May 29, 2017  By Lila Chertman  Category: Travel,

JNF Women: 'JNF more than the tzedakah box,' says Lila Chertman

The author, center, on the JNFuture Volunteer Vacation trip. 

I have a deep sense of gratitude to my parents for inculcating my brothers and I with a love for Judaism and Israel. They worked very hard to afford sending us to Jewish day school, camps, trips, you name it, to make sure we not only knew about the history of our people but felt it tug at our heartstrings in all aspects of our lives. By college I was getting involved with political advocacy on behalf of the US-Israel relationship, and throughout medical school and residency I carved out time to stay involved, whether by working as a cantorial soloist leading religious services, learning from inspirational Jewish leaders by reading their books, attending conferences, or bringing my favorites to teach my friends and colleagues at lunch-and-learns I organized. But traveling to Israel on different programs was always the highlight because it made everything tangible, and left me with a taste of wanting more.

And then, through a chance encounter with the Miami director of JNF, I learned JNF was much more than the tzedakah box on my parents’ windowsill or the myriad of trees we had donated to be planted over the years. This coincided with a point in my life when I was realizing I needed to reconnect with my sense of belonging in the Jewish community, that I now had more time on my hands being an endocrine fellow rather than a busy intern and that I needed to use my time to do something meaningful not only for me, but for the Jewish people, for Israel. 

Lila getting her hands dirty in Israeli soil. 
And so, I picked up my bags and went on the JNFuture Volunteer Vacation in December 2016. Fifteen young professions from across the US raised thousands of dollars to participate on JVV, which focused on reviving Israel's southern region, the Negev. From Wadi Attir to HaShomer HaChadash to Halutza to Beer Sheva and more ... it was beyond special to run our hands through the soil and leave a little bit of ourselves in the land our ancestors built and we always hold in our hearts. There were so many "only in Israel moments" that I kept a diary, and I’d like to share an excerpt with you to try to give you a sense of what I felt.

There is something therapeutic, cathartic, and holy about digging through soft golden brown sand in the once desolate Negev desert and planting trees and rose bushes to beautify a new medical center set to open next week in the pioneer community of Halutza. What a feeling to run my hands through earth that belongs to my people, to me. This place, barely 3 miles from terror-ruled Gaza and literally overlooking Egypt where we could hear bombs against ISIS, was once a barren desert offered to Arafat/PLO by Ehud Barak as part of an unprecedented land-for-peace offer which included >94% of what Palestinians requested for their new state. The offer was refused by Arafat and the deadly intifada of 2001 erupted.
Flash forward a few years later and that place is unrecognizable. 

Israelis, that entirely unique and indomitable people, took that very land and for lack of water, poured their spirits into it with some help from the Jewish National Fund. Halutza and Bnei Netzarim are made up of Israeli families displaced from their homes in Gush Katif who yet again are risking their lives living in a dangerous place to make sure Israel stays strong. Thousands of crops of delicious fruits and vegetables now dot the landscape, and the juxtaposition of our thirst for life and progress next door to Isis' destruction and hatred is immensely powerful. To end the day we went to JNF's indoor recreation center in Sderot, a place built specifically with 6 built-in bomb shelters so children will have enough time in the 15-second alarm to run to safety from rocket fire. This is Israel, this is the Jewish people. We build playgrounds to teach our children to smile while our enemies raise their children to become suicide bombers. 

The volunteering aspect physically connected me to Israel at a deep level and I felt a duty, that I took on with joy, to take this experience a step further. I immediately got involved with the JNFuture leadership board in Miami when I returned. There, I found a community of people with similar values, moved by similar ideals, who inspired each other. 

Marisa Potter and I met at one of our board meetings and soon thereafter she asked me to get involved with starting the Miami chapter of Doctors for Israel. My passion for Israel and Medicine had come together, it felt perfect, and I was honored to have been asked. There was no way I could say no. I am beyond excited to bring awareness of what JNF does to colleagues and other healthcare professionals in a way that bridges these two aspects of our lives. I feel that my connection to JNF came at precisely the right moment in my life and am so thankful to JNF for giving me so many opportunities to grow personally, professionally, and spiritually. G-d willing, it will be a lifelong love affair.