Jerusalem Post 50 Most Influential Jews: Number 26 - Russell F. Robinson

Russell F. Robinson (photo credit: JNF)
Russell F. Robinson
(photo credit: JNF)
The affable Russell F. Robinson has led the powerful Jewish National Fund in the United States for three decades. Since becoming the youngest chief executive officer in its history in 1998, he has brought the iconic NGO to new levels, traveling around the US and Israel to realize and modernize the vision of JNF, the Zionist environmental organization founded in 1901.
Under his leadership, what is now called JNF-USA (in contrast to its Israeli counterpart, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael or KKL) has been instrumental in developing successful programs for Israel’s water crisis, Zionist advocacy and education, community development, environmental work, and the sustainable development of the Negev and Galilee, all of which play a significant role in the quality of life for all Israelis.
He launched the organization’s $1 billion road map campaign, is featured in the best-selling management book, The 24 Hour Turnaround, How Amazing Entrepreneurs Succeed in Tough Times, and has appeared on television, radio, and in newspapers throughout the world.
Thanks to Robinson’s energetic leadership, JNF has become one of the most recognized non-profit organizations for its work, cultivation of a younger donor population, business management, financial integrity, volunteer involvement and innovative programs. Robinson, who lives in New Jersey and works out of the JNF offices in New York, has two children. In this exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, he provides a fascinating insight into the enormous influence wielded by JNF under his leadership.
What impact do you think JNF is making on Israel and the world?
Jewish National Fund-USA is the nonstop, direct connection for the American-Jewish community to the land and people of Israel. That connection begins early on, as nearly 20,000 children from kindergarten to 7th grade, annually participate in JNF-USA’s Zionist programs and activities. The act of planting a tree on Tu Bishvat and purchasing a certificate grows the connection to Israel and has become an ideology within our Jewish community. Just as 85-year-olds can remember their own JNF experiences in elementary school, we continue and build on that for the children of today.
Teachers, principals, educators, and parents across the nation utilize an array of our Zionist engagement programming that we bring directly to supplementary Hebrew schools and day schools.
When JNF-USA acquired Alexander Muss High School in Israel, we understood how important is to be there for Israel and the Jewish people tomorrow.
We have discovered that high school is the most important environment in which to engage, explain, and bring to life the Israel and Jewish connection in its entirety. At Alexander Muss High School in Israel, JNF-USA is providing the best academic study abroad program available today. Because of our program, we are one of the largest segments of the growth market in the educational system.
It is not just about going to Israel; it’s about having an enriching personal academic semester experience that helps a young person get into the best colleges. Additionally, take that benefit and combine it with our love and our connection to Israel, it is apparent JNFUSA offers Jewish parents a way for their children to have an exceptional gateway to college and an investment in their children to follow them for life.
With our many educational and Zionist advocacy programs, JNF-USA is 25 26 ‘Jewish National Fund-USA is the non-stop, direct connection for the American-Jewish community to the land and people of Israel.’ (StandWithUs) 34 50 50 MOST INFLUENTIAL JEWS OCTOBER 2, 2016 providing the Jewish community an ROI of 70 to 80 years of Jewish leaders who will be better equipped, more knowledgeable, and more enthusiastic from the moment they go off to college until they manage the Jewish organizations of tomorrow and beyond.
That profound connection we are providing between Israel and American Jewry is not that of a big brother, but that of a partner with the people of Israel. This is evident in our work in the Negev and Galilee where JNF-USA lay leaders travel often to learn, work, and develop a mutual understanding of our shared future side-by-side. In the Arava, we have a dedicated layleader-managed task force that travels year after year, not to spend time in Jerusalem, but to spend time in the Arava and learn from their friends with whom they are working on a vision to change the area. Our work is helping to build the American-Jewish community and the Israeli community as one. Tikkun Olam is a practice that all Jews hope to perform. At JNF-USA, it is part of our DNA, and it is visible in the results of our work. That is why it is so important to share the story of an African farmer who can bring food home to his family because his farm uses irrigation technology created in a place called Israel. I believe with all my heart that Israel makes the world a better place, that the Jewish people across the Diaspora make the world a better place. Together, we are a powerful partnership.
How do you see your own leadership role?
Leadership is not about flow charts and who is the one in charge of a specific department or what title they hold. Leadership is not about the size of your office or how many people work for you. Leadership is the quality of bringing the right people along to join you. And to lead in philanthropy is among the greatest joys and challenges there is. If you take on philanthropy, the work of giving, teaching, and mentoring individuals to learn the importance of sharing the responsibility of making things around them better, then you become a leader. However, if you choose to do it all by yourself, and don’t take part in the organized Jewish world or collaborate with others, then, while you may accomplishing some things, your actions will not bring people along and help them grow, engage, and experience the greatness of life. So, I see my role as a motivator, as the educator, as the implementer, as the engager. I get this wonderful opportunity to help people grow, experience, build, and walk with me down this remarkable road that I have been given the unbelievable privilege to navigate.
