The new pioneers – Creating a culinary revolution in the Galilee

In the valley below, Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF-KKL) has been transforming the landscape for close to 70 years.

Artist rendering of the new state-of-the-art GCI campus being built at Kibbutz Gonen (photo credit: JNF)
Artist rendering of the new state-of-the-art GCI campus being built at Kibbutz Gonen
(photo credit: JNF)
It is a classic Israel moment – a meeting of worlds shared by a handful of American Jews, an Israeli tour guide, a recent immigrant from Arizona, a native kibbutznikit, and a flock of cranes making their way from Europe to Africa for the winter.
Outside the old dining hall of Kibbutz Gonen, overlooking the Hula Valley, seems the perfect setting to launch a modern-day Zionist initiative. This is where a group of pioneering Israeli scouts made their home shortly after the establishment of the State and held their ground as Syrian gunfire routinely rained down from the hills above.  In the valley below, Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (JNF-KKL) has been transforming the landscape for close to 70 years, first draining the swamps, then supporting agricultural communities, and later restoring and rehabilitating the Agmon (Hula) Lake into a flourishing ecosystem and recreational site.
It is here, in this far-flung northeastern region of Israel, that Marvin Sukonik (z’’l), a lifetime Zionist and active member of Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA), chose to leave his legacy – the Galilee Culinary Institute (GCI). 
“Marvin was a big foodie,” remembers his close friend and Jewish National Fund National Executive Director of Major Donor Advancement Marina Furman. “Near the end of his life last year, when he was thinking about how to support Israel, he said to me, ‘Marina, wouldn’t it be great if I could find a way to combine helping my homeland and my passion for food?’” Just before he passed away, the GCI was conceived.
While Israel leads the world in agricultural and food technologies, most of the country’s sleepy northern region has yet to benefit from this progress. The Galilee Culinary Institute, a state-of-the-art four-year accredited diploma program developed by JNF-USA, seeks to tap into the agricultural riches and human resources of this beautiful area. With master spice-blender and chef Lior Lev Sercarz serving as director, the GCI will bring aspiring chefs, restauranteurs, and local leaders of the agriculture and husbandry industries to learn and live in the Upper Eastern Galilee. The Institute will focus on the direct connection between agriculture and cooking, with a “farm-to-table” restaurant featuring ingredients sourced by the students through internships on local farms. The curriculum will also offer courses in restaurant management and hospitality. Other plans for the site include a brewery, chocolatier, and bakery.
GCI is but one component JNF-USA’s vision for the future of the Upper Eastern Galilee, which ultimately seeks to transform Northern Israel into a center for culinary arts. The vision also includes the Beit Asher Food-Tech Quarter, developed in partnership with ii2020, led by Erel Margalit, which will serve as a central hub for companies to study and develop food security, agri-tech, and other technologies to revolutionize the food industry. “Our goal is to create a new story and new opportunities,” says Margalit. “No longer will the region be referred to as Israel’s ‘periphery,’ but as one of the country’s most desirable locations for families and professionals.”
This change is already happening, according to Yael Atar-Peled, Kibbutz Gonen’s community coordinator. “It’s a momentous project for us,” says Atar-Peled. “The kibbutz is not in great shape, but the GCI is giving us hope for the future.” She reports an increase in families buying in to the kibbutz’ new residential project; many say that they are coming up to the Galilee to join this culinary revolution. “We hope to contribute local flavor and culture to whomever comes here – students, chefs, restauranteurs, or foodie tourists.”.
The gathering to dedicate the Galilee Culinary Institute in Marvin Sukonik’s memory, made possible with a generous legacy gift of $4 million by Sukonik, was organized by Jewish National Fund’s Philadelphia Board of Directors’ Local Leadership Mission to Israel. Almost 30 years ago, Marvin was part of the first ever Jewish National Fund Leadership Mission to Israel. One of Marvin’s fellow participants from that historic mission in 1991 was Evelyn Spritz. Now 95, Evelyn was thrilled to witness the dedication and see Marvin’s dream of shaping the future of Israel come fruition.
“We were caught in one of the worst snowstorms in Israel’s history during that first mission,” Evelyn recalls. “But it was a very exciting time to be here, and I think it was the beginning of our (mine and Marvin’s) love affair with Israel. I hadn’t known until then that I was a latent Zionist.”
The 1991 mission focused on JNF’s priorities of the time – combatting drought, immigration, and reforestation, among others. “Israel was still a developing country,” Evelyn says, “and we were in on some of JNF’s earliest plans to green the desert and to make life better for the people living here. It’s truly remarkable what has been accomplished here, and I have been lucky enough to see it from its inception during my lifetime.”
Marvin would likely be pleased to know that the next generation is continuing the dream, with plans to bring growth and change to his beloved Galilee. Also present at the dedication were Steven and Lori Dabrow, the son and daughter-in-law of Alan and Louise Dabrow, JNF board members who were on that first mission with Marvin. In honor of Steven’s 60th birthday, his wife dedicated a classroom in the GCI building. A leader in the American food industry, he hinted at plans to start a pilot program for agricultural products. “This is the new pioneering,” Steven says with pride. “This is our opportunity to create change in the north.”
The Galilee Culinary Institute promises to have an unprecedented and far-reaching impact on the Galilee as a whole – a fitting legacy for someone who not only loved food, but also loved the land and people of Israel. Furman, who was also executive director of Jewish National Fund Philadelphia region, is certain that it is meant to be, adding: “I am sure that Marvin is smiling down on us as we begin this project that will bring so many people together for the greater good.”