Jewish National Fund is much more than a philanthropy working to build a bright future for the land and people of Israel. As past president of Women for Israel, and executive director of Jewish National Fund’s National Affinity Groups and Community Campaigns, we know no other organization provides a unique place for women who share a passion and partnership for Israel and a place where they can connect with the common goal of changing lives and supporting the ongoing development of the Jewish homeland. The women of Jewish National Fund—from our societies to board presidents to donors—are all an integral part of this mission.
We had conversations with six pairs of women—one, an American lay leader chairing a JNF Task Force, and the other, her Israeli counterpart. They talked about the vision of Jewish National and its work all across the land of Israel; the tremendous impact of women in and on philanthropy; the unparalleled opportunity Jewish National Fund provides women to give back, to have an equal say; and why they believe in Israel.
It only seemed fitting that we, too, answer why we believe in Israel:
“I believe in Israel because it is my homeland, and it is my responsibility to ensure that no individual, regardless of their level of ability, is left behind and that all Israelis have the best quality of life possible.”
Past President, Women for Israel
“I believe in Israel because it is an intrinsic part of me, it deepens my soul, and makes the world a better place.”
Executive Director, National Affinity Groups and Community Campaign
Steadfast & Resilient
GAZA ENVELOPE TASK FORCE
Working to protect the lives of Israeli citizens living on the Gaza border, building bomb shelters, resilience centers, and maintaining the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center
Chair of the Gaza Envelope Task Force (Cherry Hill, NJ)
Director of Eshkol Region Community Centers (Ein Habasor, Israel)
*Editor’s note: The interview with Michal was conducted while she was in a bomb shelter during a 24-hour period of rocket fire from neighboring Gaza.
Editor: I want to state for the record, as we speak the Red Alert has been going off every few minutes. Michal, how did you come to know Jewish National Fund? I’m sure you’ve had a different experience than Betsy.
Michal: You can say it was a bit different. I used to work at the Negev Development Authority and I was familiar and amazed with what Jewish National Fund is capable of. We used to work a lot with Jewish National Fund and it was JNF that created a strategy for the Negev, Blueprint Negev. I remember Jewish National Fund even pulled in the government to invest in specific areas, like Be’er Sheva—there’s a whole revolution Be’er Sheva is going through and it has a lot to do with Jewish National Fund. Without JNF, I don’t think the government would have invested much.
E: Be’er Sheva is the fastest growing city is Israel today. It’s changed by leaps and bounds.
M: I also saw the amazing projects JNF is working on in the Central Arava Valley and how they are looking strategically into the future—if we want to bring more people to live in the Negev, this is what we need to do.
I was a shilcha [emissary] in Colorado from 2011 to 2015, and when I returned to Israel I remember speaking to the mayor and asking him, “What do you need?” and he really didn’t know how what to say, and I realized that my community had gone through so many years of emergencies and really, just life on the border with Gaza. The first thing that I did when I returned back in 2015 was call [JNF CEO] Russell Robinson, and told him, “Russell, my community needs JNF.” He was just putting together the Gaza Envelope Task Force, and said, “Don’t worry. We will be there for you.”
E: Betsy, why did you decide to dedicate your passion and time to Jewish National Fund?
Betsy: My husband was the president of JNF’s Southern New Jersey Board, but I was busy opening and running my open business, so I wasn’t too involved until 2012, when I went on a President’s Society Mission with my son and got my firsthand, up-close look. I had heard about the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center and fell in love with it.
E: Was that how you learned about the Eshkol Regional Council and what happens there—what they’re faced with from Gaza?
B: No, not at all. It was at JNF’s National Conference in Philadelphia when I listened to the mayor of Sderot speak about the playground’s positive impact, and emotionally thanking the people in the audience. I was very moved and told him to remember my name and that I’m coming to the playground one day to throw a party there—I’m in the party business and throw kids’ events.
E: Michal, was there a sense that there was someone ready and willing to help and listen?
M: Yes. I collaborate with JNF because it’s much more than philanthropy. It’s about partnership, strategizing, making us dream big, and asking us the right questions so we know what our goals are and how to achieve them. For example, Russell was against the idea of giving subsidies as an incentive for people to move to Eshkol. Instead he rightly believed that there should be community centers, good education—anchors that will draw and keep new families and residents. Only someone with the know-how and vision is able to help like this, and this is why we work with Jewish National Fund.
