Meet Sharon Freedman, JNF's West Coast National Campaign Director
Translated and Reprinted from Israeli Week News
An interview about the Negev and Galilee’s development, improving the lives of the Gaza Envelope residents, investments in water reservoirs, building new hospitals and a culinary institute in Kiryat Shmona • This isn’t the KKL that you know.
Elad Massuri: Jewish National Fund is the oldest and largest organization in Jewish-Israeli history. It was founded in 1901 during the Fifth Zionist Congress by the state’s visionary, Theodor Herzl. It’s goal at the time was to purchase land in Israel for Jewish settlement.
The Israeli public knows of the organization primarily because of its tree planting project throughout the country. There appears to be no Israeli child who has not had the experience of planting a tree. According to JNF’s data, the organization, which is about to celebrate its 120th birthday, has so far planted more than 240 million trees throughout the country.
But JNF is more than that. Today these lands are ours and the State of Israel exists—there’s no disputing that. The important goal is settling it. Sixty percent of the small State of Israel is uninhabited. Yes, Israel is undoubtedly the strongest power in the Middle East, it is an empire of technology, hi-tech, science, and medicine. But most of its talented minds are concentrated in a triangle that includes Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and central regions. Large areas of the country are not settled and are not developed.
In recent years, JNF has been providing significant assistance in the development of the south and Be’er Sheva, which was once just really a city you would make a stop in on the way to vacationing in Eilat. Today, Be’er Sheva is one of the most colorful and thriving cities in Israel. Its real estate value rose more than 30% (those who bought apartments in the city 10 years ago are now laughing all the way to bank). It has transformed from the “Capital of the Negev” to the “Capital of Hi-Tech and Opportunities in Israel,” with a magnificent cyber city for leading companies like Elbit System, IBM, and NESS, which have moved their offices to the region, a successful medical school, a science center and leading university, as well as the largest amphitheater in Israel built by JNF. The city is doing well in sports too, with the Be’er Sheva Hapoel soccer team winning the State Championship three consecutive years. With no less than five malls that have opened in the city, among them the “Grand Canyon,” the largest mall in the Middle East, it’s no wonder that the city has transformed and become one of the liveliest in Israel.
JNF aims to develop Israel’s periphery in the north and south, and to attract hundreds of thousands of Israelis to “make the desert bloom.” The organization also works to help the communities of the Gaza Envelope and helps the State protect, prepare, and deal with security threats. For these reasons and many more, JNF is the backbone of the State of Israel. Jewish Americans are among the organization’s largest donors, whose goal is to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years for Israel. They’re already halfway there, having raised $585 million so far.
I sat down for a personal conversation with one of the central figures in the organization, Sharon Freedman, West Coast National Campaign Director. Freedman is a 20-year veteran of the organization. Today she is responsible for fundraising and developing recognition and awareness of JNF for the west coast region.
Promoting Dylan and Springsteen
Elad: Freedman was born in Montreal to an Israeli father and a mother from Czernowitz who emigrated to Canada. Although she was not born in Israel, she says that she grew up with Israel in her heart all the time thanks to her sabra [Israeli-born] father who instilled a love of Israel in her. She speaks Hebrew fluently and her family lineage is very Zionist. Freedman is from the family of Abraham Shapira (the Guardian of Petah Tikvah/Shomer Petah Tikvah) and her grandmother is Rivka Shapira. As a child, she visited Israel many times and moved to Tel Aviv at 20 years old after falling in love with a young Israeli, her first husband, and stayed in Israel for 18 years.
Freedman began her career in the music industry with CBS Records, which was later bought by Sony and became NMC. She worked in the company’s public relations department, marketing, productions and A & R (Artist & Repertoire). She first worked in the international department promoting record sales in Israel for artists such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Wham, and Duran Duran. Later she transferred to the Israeli department: “It was pretty scary because my Hebrew was not excellent. I felt that if I did not perfectly understand the lyrics of the artists’ songs, how would I succeed?” But Freedman managed to integrate and worked with artists such as Arik Einstein, Gali Atari, all the Banai’s, Yirmi Kaplan, Yehuda Poliker, Nurit Galron, Si Himan, and so many more. Towards her late 30’s, Freedman made major changes in her career and personal life, and she left Israel and the music world.
