilee, as well as actively supporting the Nefesh B’Nefesh On Campus program, which visits North American college campuses to educate students about the opportunities available in Israel to young professionals.
As they prepared to return to California, Mark and Laura recalled the highlights of this most recent visit to Israel, which included 24 members of their immediate and extended families, ranging from Roma Wittcoff, Mark’s 95-year-old stepmother, to another family member who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall. Their trip included visits to ALEH-Negev in Israel’s South (part of JNF-USA’s Blueprint Negev project) where Roma was honored for her generous support, as well as trips to Ma’alot to view the water promenade project, and to the Western Galilee, to investigate JNF-USA projects that are increasing population in the Galilee.  Roma’s daughter Melanie herself is part of the JNF-USA’s Go North Task Force. They also visited Jerusalem, where Mark dedicated a tile on the Wall of Honor at Ammunition Hill in memory of his father Raymond, who passed away in 2018, and enjoyed a private family visit with President Reuven Rivlin at his residence.
“You don’t have to be rich to be philanthropic,” said Mark. “You don’t have to put your name on things just to be part of it. Whether you are a Jew or a Christian, whatever your faith, whatever your beliefs, no one can deny that Israel leads the world in innovation. We’ve seen it in medicine, in agriculture, in education, in caring for people with special needs, and in technology. For me, however, it started with water.”