E: Betsy, how did you become chair of the Gaza Envelope Task Force?
B: I was thinking about retiring…Where can I best put myself? I wanted to donate more of my time to JNF, so I set up a meeting with Russell, and he says, “Well, what’s your passion? What do you love the most?” And I said, of course, the playground. I told him that I knew that they don’t really need anything there, and he said, “Yes, we do. We definitely need more help in that area. We’re going to form a task force and you’re going to be the head of it. You’re going to work to change the lives of people living on the border with Gaza.”
E: It happened just like that?
B: I walked out of his office and wandered the streets of Manhattan, shaking my head and thinking what just happened. I thought he would say go be on a the Social Media Committee maybe. It wasn’t what I was expecting him to say at all, and in 2015, we had our first task force mission and that’s when I finally got to meet Michal.
E: Betsy, do you talk or promote the Gaza Envelope and the task force?
B: I speak about the area; even in a general conversation I talk about JNF. What I love is the speed in which we get stuff done. When I talk about a need that arises, JNF steps up. I use the example of Operation Protective Edge and when we got an email saying we need emergency bomb shelters. The email came on a Wednesday and by Friday you saw pictures of the shelters being delivered. JNF steps up, and we have seven consecutive years of top ratings from Charity Navigator, so you know that the money goes directly to Israel.
M: This is why we work with JNF—it’s much more than the fundraising. It’s about the partnership and the concept of task forces is a part of it…it’s about telling us, “You are not alone, we are with you.” They are with us the day of before, during, and after the crisis. This is the real magic of Jewish National Fund.
E: Is there a feeling or sense of sisterhood or a bond?
B: Yes, I feel that we’re connected. As soon as I saw what was going on with Gaza this past summer—the kite terrorism and the rockets—and even with today’s attacks, I immediately sent Michal a message. I think about her, her family, and the thousands of others daily.
M: When I first met Betsy, I was told that there’s a wonderful leader that’s really into the Sderot playground, and she’s coming to visit with the task force. I met this amazing, powerful woman that is so passionate. I’ve learned a lot from Betsy and it’s all because she really cares. You really don’t meet many with this kind of energy…sometimes there’s this magic between a woman to woman, a mother to mother.
E: Ending our conversation, I want to ask both of you to please finish the following sentence any way you want. “I believe in Israel because…”
B: I believe in Israel because it’s the homeland of the Jewish people, period. No question.
M: I believe in Israel because I believe in love and hope. It is the love of so many around the world going back thousands of years. Israel’s hope is unbreakable, she is undefeated and our love and hope are undefeated.
Accesibility for All
TASK FORCE ON DISABILITIES
This task force brings partner organizations together to share resources and meet the needs of those with disabilities in Israel’s north and south, where there are typically fewer services available
Chair of the LOTEM Committee for
JNF’s Task Force on Disabilities (Atlanta, GA)
JNF-LOTEM: Making Israel Accessible Liaison
Editor: Roni, why did you come to Jewish National Fund and what drew you to it? Were you looking to give back in a way that’s meaningful to you?
Roni: My husband and I had both retired and we were looking for a way to give back, so we literally called the local JNF office and said, “Can we come in and talk to you? We’d like to get involved.” It was kind of like that.
E: How long ago was this, and how did you end up on the Task Force on Disabilities?
R: It was around 2010. I eventually ended up co-chairing Women for Israel here [in Atlanta]. It makes me feel good that we got involved with an organization that we believe in, and as we got more involved we just fell in love even more with all the work JNF does.
We were at National Conference one year and said, “Let’s sit in on the disabilities session.” That was our eye-opener. It spoke to our hearts when we heard about all the programs JNF runs for those with special needs in Israel.
E: It was just a natural progression to get involved?
R: Yes, it really was.
E: Gaylee, were you familiar with Jewish National Fund and its work with the special needs community in Israel before joining the JNF family?
Gaylee: Yeah, sure, but I did not know the inter-relationship inside JNF and the significance of the lay leaders—which is really amazing. It’s one of the unique things about Jewish National Fund, along with the fact that they select partners that really do things that are unique and give a lot to Israel. Just look at national heritage sites or Green Horizons—they are very unique and have an effect on Israeli society, and JNF lets the lay leaders be so involved in the process.
E: Does the physical distance matter? What’s the level of communication between both of you?
