Enhancing quality of life in Israel one project at a time - opinion

JNF-USA has taken part in many projects that have improved the quality of life for Israelis.

 A FIREFIGHTER douses flames in Yemin Orde, near Haifa, during the massive 2010 Carmel fire. Sophisticated firefighting equipment can dramatically reduce the amount of damage.  (photo credit: ABIR SULTAN/FLASH90)
A FIREFIGHTER douses flames in Yemin Orde, near Haifa, during the massive 2010 Carmel fire. Sophisticated firefighting equipment can dramatically reduce the amount of damage.
(photo credit: ABIR SULTAN/FLASH90)

Growing up in the northeastern part of the United States, we never experienced a real drought and the consequences of such an event. The Bible is full of descriptions of rainless skies, parched earth and famine contravening the promise of rain and prosperity in the land of Israel (e.g. Leviticus 22:4, 19).

Water covers more than 70% of the globe. It is a critical ingredient for all forms of life. Most people cannot live more than three days without water. Water plays a major role in the Exodus from Egypt story. The plague of blood denied the Egyptians water. The most difficult challenge for the Jews in their forty-year journey through the desert was the shortage of water, which was alleviated miraculously, twice by Moshe by accessing water from rocks and the rest of the time by the well credited to Miriam.

After the Jews settled in the land of Israel, the biblical threat of drought as a punishment took place in the time of King Ahab. It was only with divine intervention at the dramatic events at Mount Carmel that the prophet Elijah was able to restore rain to the land. The fact is that Israel needs more water than it naturally has.

It was not until the 20th century, after the establishment of Jewish National Fund-USA, that serious water projects were undertaken in Israel. We both recall growing up with the JNF blue and white boxes in our homes and going from house to house and store to store to ask for donations. Heshie’s mom worked as a bookkeeper for JNF-USA. But we never really knew exactly what JNF-USA does.

Today, you can’t travel the country without seeing JNF-USA’s fingerprint. Thanks to the organization’s incredible efforts in both southern and northern Israel, Israel has taken giant steps toward solving its water problems. Travel south in Israel and take note of the purple pipes, which carry recycled water for safe and effective irrigation use in agriculture. The construction of reservoirs and effective work on water conservation, along with sophisticated scientific methods of irrigation and desalination, all play a critical role in achieving water independence.

 JNFuture supporters visit JNF-USA's tourist information center in Akko Israel on a recent mission  (credit: COURTESY/JNF-USA) JNFuture supporters visit JNF-USA's tourist information center in Akko Israel on a recent mission (credit: COURTESY/JNF-USA)

During times of war and even during times of peace, Israel has been plagued with fires. The damage to the environment, life and property is overwhelming. Having hiked in the Carmel Forest and in the outskirts of Jerusalem, we have personally witnessed the devastation, the blackened tree stumps and even the lingering smell of smoke in these important parts of our country. Sophisticated fire-fighting equipment can dramatically reduce the amount of damage. JNF-USA has provided such equipment all over the country, including up-to-date fire trucks and other vital supplies and vehicles.

But JNF-USA is much more than reforestation, irrigation and firefighting. JNF-USA built a magnificent indoor play center in Sderot to allow the children who live in this community so close to rocket fire from Gaza to be able to play safely and happily in immediate proximity to protective shelters against rockets.

As a retired synagogue rabbi and a retired school principal, we have both seen the maturation of the Jewish community in relating to people with special needs. JNF-USA supports many wonderful forward-looking programs in Israel for this segment of the population. ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran in the south and the Lotem Park in the north are JNF-USA projects that have played a significant role in lending support and helpful rehabilitation to families and individuals with special needs.

IN A proposed land-exchange negotiation with the Palestinians in 2000, the Israeli government under then Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinian Authority the area called the “Chalutza Sands” (Cholot Chalutza) which borders on Gaza. The Palestinians rejected it, saying it was just sand. They clearly thought the land had no agricultural value. Through Israeli resourcefulness and initiative and the help of JNF-USA, this area has now been developed into beautiful and productive educational and agricultural communities: Bnai Netzarim, Naveh, Shlomit.

We spent a day touring these communities and the surrounding area and were mesmerized by the fields in bloom, by the dairies, by the calves that were actually born before our very eyes, by the booming construction of private homes, yeshivot, parks, daycare centers and schools. These communities are a must-see for anyone who believes that the Israeli people have made the desert bloom! Meeting the modern-day pioneers and young families who are actualizing the science, working the land and bringing about the miracles is inspirational.

The JNF-USA Alexander Muss High School in Israel brings hundreds of American high school students to study in Israel each year. This is not only a Zionist project, it is also a Jewish identity project for Jewish kids throughout the US.

Reuven “Ruvik” Danilovich, the incredible mayor of Beersheba, has worked with JNF-USA to create parks and the historical site which proudly reminds us of the connection our patriarch Abraham has to that ancient location. JNF-USA has developed Abraham’s Well, which has brought thousands of visitors to see an important Jewish historical landmark. In addition, JNF-USA maintains the highest standards of kashrut in all of its facilities. They are also developing a major modern retreat center for all streams of Judaism in the area, The World Zionist Village. Stay tuned.

Last month, when we drove around the country searching for all the places where the earth was blanketed with gorgeous wildflowers after the winter rains, we found ourselves in Kiryat Shmona where we visited an unbelievable hi-tech and start-up center, which is not only working on hi-tech food science to increase yields using less farmland and less water but is also bringing back sophisticated and intellectual families to a part of the country that is so far from the business hub of central Israel. This is another important demographic avenue of the vital work of the JNF-USA.

As long-time residents of the US, we identify with the major droughts that the US has been experiencing in the western part of the continent, as well as brush fires that have consumed acres and acres of forested land. The journal Nature Climate Change reports that researchers found the period of 2000-2021 was the driest 22-year period in southwestern North America since the year 800. Unfortunately for the US, with its incredible financial and natural resources, there is no agency equivalent to JNF-USA working to protect the western areas that are affected by drought, fires, and concomitant natural disasters.

We feel so fortunate that our beloved Israel has so many services supported by the JNF-USA that have enhanced the quality of agricultural, industrial, technological, communal and family life in our part of the world. We look forward to seeing what the original, forward-thinking, versatile innovators at JNF-USA have in store for the next decade.

A new oleh, Heshie Billet is rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Woodmere and a member of the US President’s Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. A new olah, Rookie Billet recently retired from a long career as a Jewish educator, principal, shul rebbetzin and yoetzet halacha in the US, and hopes to contribute to life in Israel.