Sharon, what brought about these great changes in your life?
Sharon: “I was working in Israel 24/7, day and night. I was happy but felt at some point that I needed a change and a break. Danny Yadin, who was my boss, suggested that I take a three- month sabbatical: ‘Go and rest and find yourself. When you return, we will find a position to suit you. If you decide you don’t want to continue, I’ll understand and accept your resignation.’ I went to stay with my sister in San Francisco and ended up falling in love with a guy I knew from Montreal. He was moving to Boston, so I returned to Tel Aviv, resigned, packed my bags and moved with him to Boston.”
Elad: How did you discover JNF?
Sharon: “I was meeting people in Boston who kept saying, ‘You have such a passion for Israel, maybe you should do something for Israel?’ I did lots of research and was exposed to many wonderful Jewish organizations. Then I met the CEO of JNF USA, Russell Robinson and I discovered an organization that is building our homeland, that is not political or religious (I am the proudest Jew and Israeli in the world, but non-religious) which was inspiring. Russell took a chance on me and offered me a position. I accepted the job expecting that I would do this for a short time to meet people, but with every intention of returning to the music industry, where I spent most of my life. But I quickly discovered that I love sharing the magic and significance of JNF, and how we improve the lives of Israelis every day. I was getting promoted within the organization and taking on more responsibly for different regions from Boston to the whole New England, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and more. I felt that even though I lived in Israel for so many years, I learned more about the country through my work at JNF and was so inspired. And then almost four years ago, I was offered the position of taking over the West Coast Operations. Russell felt that although we were doing well here, he asked me to relocate to LA to have a professional National Presence on the West Coast. When people ask me if I moved to LA? I say, “No, I moved to paradise!”
Elad: There are many organizations in Los Angeles that raise money for Israel. What distinguishes JNF from the others?
Sharon: “First, I salute every organization that works for Israel. It is a wonderful purpose. That being said, there is no organization that does what we do. I know that it sounds cliché, but we are literally building our homeland. Outside the triangle of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, there’s the magnificent Galilee and Negev. Sixty percent of our state today is still desert. Less than 15% of the population lives in the South & North of the country. That’s crazy.
“David Ben Gurion had a dream. He said, ‘Go south,’ and we did. We build roads, infrastructure, new communities, and provide water resources. We take existing communities and develop them. We have built more than 250 water reservoirs in Israel for agricultural use. When we visit the Negev, we meet people, and I’m not exaggerating, with teary eyes that thank us for giving them a better life.”
Doron and Eran Almog’s Village
Elad: The story of Maj. Gen. (Res.) Doron Almog is a wonderful example of helping the citizens of Israel, and as a result, building a community where hundreds and eventually thousands can live in dignity. Almog, a highly valued officer and former GOC Southern Commander, has a personal story that’s not easy. He and his wife, Didi, discovered that their son, Eran, suffered from a combination of autism and developmental disabilities. The couple was assisted by the government to care for Eran but found out that as soon as he turned 18, they would not continue receiving aid. They feared their son’s fate after their passing. Eran was not independent and could never even say the words ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ They searched for a home for him and found mostly institutions, not a place someone wants to send their child to. The Almog’s had a vision: to build a comfortable and beautiful green village for their son and other young people who suffer from autism, where they could grow up and live in dignity. They built ALEH Negev and approached JNF for a partnership.
Sharon: “The reason JNF partnered with them is because ALEH Negev is located in Ofakim, a great city in the periphery, which we wanted to help develop. By helping build this incredible state of the art village for people with disabilities, Ofakim is able to offer job opportunities and a place with higher standard of living. More people are moving to the city, the therapeutic village created jobs, and a whole community was built in the wake of this.”