R: We communicate regularly through WhatsApp, send photos, and talk about each other’s lives as well. Gaylee and I have developed a great relationship and we worked together on redoing LOTEM’s marketing. I don’t think the distance matters at all, and I think we have a great working relationship and we’ve also become friends.
G: My relationship with Roni is both personal and professional. I very much value her input and contributions, and we really work well together and see good results.
E: That’s a special quality within Jewish National Fund—the involvement of lay leaders.
G: Women’s power is really big and JNF gives us a place to grow, and Women for Israel events promote it. Israel was established by women, and men, that fought shoulder to shoulder, equally showing their strength and resilience, and Israel is very aware and appreciative of the strength of women. I see it in the women of Jewish National Fund.
R: Gaylee really sets a very good example of what a strong, smart, independent woman can accomplish in Israel and in partnership with those of us in the U.S.
G: As Chair of the LOTEM Committee, Roni is building bridges and creating better lines of communications between us in Israel and the community in the U.S. The strongest thing that stays for years is the sisterhood of empowerment, compassion, and devotion.
E: Roni, do you speak or hold events about LOTEM?
R: I do talk about LOTEM and we get others interested. I’d like to think that I brought a bunch of volunteers onboard who maybe didn’t think they had the confidence to speak for JNF, and just as I grew as a volunteer, they are empowered and given a voice. It goes back to that notion of empowering women and how JNF encourages you to have your voice and to move forward and grow.
E: Roni, can you tell me about your first visit to LOTEM?
R: My husband and I visited LOTEM, and while we were there we saw these adorable special needs kindergarteners there on a school field trip. I’m a grandmother with four-year-old and six-year-old grandkids, and I looked at these kindergarteners and I thought of my own grandkids. The kindergarteners were learning about and making olive oil, and some were listening, some were having fun in the field—but they were just kids outside learning, laughing, and having fun, and that reminded me of my grandkids. I looked around the LOTEM farm and saw that this is a place that allows these kids, who may have difficulty learning in a typical classroom, the chance to get outside to relax, to grow, to laugh, and to learn. That’s when I saw that there’s more to LOTEM than walking in nature—it’s also a place you can learn in a hands-on way.
E: This really resonated with you.
R: It really occupied a part of my heart because I thought of my own grandkids and I identified them with these little kids. That was my first impression of LOTEM, and I will never forget that.
E: Ending our conversation, I want to ask both of you to please finish the following sentence any way you want. “I believe in Israel because …”
R: I believe in Israel because I have to. Because what’s the alternative in today’s anti-Semitic, anti-Israel world? It’s just that simple.
G: I believe in Israel because it’s a democratic country, and as a daughter of a family that perished in the Holocaust, Israel is my last stop. It is the present and the future for me and my children.
MAKOM TASK FORCE
The Makom Task Force combines Jewish National Fund Go North and Blueprint Negev initiatives with Makom’s mission to develop all sectors and communities in Israel’s Galilee and Negev regions
JNF-Makom Liaison (Golan Heights, Israel)
Chair of Makom Task Force (Phoenix, AZ)
Editor: Sue, how did you get involved with Jewish National Fund? Was there something that introduced you or brought you to JNF?
Sue: In 2014 I went to a JNF Breakfast for Israel in Austin. The speaker was Seth Siegel and he was talking about Israel’s water situation, and I felt that JNF was a good place for me to get involved in, so I made a $5,000 donation.
E: That gift made you a major donor, right?
SR: I frankly didn’t know that was a major donor level, but yes, I learned about the Sapphire Society and the Women’s Campaign, and I became a member. Now I’m a lifetime Circle of Sapphire.
E: Shosh, in the simplest way possible, what is Makom and what does it do?
Shosh: Makom is made up of young individuals—our young pioneers—and their mission is to develop society in Israel to a point where Israel has a healthy, vibrant society made up of all sectors, whether they’re Jewish or non-Jewish, religious or secular. Makom’s mission is to take these people and the communities they live in and help revive them. Today we call these communities “Israel’s frontier,” and Makom is in parallel with JNF’s strategies to have a large scale impact in the Negev and Galilee. Makom—we are doers.
E: What made you—and Makom—choose to work with JNF?
