“How is this Passover different from all other Passovers?”

New York isn’t a place known for slowing down. Yet, as my family and I prepare to gather around our Seder table, there’s no denying that things feel different. Fewer place settings, less matzo-ball-soup, and yes – less people. In singing the Ma Nishtanah this year and asking, “why is this night different from all other nights”, one can be forgiven for also asking “how is this Passover different from all other Passovers?” While all four sons in the Haggadah could answer the latter, the question we should be asking is “how isn’t this Passover different from all other Passovers.”


With everything changing, I’d like to tell you about something that hasn’t changed. It’s an organization called Jewish National Fund - and we are the movement that has been, and always will be, there for the land and people of Israel.  


A few weeks before the world effectively shutdown, Jewish National Fund was already working with our affiliate organizations in Israel to prepare them for this new reality. In the north, we worked with Western Galilee Now, small businesses, and local artisans to establish our Online Mitzvah Marketplace: Shop Israeli Goods – a virtual store and ‘home-shopping-network-style’ platform enabling Israeli businesses to sell their products to U.S. consumers as they no longer have foot traffic through their doors. Admittedly, this initiative won’t solve all of Israel’s challenges, however, it is just one example in the broader framework of initiatives we’re supporting to help our mishpucha (family) in Israel get through the current crisis and prepare for the inevitable bounce back.


A week earlier, we saw the window to bring students back from JNF’s High School in Israel closing rapidly as governments around the world tightened travel restrictions. I’m thankful we have a world-class JNF operations team that immediately swung into action and within 24 hours, secured an entire El Al Boeing 787 Dreamliner to bring our students home. Although the students’ parents are thankful to have their children back, this was an emotional time for many of the teens. Imagine being asked to leave such an incredible environment like High School in Israel, where you were forming lifelong friendships with other Jewish teens; where you were fully immersed in thousands of years of  Jewish history – your history; and where you were just beginning to truly feel connected to the land and people of Israel. Make no mistake, their story does not end here. Rather, this is only the beginning of Jewish National Fund’s lifelong journey with these teens as they become part of our Israel Continuum, an initiative that empowers our community’s youth to become change makers and community leaders.


Meanwhile, we now live in the age of “Social Distancing,” yet, it also means we must become closer than ever before (virtually, at least). Let’s remember that many of our ‘young-at-heart’ community members may be feeling especially isolated right now. Feeling isolated, whether you are young or old, isn’t good for your soul, spirit or mental health. Accordingly, Jewish National Fund has launched a suite of inspiring and elevating on-demand and interactive content to keep you and your family engaged while you stay at home. Whether you’re interested in hearing from everyone’s favorite Jewish actor, Hal Linden, learning how to bake challah with Jewish National Fund’s ‘First Lady’, Lauren Lizerbram, or connecting with global water expert, Seth Siegel, there’s something for everyone at jnf.org/ondemand.


In addition to our virtual offerings, the Jewish National Fund team has been making phone calls to our older partners – our donors – to see how they’re doing and to find out if there’s anything we can do for them. In Israel, our affiliates like MAKOM have been responding to the needs of the elderly, those at-risk, and children with disabilities by providing food, support, and a friendly face to speak to – albeit from a safe distance. MAKOM, like many of our other affiliate organizations have additional needs now. Jewish National Fund has been working with them to identify their immediate needs and to understand how we can continue to help. As such, we put together a list which can be found at jnf.org/immediateneeds.


Although we are in uncharted waters, something remarkable is happening. We are all taking a moment to pause and realize what truly matters. Many of us are spending more quality time with our immediate family. Others are picking up the phone or messaging friends and family who they haven’t spoken to in a while. In truth, when so much of the noise in our lives is removed, we gain a new perspective and a greater sense of clarity. As people take stock of their world, so many seek to renew their connection to the land and people of Israel. At Jewish National Fund, we are innovating in ways to help our community connect. When I see hundreds of JNFuture supporters (our fastest growing demographic) from across the country come together via Zoom to light candles just before Shabbat, I know that our Israel Continuum remains strong, our supporters remain committed, and that a new and even brighter chapter for Jewish National Fund in the Tri-State Region is right around the corner.


Michael Kessler is President of Jewish National Fund-USA in the Tri-State Region.

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