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JNF Wire: Founder of American Food & Wine Festivals Visits Israel


CONTACT INFO: Adam H. Brill (212) 879-9305 x222


Lee Schrager Explores JNF Sites and Culinary Delights

By: Eliana Ramage

Lee Schrager at Western Wall for Press Release.jpg

Lee Schrager at Western Wall in Jerusalem

Lee Schrager hadn’t been to Israel in 40 years, but from a very young age he was aware of the work of Jewish National Fund. “I remember growing up and having JNF tzedakah boxes,” says Schrager. “We’d put change in the blue box at Hebrew school.”

Later in life, after having made a name for himself as the founder and creator of America’s two largest food and wine festivals, Schrager took a trip to Israel, sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Media Watch International and Jewish National Fund’s Positively Israel campaign.

Schrager, along with his partner, spent early April traveling across Israel. The two climbed Masada, floated in the Dead Sea, stuffed notes into cracks at the Western Wall, and planted trees with JNF. The last time Schrager recalls having done that was when he celebrated his bar mitzvah.

On the last day of the trip, Schrager visited Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI). AMHSI, the only non-denominational, pluralistic English-language high school in Israel, boasts 22,000 alumni from around the world and is now enjoying an expanded partnership with JNF. Back home, Schrager has met AMHSI alumni throughout the United States, and he was glad to finally visit the school after having received “thousands of invitations” over the years from his friends in the Muss family.

On April 7 he had the chance to personally see what it is that draws so many students to the school. According to AMHSI co-director Rabbi Leor Sinai, “Israel is the classroom. Students from AMHSI are free to take the bible under their arm, and travel to where these events actually happened.” 

In addition to traditional touring, Schrager and his partner traveled across Israel in search of excellent cuisine. It was Schrager’s first visit to Israel since he was thirteen. Forty years ago, he knew only of Israel as the ‘homeland’ and the location of the Western Wall. Since then, he has come to learn about new places and people through their food. His trip to Israel was no exception.

“Obviously the religion and the homeland is important,” he says, “But I love to see what’s happening here in the food scene and the markets. To me, that’s how you learn about the people. By looking at the market, seeing what they’re eating, and going to great local restaurants, where they’re really buying fresh every day.”

To Schrager and his partner, the key to good food is ingredients that are fresh and local. Schrager describes their taste as “basic, original, and authentic…not necessarily fancy.” They particularly enjoyed Israeli street food, from a hummus stand in Jaffa (“There were lines, lines of people, all just trying to get this hummus,” says Lee), to rugelach in Jerusalem. A favorite of his was shakshouka.

“I loved it. It reminds me of huevos rancheros, and it’s from Libya…Not from Israel, but you try it here because this is a melting pot.”

When Schrager travels, he looks forward to meeting people in the food industry and talking about their inspiration and influences. He did just that during this trip and came away impressed with the local focus of Israel’s international dishes. Israeli food originates in Jewish communities worldwide, from Yemenite bread to Romanian dessert, but the ingredients are rarely found far from the source.

After their visit to AMHSI, Schrager enjoyed a tour of Tel Aviv’s Shouk HaCarmel before stopping for lunch at HaBasta Restaurant. HaBasta is located at the entrance to the shouk, and the staff emphasized their commitment to local food in a gesture more powerful than they could have known. When Schrager and his partner walked in, they were asked to wait a moment before ordering because the staff hadn’t finished writing out the day’s menu by hand.

Schrager knew immediately that the restaurant was shaping its menu according to what was fresh that day in the shouk. “To me,” he says, “It doesn’t get better than that.”

Schrager feels that most people in the world would love the opportunity to walk fifty feet to a market and choose their menus based on what is in season. “They don’t like the fish today? There’s no fish. The radishes are great today? They’ll use radish in a lot of different ways.”

“This,” says Schrager, looking over a hand-written menu after sampling fresh vegetables in the shouk, “is the epitome of farm to table. Right here.”

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

JNF is a registered 501(c)(3) organization and United Nations NGO, which continuously earns top ratings from charity overseers.

For more information on JNF, call 888-JNF-0099 or visit


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