SM: Interestingly, in 2007 I moved from Israel to Cleveland with my family to participate in a full scholarship Master’s program for nonprofit management, and we had to choose a local nonprofit to analyze. I decided to focus on Jewish National Fund in Cleveland, so I really got to know JNF and little did I know that I would be so involved. There’s a very deep and historic connection between Makom and Jewish National Fund, because JNF supported the Jewish people by building the land of Israel. This is what Makom is doing on a people level in the State of Israel.
E: Sue, how did you get involved with the Makom Task Force?
SR: [JNF CEO] Russell came over to introduce himself to me at that breakfast, and before I could blink twice I was assigned to a ride along with a new task force. I went to Israel with a Mega Mission, and when I was over there on the ground, I had the opportunity to see the impact JNF is making. We went up north and I saw all these communities that had young people settling in them, in the periphery. I got excited and thought these people were modern day pioneers; they were the most courageous people. I also had the opportunity to see the lay leader model that Russell has deployed and how successful it is. To seal the deal, I met a few of these amazing JNF empowered lay leaders that are making a difference every day, and they are so excited about what they’re doing—I was all in.
E: Sue, do you speak about Makom in your community? Is the distance between Arizona and Israel an issue?
SR: We get on conference calls and everyone is great with email and super responsive. We’re adding new task force members every week, every month. People joining the task force is the evidence and proof that the message is getting out and people are getting it, and we’re finding different ways to connect…this is very much about the diversity of Israel and making sure it’s an inclusive society. Everybody needs to be included; it’s Israel and it’s the Jewish homeland. Shosh pointed out parallels with JNF, and Makom’s goals dovetail so nicely with JNF’s Billion Dollar Road Map.
SM: These are people who want to live a meaningful life and want to make a difference. This is the way to do it—through these Makom communities. You’ve heard of the phrase “If you build it, they will come.” Makom and JNF are doing it.
E: You’re both right. For example, there would be no revival of Be’er Sheva’s Old City without Makom and JNF.
SR: They want to live a meaningful life and many Americans want to feel connected to Israel, especially at JNF where they’re doers. You want to feel a connection on the ground with the people, and there’s no greater connection than Makom. The mission of the task force is people.
E: Shosh, how do you see the impact of JNF’s American women on the lives of Israelis?
SM: We could not have done it without the wonderful women of JNF. Sue is the Char of the Makom Task Force and has been an incredible leader, single-handedly establishing the task force and continuing to raise awareness for Makom. We have so many exceptional women from all walks of life who are part of this task force and believe in Makom and what we do.
SR: I’m so proud to be part of JNF, especially this task force, and Shosh has been an amazing partner and leader on the ground.
E: Ending our conversation, I want to ask both of you to please finish the following sentence any way you want. “I believe in Israel because …”
SR: I believe in Israel because of its resilience, pioneering spirit, and innovation.
SM: I believe in Israel because there’s no country in the world like it and its people. That’s what makes Israel so unique.
GO NORTH TASK FORCE
The goal of this Task Force is to attract and retain 300,000 new residents to the Galilee, strengthen the economic and social life of the region, relieve congestion in the center of Israel and, together with Blueprint Negev, transform Northern and Southern Israel into co-equal centers of Israeli society
Deb Lust Zaluda
Chair of Go North West Task Force (Chicago, IL)
Michal Shiloah Galnoor
CEO of Western Galilee Now (Clil, Israel)
Editor: Deb, there are dozens of Jewish and Zionist organizations across the U.S. How did you arrive to JNF?
Deb: I came to JNF 20 years ago. We all planted trees when we were kids, but as an adult I came to JNF around the same time [JNF Chief Development Officer] Rick Krosnick was starting, and he said, “Here’s a person that’s a Zionist and I want to get her involved.” I got involved minimally at that time. It was a very young organization even though it’s been around forever.
E: Jewish National Fund was founded in 1901, but it’s young at heart.
D: In its current form it’s a very young organization. Five or six years ago was when I really started seeing the amazing work JNF was doing—the depth and breadth of JNF’s work in Israel—and I decided to get reengaged. JNF is Israel.
E: JNF definitely makes its mark on Israel.
D: Everything JNF does is to build the land and the people of Israel, in a very broad sense. Not just on narrow and single issue…I felt that JNF gave me the greatest impact.
E: Michal, why did you and your consortium of businesses—Western Galilee Now—partner up with JNF?
