A Return to the Homeland Jewish National Fund-USA Celebrates Israel@70

By: Leiba Chaya David

The Israel@70 San Diego Tour at the new C. Hugh Friedman Music Room
in the JNF Indoor Recreation Center in Sderot.

This year, Israel marks 70 years of statehood – seven decades of intensive growth and remarkable achievement.  Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) is proud of the formative role it has played in the country’s development, since before the founding of the Modern State of Israel, and continuing as a key player in the strategic development of Israel’s natural resources and infrastructure. Over the years, Jewish National Fund-USA has worked hand in hand with the State of Israel in areas such as forest management, water conservation, infrastructure support, environmental education, economic growth, sustainable tourism, and community building.

But if JNF’s recent massive Israel@70 tour was any indication, this important work is by no means complete.

Last week, over 220 JNF-USA representatives – professionals, lay-leaders, and first-time supporters alike – traveled to Israel for an unforgettable celebration of the country’s 70th birthday. For the tour participants, this was no ordinary leisure trip.  Of course, there were fascinating sights and high-standard wining and dining.  Yes, there were plenty of opportunities to mingle with the locals.  Yet on this trip, nobody was treated as a guest or a tourist; rather, they came as “honorary Israelis,” home for a brief visit to help in the ongoing work of shaping Israeli society.  

The whirlwind tour, took participants from one end of the country to the other on five different tracks: Young Professionals, Spirit of Israel, the President’s Society, San Diego Community, and Interfaith.  Each track explored Israel through the unique Jewish National Fund-USA lens, learning about innovative agricultural projects, touring iconic urban neighborhoods, encountering cutting-edge technology, meeting with community and business leaders, and enjoying off-the-beaten path restaurants and cultural sites.  During the days leading up to Independence Day, the five groups came together for several commemorative events and ceremonies.

As Bruce Gould, Jewish National Fund-USA President-Elect and Vice-President, Campaign, shared: “This is my 55th time here, and every time is special.  While I have never lived here, I feel like it is home.”  Bruce chose to join the Spirit of Israel track, which included many new faces to Jewish National Fund-USA and first time visitors to Israel.  

Matt Setton (Brooklyn, NY) chose the Interfaith track as the lens through which he wished to travel to Israel, saying “Zionism runs thick and deep through Druze, Muslims, Christians, and everybody who looks around and says 'look at this place!.' That's not just because of who they believe in, it's because of the land and because of the place we're all in. That difference is the most special part of the trip for me."

The trip was timed to coincide with Israel’s most significant national commemorative days: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror, and Independence Day.  The continuum of these days was especially powerful for those visiting Israel for the first time.  Jason Zenner (Chicago, IL), co-chair of the Young Professionals track, reflected on how special it was to re-experience Zionist history through the eyes of the newcomers in his group:  “When we were at the Atlit Detention Camp – where so many Jews came immediately after the Holocaust and were considered ‘illegals’ by the British – so many on our tour had that ‘aha moment’ where they finally understood the importance of the State of Israel in the Jewish people’s rebirth after the nightmare of the Shoah.”

Rick Krosnick, Jewish National Fund-USA’s Chief Development Officer, spoke about the impact of standing side by side with Israeli soldiers on Israeli Memorial Day.  “Having served in the U.S. Navy, I can say that military commemoration is very, very different here.  When we all stood together for the memorial siren that lasted two minutes, we remember and honor those who have given so much so that we could have a Jewish state.”

With Jewish National Fund-USA, this experience of remembrance carries forward into hands-on action, showcasing the many practical ways JNF-USA is still building the nation, including large-scale regional development in the Negev and Galilee, environmental education for Jewish and Druze youth, outfitting local firefighters with new trucks and gear, IDF programs for people with special needs, and so many more.

Personal encounters with Israelis, standing in the places that form the Jewish narrative, and putting their hands in the soil are all critical elements of the JNF-USA Israel experience, serving to remind Americans that Israel is their homeland too.  “You don’t need to explain yourself on a Jewish National Fund-USA tour,” said Gene Goldstein (New York), traveling on the President’s Society Tour. “You don’t need to pretend to be somebody you’re not or assimilate. You can just be you.”  

With this feeling of personal connection, it is only natural to want to stay invested.  Civia Caroline (Los Angeles, CA), the co-chair of the Young Professionals trip, literally put her hands in the soil to help solidify this connection with farmers through Hashomer Hachadash, a partner of Jewish National Fund-USA helping farmers throughout the country.  For Caroline, this experience was an opportunity to see firsthand the challenging work that remains to be done here. “It’s a unique connection to the land that turns into a long-term relationship, and people bring that home with them.”

It is this uniqueness of a Jewish National Fund-USA mission that empowers people to take what they have learned back home.  Alyse Golden Berkley (Los Angeles, CA) remembers the impact of her first JNF-USA mission:  “It literally changed my life.  For the first time I saw the opportunity to make a difference as part of the Jewish world’s most productive, positive nation-builder. This trip has inspired many tears among the participants, along with a big commitment to do more.”  

After a deeply meaningful trip, each participant returned to his or her home community as a dedicated stakeholder in Israel’s past, present, and future.  Through Jewish National Fund-USA, they will have a range of opportunities to work toward a flourishing, peaceful, and equitable society in the Jewish homeland.  May there be many more milestones to celebrate together!

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The Israel@70 Young Professional Tour spending an afternoon
on a ranch with JNF-partner Hashomer HaChadash.