"Smart Philanthropy" Opens Up Israel's Galilee and Negev region

By Paul Alster




According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, the country's population will increase from today's figure of just under 9 million to over 15 million by 2040. That's a stunning two-thirds growth in a little over two decades, something few countries would be able to accommodate. With Israel's central region already heavily populated and the availability of building plots limited, prices continue to skyrocket almost as fast as skyscraper apartment buildings are dominating the skyline of this tiny nation. The greater Tel Aviv area will almost certainly look like Hong Kong in 20 years’ time.


But living in Israel is not just about the hustle and bustle of the center. For Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA), the future of Israel’s success lies in the north and south of the country. The Negev Desert in the south, a sparsely populated region, is becoming a new hi-tech hub with the city of Be'er Sheva at its center, while the Galilee in the north offers a semi-rural lifestyle, stunning scenery, and an alternative escape from the rat race. Recent major improvements to road and rail infrastructure have made both regions far more accessible and within commuting distance of big cities for work.


At Hamadiya, close to the ancient biblical city of Beit She’an, on a stormy February day, JNF-USA’s Housing Development Fund stakeholders visited what just a year ago had been an area of undeveloped land, opposite a breathtaking view of the Beit She’an Valley to the hills of neighboring Jordan. Now, thanks to the Jewish National Fund Housing Development Fund, the infrastructure for 61 new homes has already been prepared.

JNF-USA has come up with a smart way to push the growth of new and existing communities in the north and south, and as a result, make the dream of moving out of the large population centers a reality for a growing number of Israelis. Banks have been reluctant to loan funds, and the communities themselves have been afraid to take on loans to develop residential areas on their land for fear they may not be able to finance the debt. The wheel is there, but there has long been an impasse in getting it moving.


The catalyst comes from individual U.S. donors who each contribute significantly to become stakeholders in the development of new housing sites throughout Israel. Their idea is stunning in its simplicity: offer interest-free loans to these communities in order to create the infrastructure on their land to build a housing development. The moment potential house buyers see the roads, plot demarcations, and water and utility pipes appearing on site, it assures them the project is going ahead. They buy their plot of land from the community, and the community is then able to return money borrowed for infrastructure to the Jewish National Fund Housing Development Fund, which then passes on the money to finance the next development project.


This "revolving door" policy is a win-win for both the communities or kibbutzim, and potential new home buyers. It's “smart philanthropy.” A quality family home in the Galilee or the Negev might cost as little as one-third the price of a similar property in the center.  




The other significant aspect of the fund is that donors must take an active part in managing the projects. Many having been successful in business; they know how to make things happen. They come to Israel to see how things are progressing and meet the project's local managers. They are thoroughly invested on a personal level out of a desire to see Israel thrive and prosper, and young and sometimes not-so-young Israelis achieve their dream of owning their own home in regions that offer so much but have been overlooked for so long.


Shira Levi, a social worker, is one of the first to have snapped up a lot in Hamadiya with breathtaking views of the mountains of Jordan. Her husband is in the Israeli navy and they have a three-year-old daughter. Levi's sister and her family have also made a down payment to build a home nearby.


"It's such an exciting thing Jewish National Fund and the Housing Development Fund is doing," said Levi. "We're a family who love Israel, love this area of the country, and now because of this revolving fund people have the chance to join and be part of the kibbutz community. It makes us so happy when we see people from the U.S. supporting this country in such a marvelous, practical way."


At nearby Neve Eitan, the fund committee met with kibbutz members to finalize plans to create the infrastructure for 49 homes in the first of three potential new development phases on their land.


"As long as you pay us back, as long as it makes sense what you need the money for and it brings new people to your community, then we're glad to be able to help," Jeffrey Schwartz, chair of the Housing Development Fund, told the kibbutz members. 


"The money comes from people in the United States who donate to be part of this fund and to be partners with communities in the land of Israel,” Schwartz said.” “This is a unique partnership between us and you—as equals. We've already accomplished one thousand housing lots among 19 communities in the country, and we're just getting started."


"This is our lifeline," smiled Itai Eylon, a 35-year-old member of the kibbutz committee. "For us, it's a miracle!"


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