Michal: I first came to know JNF and [CEO] Russell Robinson in 2012 when they came on a President’s Society Mission, and Russell sent me his Go North plan…and I was amazed! In 2006, I moved from Tel Aviv to the Galilee, so I knew how wide the gap is between the north and the center.
E: Essentially you’re JNF’s original Go North pioneer.
M: I’m the original Go North! I saw this plan for industry, education, medicine, and new residences…I thought it was a dream, but it was all there on one paper, and I had to be part of this. So I started partnering and working with JNF. I always say that JNF walks the walk and things are done quickly.
E: Projects in Israel can take time to be completed but JNF gets things done fast.
M: People in the north don’t have the patience for long strategies and plans, but every single change is a game changer in this region. The way things are executed, the efficiency, the timing, the way everything is very open, clear, and straightforward—these are what I love about JNF.
E: Deb, how did you learn about the Go North Task Force? Today it’s divided into Go North West and Go North East, and you chair the former.
D: I was asked to get involved at the very beginning, and it was an opportunity to start with something at the base ground level, which is exciting. Getting involved in the task force was in part because of my work in the tourism industry, and learning about this partnership with Michal and the goal of increasing tourism—I thought I could add some value here.
E: That’s when you met Michal?
M: Yes, I believe we met on the second Go North Mission, and since then, we have worked together to promote the Western Galilee.
E: Deb, do you go into your community and talk about the task force, the Galilee, and Western Galilee Now—the chamber of commerce-like consortium of small businesses?
D: I have and probably do even more so now. I travel and speak about Go North [the initiative], the task force, and Western Galilee Now. We also host events, parlor meetings, and I speak at my own board in Chicago, with plans to speak to other boards in the future.
M: We spoke together at a few parlor meeting in Chicago, as well as at some women’s events and at private residents.
E: Michal, do you collaborate with Deb on strategies to increase tourism?
M: Of course, because Deb really lives tourism, and she gets tourism in the Galilee. Deb understands that tourism is a game changer in the region’s economy. We’re talking about small family businesses and their success has a ripple effect on so many people. She gets it, that’s why she’s so good at it, and we have good fun together.
D: Tourism is just the means. The big picture is entrepreneurship and developing these small businesses as part of the overall Go North strategy. There’s a woman who is one of the providers in Western Galilee Now, and she brings people into her home for workshops. JNF’s work is allowing her business to grow, and she was able to send to her daughter to college to get an education that she might not have ordinarily received. And this daughter will come back and live in the Western Galilee and raise her family there. This is what we are trying to do. This is the whole point.
E: Ending our conversation, I want to ask both of you to please finish the following sentence any way you want. “I believe in Israel because …”
D: I believe in Israel because it’s a country filled with passionate people, and it’s perfectly imperfect.
M: I believe in Israel because it’s so dynamic, it’s easy to make changes here, and it’s easy to impact the lives of the people here.
BUILDING DESERT COMMUNITIES
ARAVA TASK FORCE
This Task Force supports several key projects in the Central Arava with the goal of developing the region
Chair of the Arava Task Force (Hollywood, FL)
Director of Resource Development for the
Central Arava Regional Council (Moshav Paran, Israel)
Beckie: I got involved in 2003 after just leaving my heavy involvement in my Federation, locally and nationally, when someone from JNF approached me to get involved in Makor [JNF’s group of dedicated lay leaders who solicit and speak about JNF’s work in Israel]. In 2004, I went on a mission to Israel and absolutely fell in love with JNF. It became clear that JNF is really the only on-the-ground organization that is most connected to Israel. Other organizations do tremendous work in the areas they raise money for, but none of them has the impact directly on the land and the people of Israel the way JNF does, and I’ve continued to feel that way for the last 15 years.
E: How did you learn about the Arava and the task force?
B: I went to the Arava with Makor, and in 2010 I was going into my last year as Chair of Makor, and I got a call from [CEO] Russell asking me to come to New York for a meeting. I had absolutely no idea what I was going up for. When I got there, he started telling me about the need to build a new medical clinic, and would I please set up a task force to look into the needs of the Central Arava. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
E: Other lay leaders have also had this reaction.
B: I put together a group of 35 people that I understood had expertise in the various areas that I had come to learn were issues facing the Central Arava. In 2011, the minister of the Galilee and Negev gave us 2 million shekels to get started on the medical clinic, and from there JNF decided that we were going to invest in the medical center—it was built in less than three years. I still take tremendous pride every time I’m there walking through the medical center and seeing what a difference we have made.