Elad: In 2007, Eran died from complications due to his illness, but ALEH Negev is alive and well and serves as a warm home for hundreds of youth with disabilities and autism. The ALEH Negev project touched a lot of people, and later, Doron Almog was awarded the Israel Prize.
Elad: The revolution JNF did in the south is wonderful, but I, for example, served in the military in the north and fell in love with it. The reason why I didn’t stay and live there was because there was nothing to do there. I have friends who were born and raised in Metula and they decided to leave because there is no possibility of developing a career there.
Sharon: “The same way we have revitalized Be’er Sheva and parts of the south is what we are doing now in the North. One of the challenges is that, although as opposed to the Negev, the Galilee is green, lush, with water, blue skies and a magical place to live—people leave or don’t move there because they don’t find jobs, no economic options. I can promise you that your Israeli friends will have many more employment possibilities in five years’ time.
The same way we are populating cities & communities like Halutza, Arad, Yerucham and Sapir by providing medical centers, parks, kindergartens & quality of life in the South, we are also now revitalizing the North. For example, we built the Western Galilee visitors’ center at the entrance to the famous Akko shuk that now serves thousands of Israelis and Arabs, tourists and residents alike, where you can learn about businesses, restaurants, hotels, wineries, see art shows, concerts and conduct business meetings. Jews and Arabs meet under the JNF umbrella, which helps develop their business and share knowledge, ideas, and help one another.
“We need to make sure that they have options for jobs, education, medical centers, and cultural spaces for music, art, theater, and dance. The initiative, which is called Go North, includes building a large medical clinic in Kiryat Shmona, which, apart from providing high-quality medical services, will provide sources of income for hundreds of families. We are also building a culinary institute that will bring the entire region to life through food, agriculture, employment, education, and tourism with accommodations allowing students from all over the country and the world to study. We are also developing Ma’alot-Tarshiha, which is the merged Arab town of Tarshiha and the Jewish town of Ma'a lot with incredible potential.
In principle, our goal is to is to populate the South with 500,000 new residents and 300,000 to the north in the coming years.”
Elad: Any you continuing to help the communities in the Gaza Envelope?
Sharon: Our support for the Gaza Envelope residents is permanent and we are with them every step of the way, and of course, every time there is an emergency, we are also there. JNF funds bomb shelters, fire trucks and firefighting equipment. In Sderot, we built a $5 million secure indoor playground and community center, that doubles as a shelter. It includes a soccer field, music room, movie theater, rock climbing wall, snack area, computer center, and jungle gym and can accommodate 500 children. The place is protected so in case of the ‘Red Alert’ the children do not have to run to the shelters, and they can stay and continue playing.”
High school with American students
Elad: During the conversation, Freedman shares many more projects, many of which are already underway. Among them is to fund film, theater, art, music, and culture projects in the periphery. The Arts and Entertainment Task Force has some well-known members including Ron Robinson, Avi Lerner, Chuck Morris, and Noa Tishby.
Additional projects Freedman shared: Green Horizons Youth Movement since the children are the future of Israel and it is an opportunity for young people to acquire the values of leadership through incredible programming; the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura, the only such academic institute where Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians, and students from around the world study together; Special in Uniform allowing youth with disabilities the opportunity to integrate into the IDF; the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, which provides an amazing study abroad program for high school students where the land of Israel becomes a living classroom and the Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center at Kibbutz Grofit. Donors can get involved in rolling up their sleeves in different areas of activities they are passionate about or joining us to revitalize cities in the North and South volunteering & helping fund infrastructure, social, ecological, educational, and many other changes.
Elad: Finally, what is most important to you, personally, that we should know about JNF?
Sharon: “I am in my 20th year with this organization, I feel that we have many more people to meet, places to go to, and a country to build. JNF received its seventh consecutive 4-star rating by Charity Navigator, which is gratifying. One of my personal goals is that Israelis also understand that JNF is not their grandma’s organization that only plants trees; rather, it is an organization that is alive and vibrant that works for the country they love most in the world."