JNF CEO to speak in Pittsburgh on organization’s efforts
Israel activismJNF CEO is coming to Pittsburgh to advocate for organization

JNF CEO to speak in Pittsburgh on organization’s efforts

He is coming Thursday, Feb. 8 to Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside. The group is focusing efforts on developing Israel's perimeters through two new initiatives.

A JNF-funded housing development. (Photo courtesy of JNF)
A JNF-funded housing development. (Photo courtesy of JNF)

Russell Robinson, the Jewish National Fund’s CEO, is coming to Pittsburgh on Thursday, Feb. 8 to discuss the future of the Zionist organization.

“The event [will be] a great opportunity for Pittsburghers to learn more about Jewish National Fund and to actively participate in our work,” said Robinson in an email. “JNF is not just about trees, and at our event, ‘Beyond the Trees,’ I will discuss our One Billion Dollar Roadmap for the Future, a groundbreaking campaign with the explicit purpose of enhancing the lives of all Israelis and ensuring a prosperous future for the land of Israel.”

While JNF has long been committed to the growth of Israel, recently, the organization has dedicated itself to developing the country’s perimeters. Robinson plans on expounding on these foci during the meeting at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside.

“[It will be] an excellent public opportunity for local Israel supporters to come and learn firsthand about Jewish National Fund’s plans to further develop Israel’s north and south through our Go North and Blueprint Negev initiatives, bolster Israel’s water economy and create more inclusive and accessible parks for people of all ability levels,” he said.

Given Pittsburgh’s relationship with Karmiel-Misgav, the Go North initiative should be of particular interest.

“Go North and Pittsburgh’s partnership with the Galilean city share common goals, to see the area’s advancement and economic development, including increasing tourism to the region,” said the CEO. “Ninety percent of Israel’s population lives in the Tel Aviv-Haifa-Jerusalem corridor, while the rest of the country, such as the Galilee, is sparsely inhabited.

“This is why population growth and regional economic development in Israel’s northern region forms the backbone of our Go North initiative with the goal to realize the full potential of the Galilee as a rich center of agriculture and tourism, and with the aim of attracting 300,000 new residents.”

The blue tzedakah box many Jewish people associate with JNF. (Photo courtesy of JNF)
For many Jewish people throughout the past several generations, JNF was largely perceived as an organization whose little blue tzedakah boxes helped purchase the land of Israel. Recent controversies, however, have brought new attention to the more than century-old organization.

Last month, Haaretz reported that JNF is attempting to evict an East Jerusalem family from its home.

“The legal basis for the attempted eviction of the Sumreen family from their Silwan home is the state’s determination that Musa Sumreen, one of the family patriarchs, is an ‘absentee,’ because he lives in Jordan. Therefore, his home in Silwan was declared absentee property and transferred to the state, which later sold it to the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund,” said the paper.

“There is a complete separation between the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, which they call the JNF in translation in Israel, and the JNF USA, so that story in Haaretz has nothing to do with JNF USA. It only has to do with Keren Kayemeth,” said Robinson before further clarifying the relationship between both Zionist entities.

“The Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael is the organization that functions in Israel; the JNF USA is a separately owned corporation established in 1926. We have no board members on the Keren Kayemeth. The Keren Kayemeth has no board members on our board. We function independently and we utilize them for services such as forestation and other services that make efficient effective use of the money. We have our own offices in Israel and do about 90 percent of our own projects.”

So although there is a “working relationship with the Keren Kayemeth board,” it is an “independent organization,” he explained.

In 2017, The Forward reported that two years prior, JNF made loans to Robinson and Mitchel Rosenzweig, its CFO. The loans, which reportedly violated New York state law and were said to have been repaid, generated associated stories in Haaretz, JTA and New York Jewish Life. To the latter, Adam Brill, JNF’s director of communications, described The Forward’s efforts as a “witch hunt.”

Donna Breitbart, JNF’s senior communications coordinator, shared the following statement in response to The Forward stories. “In late July 2017, an inaccurate news story appeared in The Forward, which claimed that Jewish National Fund issued improper loans to our chief executive officer and chief financial officer.

The loans had been authorized by the president and the chairman of our board as part of JNF’s segregated investment funds and were reported as required on both federal and state financial filings. We know nothing improper took place.

Both Russell F. Robinson and Mitchell Rosenzweig have worked hard for 20 years to make this organization what it is and have performed with the utmost of integrity, honor, and tireless dedication. Russell and Mitchell voluntarily offered to liquidate the balance of their loans within 30 days (and did so prior to August 2017).”

JNF’s mission remains “on Israel and Zionism,” said Robinson. “I am proud to say that JNF is one of the leading organizations in the Jewish world today and that our mission also includes Zionist education and engagement — offering programs spanning birth to boardroom.”

Because of the organization’s work, “we have increased Israel water availability by 13 percent, which supplies irrigation to 85 percent of Israel’s agricultural industry. In the last decade alone, the landscape in the Negev — Be’er Sheva in particular — and the Galilee has drastically transformed,” he said.

Additionally, “JNF is the only Zionist organization with an actual high school in Israel, Alexander Muss High School, where U.S. high school students come and learn 4,000 years of Jewish and Israeli history while earning college credit,” Robinson added.

“Jewish National Fund remains focused on its mission. Its work is unparalleled, and I look forward to telling the people of Pittsburgh more about how their investments have made a difference yesterday, today and tomorrow.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz

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