Noa: Beckie, you were also very involved in the planning and the design, not just the fundraising. You brought in all the doctors and experts to sit down with our medical teams to make sure the design would fit the needs of the community and not be just a generic medical center.
E: That’s important—the projects need to be suited for the needs of the community.
N: I think it’s an attribute of JNF and the task force that they don’t impose anything on the community.
E: Noa, is this what makes the Arava Regional Council’s relationship with JNF special? Listening to each other’s needs and cooperation?
N: I think what’s very special about our work with the task force—and my work with Beckie—is that we always think of the benefit of the community. We can disagree on some aspects, on different angles, but we always think of the benefit of the community. I also like the process of being grilled on some points because this is what makes you think and make sure that the end results will be exactly what you’re aiming for.
E: It sounds like a partnership rather than a “Big Brother” type of arrangement.
N: We’ve never had that feeling that Uncle Sam is coming from America and telling us what we should do. On the contrary, it’s like your family member asking you what they can do to help or what’s needed—let’s think together.
E: Is the distance an issue?
N: We know each other’s families! That’s how close we are.
B: I think I’m speaking for both of us that we’re very close friends.
E: Beckie, do you hold events in your community and speak about the Arava and the task force?
B: We used to do that more than we do now. Individual task force members are always reaching out to people and looking for new task force members…we’re such a well-developed task force that it’s easier for us to attract people once they’ve seen the Arava—they fall in love with it and want to be part of what we’re doing.
N: I think that the work of the task force speaks for itself. What we find is that when we are hosting groups or individuals, and we have a lot of them, seeing the realization of our mutual work and projects is what resonates with the donors and new participants.
E: Noa, can you tell me about a project or program that resonates the most with visitors or donors?
N: I cannot think of a single person that has walked into AICAT [Arava International Center for Agricultural Training] and wasn’t blown away and left in tears by the students. This amazing project teaches arid agricultural techniques for students from Africa, Asia, and all over the world. You can see the impact with the new campus and you hear from new students who talk about how so many of their friends want to come to Israel for the program. Once you see it, you get it.
E: Beckie, what about Jewish National Fund stands out to you?
B: I think that the way we all work together seamlessly is unique to Jewish National Fund. This is not an organization where you leave a meeting frustrated or have parking lot meetings...This is really an organization where people are there for the sole purpose of improving the lives of people in Israel. We’re all in it together. There’s no competition for position or for recognition—we are there to do the work that we do.
N: I agree. It’s a very family driven organization. When you think as a family, you think about what’s best for the family and everybody contributes their part or the sake of the family.
B: I believe in Israel because when I standing at the Kotel, when I walk the land, and when I’m standing in the Arava, I feel the history of the Jewish people and believe that’s where I ultimately belong. That is my homeland and the country for the Jewish people.
N: I believe in Israel because I believe in hope and I believe in people, and I think there’s nothing greater than this country; it’s a country that shows that you can do anything that you set your mind to—even the resurrection of a people in their country after 2,000 years.
Alexander Muss High School in Israel
Alumnae & JNF Campus Fellow (Hallandale, FL)
Co-CEO of Alexander Muss High School in Israel (Ra’anana, Israel)
Editor: Education and Zionist Advocacy may not be a JNF Task Force, but Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF) is an important part of the JNF family and the Israel Continuum. Our conversation with AMHSI-JNF Co-CEO Orit Rome will offer insight into the Alexander Muss High School in Israel experience, and AMHSI-JNF Alumnae Rachel Mizrahi can share her experience there and what follows after as a JNF Campus Fellow.
Orit, in a nutshell, can you tell us what Alexander Muss High School in Israel is.
Orit: For nearly 50 years, Alexander Muss High School in Israel has been shaping the Jewish future through study abroad programs with its signature experiential learning curriculum. We have 30,000 of alumni that have gone on to attend top universities, remain involved in Jewish communal life, and, in many cases, progressed to leadership positions.
E: Rachel, what’s your relationship with Israel and Judaism, how did you hear about AMHSI-JNF, and why did you decide to go?
