Forests are built one tree at a time – and every new sapling counts. Jewish National Fund would know this, because the organization has planted over 200 million trees in Israel. Likewise, JNF in Arizona values every new person who becomes involved in the organization; every year, its annual breakfast attracts more and more people.
This year’s JNF Annual Breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix hosted about 1,000 people, a far larger audience than the few dozen first addressed by JNF Chairman of the Board and former U.S. Ambassador Ronald Lauder when he first came to speak in Arizona.
Jewish National Fund was created over a hundred years ago by a small group of leaders, including Theodor Herzl. They bought plots of land with the vision of establishing the groundwork for the creation of the State of Israel.
The international organization is known for planting trees and creating parks. However, JNF has grown and its initiatives are more far-reaching, including community building, green innovations, water-renewal projects, environmental innovation, Zionist education and advocacy, working with people with special needs and revitalizing the Negev Desert.
Ambassador Lauder became more involved in the Jewish world when he was in Austria as U.S. ambassador. “This was the time of Kurt Waldheim, [when] he turned out to be a liar [about his Nazi past], he says. “I saw how anti-Semitism reared its head in Austria. It was an anti-Semitism that was so reminiscent of Austria in 1938.” He also became concerned for the Russian Jewish children of Russian refugees on their way to the U.S. or Israel who stopped in Austria and ultimately decided to stay.
In response to their needs, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation was created to educate and rebuild Jewish identity around the world. Today, the organization has educated over 30,000 children in what it means to be Jewish and helped recreate Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Ambassador Lauder, who has his finger on the pulse of the world, says that though anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise, anti-Semitism in the U.S. “is not the same as it is in Europe or the rest of the world. We are a country that is very much inclusive and I have always been very, very proud of America and how it treats the Jewish people.”
His passion extends to cultivating and working with Jewish youth in the U.S. and the rest of the world. After the breakfast, JNFuture, a program focused on the next generation of JNF leaders, hosted a session for about 30 young people from around the country who gathered in Scottsdale to brainstorm ideas for the future and to focus on leadership skills.
At one of JNFuture’s sessions, participants were joined by top leadership, including Ambassador Lauder, JNF President Jeff Levine and JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson.
Ambassador Lauder strongly believes in the importance of understanding the needs of today’s youth and their vision for the future. “[JNFuture] is a chance for me to listen and learn and to meet so many interesting people,” he says. The goal of the session he attended “was specifically to meet young people and to hear their views and thoughts. It was fascinating.”
Blaine Light, Phoenix membership and national Israel advocacy chair, also attended and explains his passion for the organization: “An organization that dedicates itself to helping the people of Israel is one I must support for the rest of my life. It’s my personal mission to get young people engaged and visiting Israel to see the great work that JNF does firsthand.”
“Our focus is on doing good work in the State of Israel,” says President Jeffrey Levine about JNF’s mission. “Our projects range from everything from water conservation, where we have added 12% to the potable water capabilities of the State of Israel” – thereby avoiding water crises similar to her neighbors’ – “to helping people living in towns in the Negev.”
He also cites JNF involvement in the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel, where research on the technology of drip irrigation helps to teach young people from all over the world about methods used in Israel, with the goal of self-sufficiency in agriculture.
“Participants then bring back these concepts to their home countries,” says President Levine. “These education opportunities not only improve lives globally, but also create goodwill … for the State of Israel [and] for [all] Jewish people.”