What is behind the Positively Israel Campaign?
The Positively Israel campaign is meant to talk about Israel beyond the conflict. We can’t be defined just by the conflict or by what our enemies want us to be defined as. Look at it as though someone asked you about your family. You won’t start the conversation talking about how my neighbors don’t like me, how I have lost 6 million of my family members, and how nobody really cares about me and my family. We have to start having a different conversation if we want to engage the young people who want to be part of this enterprise called Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish people. Why not start the conversation and talk about a million people who have been saved from multiple myeloma because of a place called Israel. That is what the Positively Israel campaign is about. It is not about dodging the issues. It is about the way we want to speak about our family and our people. There is nothing wrong with caring about the life of a Palestinian.
Every core value of the Jewish people is about caring for their neighbor and the community. But we also must remember the great contributions our people have made to the world around us. Positively Israel addresses realistic problems and how they are solved by our people. Personally, while I do not have any perfect friends, I have a group of friends who try to be better every day. I think we all want to be around people like that. And Positively Israel says quite frankly, “This is Israel.” Not perfect, but positively getting better every day. Join the movement.
What are your future plans for JNF?
We look at the next 25 years very carefully as a board and as a professional group. I regularly remind my professional staff and lay leaders that when we make decisions and debate our future, to consider who will sit in our chairs 25 years from now, and if the decisions we make today will be the right ones a generation from now. Again, there is no perfection, and we make plenty of mistakes, but if we are not thinking about 25, 50, and 100 years from now, then we have done a great disservice to Theodore Herzl and the great visionaries before us who dreamt of a Jewish nation. For it is their dreams and hopes of what they thought Israel should be, that allowed us, all of us, to sit at this interview and be able to have grand visions for tomorrow. We owe it to them, our children, our children’s children, and the children yet to be born.
At JNF-USA, a strong connection between Diaspora Jews and young Israelis will be the way of the future.
That is the future as we see it. The $100 million JNF Boruchin Zionist Education and Advocacy Center will lead the way in creating partnerships, education, and leadership development for the next generation of Jews. We now have strong relationships with Jerusalem University, the David Project, and many others to foster greater impact. At Alexander Muss High School, we plan to grow enrollment from 1,500 students a year to 5,000 a year. Such an increase would change our American Jewish community for the future – and in a major way. Young people in colleges would be better prepared to excel because they would have already experienced freshman year abroad in high school, and have a complete understanding of Israel after living 12 – 15 weeks there. Their experience of Israel, of its thousands of years of history, will have a real impact on their lives. That is the difference JNF-USA is going to make as we continue to lay the foundation and build a nation – one still under creation – called Israel.
What do you see as the main challenges facing Israel, the Jewish world, and the world today?
I think that we are in a cycle that we have not seen before, a cycle of darkness that takes over the imagination of our young people. On television and in the mass media, you see ISIS, the effects of global warming, a planet that seems to favor war more than peace.
Instead of looking at all the beautiful things that we can accomplish together, people tend to fall into a lonely void of evil and darkness. We remember the horrors of Nazi Germany and its far reaching choke hold on humanity. What started out as a political movement that enticed those individuals looking for something to dream about later fell into Hitler’s psychopathic embrace and a Nazi fervor that was devoid of morals and ethics.
Today, we must dwell on the prospect of hope. It is a hope that began in 1948, when we made a nation. It is the same hope and vision displayed during the Soviet Jewry movement and when we brought an impoverished and oppressed Ethiopian people as new citizens to Israel. Our challenge is to always fill the voids that darkness has not. And we do. We meet that challenge in our daily work and home life, as Jews supporting Israel, and embracing the shared experience, the cultural ties that bind us to one another, and the commitment to our mutual survival. We should not get swept up in the darkness, but rather, we should look out. Travel with me throughout the Negev and Galilee and I will introduce you to young people in Israel, and I will introduce Israelis to these young people who call themselves Zionists. Young people who I know are going to be in charge of this Jewish world tomorrow.
Travel with me throughout the US and I will introduce you to our JNFuture people. And then I will shout from the rafters to anyone who questions the future of the Jewish community. We have a great and promising future! Our future is smarter, brighter, and more visionary, and they are going to be able to do so much better tomorrow than we ever did today.
We must learn from the generation that fought for the land of Israel – that gave us the land of Israel after thousands of years – and the generation that battled for the reunification of Jerusalem. Now, it is up to each of us to plant that flag in the ground and stand there tall and proud and protect those who brought us Israel and Jerusalem, to make it a better world, a better place. Let’s provide our young people with a great understanding of what they are capable of doing, and we will achieve greatness in the world.