The Jewish National Fund is generally known for one thing — or,
rather, 250 million things. That’s roughly how many trees the
110-year-old nonprofit has planted in Israel over the last half-century.
But if Aaron Parker has anything to do with it, Jews may soon be
turning to JNF for a broader range of purposes — a focal point for those
who want to get involved with and connected to Israel. As the new
regional director for the JNF’s Northern California and Pacific
Northwest office in Palo Alto, Parker says he’s eager to help JNF
“retake center stage” as part of the pro-Israel community.
“Israel is central to my identity as a fully formed Jew,” says Parker, a
San Francisco native. “It’s something that’s just always been important
to me. It’s fundamental.”
Hardly a stranger to the landscape of the Bay Area’s Jewish
organizations, Parker has served on the boards of the Friends of Israel
Political Action Committee and BlueStar, as well as the local advisory
committee of StandWithUs. He was a member of AIPAC for 10 years, and
currently serves as co-chair of Bridges to Israel at Congregation Kol
Shofar in Tiburon.
In his new position at JNF, Parker aims to show that there are countless ways to support Israel — not just with your checkbook.
“I think there’s a pent-up demand to do more than just give money,”
he says. “I hear it from all corners — Jews asking ‘How can I be
involved, what can I do to help?’ And there are so many things we can
do. The state of Israel is only 63 years old, and there’s a lot of
infrastructure yet to be built. There are service projects available
both here and in Israel that really allow us to get our hands dirty in
the building of the state.”
JNF currently offers service projects that put interested Americans
to work in Israel, including a popular “Alternative Spring Break” trip.
Parker said he hopes to
develop more in the coming months, possibly partnering with Hazon on that group’s California Ride.
He added that the hands-on nature of service projects makes them a
great way to reach young American Jews who might not feel much
connection toward Israel — because they offer a chance to help build a
nation that’s still coming into its own.
“To me, that’s the most exciting work a Jew can do,” he says. “JNF is building
the Negev: We’re building reservoirs to solve the water-scarcity
crisis, we’re involved with cutting-edge research to solve oil
dependency, providing firefighting infrastructure so that fires like the
Carmel fire don’t take the devastating toll that took. The character of
this country is still being formed, and there’s a place for every Jew
to be involved.”
When he’s not working, Parker spends time with his wife, Illana, and
two kids in Marin, and stays active at his synagogue; he’s in the
process of starting what he hopes will become a Bay Area–wide Jewish
softball league. The inaugural game — yet to be scheduled — will pit
Conservative Kol Shofar against nearby Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom.
“For me personally, it’s all part and parcel of the same project,” he
says. “We’re a people, and we’re so busy with our lives and the demands
of the economy … but we still need to make time to be a people, to be a
community and do things together as one.”
But for the time being, Parker is focused on building momentum at
JNF. He says there’s plenty of work for anyone who wants to take part.
“I’m absolutely looking for people to join us, to join this
movement,” he says. “It’s all of our country, so it’s all of our
responsibility to make it what it can be.”