Rachel: My parents are Israeli, and growing up with Israeli parents influenced me on a cultural level, but not so much religiously. I was always culturally Jewish, I speak Hebrew, and growing up I have always loved for Israel. We went to Israel frequently, but I never had the tourist or spiritual experience. It was more just to visit family, not a visit where I was connecting with my deep beliefs—I never really thought about. I heard about AMHSI-JNF from a close friend involved with JNF, and she told me about this program and said I’d love it. JNF helped me financially to ensure I attended. I decided to go because I wanted to do something for myself and to connect more with my Judaism.
E: Orit, what about your background, and how did you get started at AMHSI-JNF?
O: I started working at the school in 2005 as comptroller. Shortly after, I was promoted to CFO, and in 2013, with the merger with Jewish National Fund, I was promoted to co-CEO. It’s an honor and a privilege to work with teachers and deans that are super talented, and the lay leaders are an inspiration. It’s really the best place I could have ever imagined to be working for and I really do feel that we change lives.
I grew up in Australia and was the president of the Australian Union of Jewish Students in university. I can relate to what Rachel said about some Israeli families not investing in Jewish education. Some Israeli parents living abroad may think that just because their kids know Hebrew, therefore the knowledge of Israel, its history, and anything to do with Israel studies and Judaism, is in their blood. That’s not always the case, and Alexander Muss High School in Israel has a place for any Jewish kid, including my own, because no one places such an emphasis on education like AMHSI-JNF does.
E: A great aspect of AMHSI-JNF is that it takes a pluralistic approach toward education and it’s open to all.
O: We teach open ideas and ways of thinking that don’t belong to a specific stream. We’re very much Klal Yisrael [encompassing all of the Jewish community].
E: What are some of the changes since Jewish National Fund acquired the school in 2013?
O: [JNF CEO] Russell Robinson’s and JNF’s philosophy is if you’re going to do something, do it the best, and under JNF’s leadership there’s no corner cutting, which allows us to achieve a higher level of excellence in every area. Having JNF’s backing is strength and JNF will make it a reality.
E: Rachel, you’re a student at the University of Florida. Do you feel that going to AMHSI-JNF prepared you for university and independent life after high school?
R: Every trip taught me something different about myself. The college experience in high school is really important because a lot of kids say they want to move out of state for school and to be far away from family, and then they’re put in that position and they freak out. Going to a different country and being in a dorm setting is very important and helpful. This is your permanent grounds so you make it your home.
E: Are you more involved in Jewish life on campus, and what’s your relationship with JNF now that you’re a Campus Fellow?
R: I’m part of the JNF family and the Campus Fellowship. As a Campus Fellow, I support pro-Israel students, recruit students to join JNF college programs, and more. I also attended National Conference in Arizona and visited JNF House in New York. It’s insane how JNF does and how important it is to represent Israel in America.
E: And you’re holding Positively Israel events on campus?
R: Yes, I do a lot of JNF events, hold fundraisers, and have speakers come. I like organizing Shabbat dinners and getting people to know more about JNF and recruiting students for Alternative Break. I honestly would never have seen myself in this position without AMHSI-JNF. I would never be this involved because of where I came from, so thank you AMHSI-JNF and Jewish National Fund.
O: I receive a lot emails from parents at the end of the sessions, and I sometimes even get an email from a parent saying their kid came home telling them that they now understand why they want to marry someone Jewish…When I read that, my work for the day is done! It’s very rewarding for me to hear, “It’s because of AMHSI-JNF that I got accepted to the college of my choice” from students.
R: Definitely! My college admissions essay was all about my AMHSI-JNF experience.
O: A lot of students write about their experience at AMHSI-JNF because it shows independence and the ability to handle college in a good way.
E: JNF is building an AMHSI-JNF campus in Be’er Sheva. Orit, what changes do you see on the horizon?
O: We going to become the global high school in Israel program. We have had substantial success with Australia and we are starting to work with one of the largest schools in London. There are many times when we are at capacity, so the Be’er Sheva campus will be able to accommodate this growth. The Be’er Sheva campus will also accommodate young adults and we’ll see the Israel Continuum, which begins from childhood and continues through adulthood, come together in one space. It will be the place for Jewish education and a home to anyone who wants to learn.
E: Perhaps Rachel will find herself at AMHSI-JNF once again very soon.
Ending our conversation, I want to ask both of you to please finish the following sentence any way you want. “I believe in Israel because…”
R: I believe in Israel because its changed people for the better.
O: I believe in Israel because it’s the home of the Jewish people and for anyone who wants to take pride in what we do. It is the light unto nations.