“My mommy works really hard to give money to the people in Israel.”
That’s how Rachel Kahn’s 6-year-old son, Jonah, described his mother’s profession to his kindergarten classmates in Fort Lee recently.
He certainly got that right.
Last month, Ms. Kahn took over the directorship of the Jewish National Fund-USA’s Northern New Jersey and Rockland County region. Her responsibilities include fundraising and keeping existing donors engaged and connected with the mission and vision of this 122-year-old philanthropy, which supports Israel in myriad ways.
It does more than just planting trees. (And it also, very famously and importantly, plants trees.)
Ms. Kahn comes to JNF with experience in Jewish philanthropy. She’s worked in development with both American Friends of Leket Israel and Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.
Jewish communal work was not her first career; in her 20s, she worked in real estate. She explained that giving birth to Jonah — and three years later, to his brother Cameron — propelled her in a different direction as she entered her 30s.
Although she no longer lives in the Jewish cocoon of Teaneck in which she was raised, she wanted to lead by example by modeling a commitment to Judaism in her home and professional life, she said.
“I grew up in Teaneck and went to local day schools — Yavneh and Frisch — and to Jewish day camps, where Zionism and Israeli culture is very embedded into the curriculum,” she continued. “It was a world where all your friends are Jewish and everyone has a positive outlook on Israel.”
Then she went to SUNY Albany, which, despite having a large Jewish student body, exposed her to the real world. “You have this awakening that you are a minority and that not everyone is positive about the Jewish community and definitely not about Israel,” she said.
“It was mind-blowing how much misinformation was out there, even among my Jewish friends who didn’t grow up in the day-school circuit.”
She kept this experience in mind when she made her professional pivot to Jewish communal work. At American Friends of Leket Israel — Israel’s national food bank, founded by another former Teaneck resident, Joseph Gitler — she happily discovered an avenue to forge closer connections between the American and Israeli communities.
And “when the opportunity at JNF came to me, it just made sense; what they’ve accomplished in the philanthropic world is just incredible,” she said.
Many people associate JNF with the iconic blue-and-white tzedakah box that emphasized the organization’s primary role of foresting the holy land and maintaining those forests, as well as heritage sites and water infrastructure, to this day.
However, JNF-USA also supports a broad range of projects in Israel from the ecological to the social to fulfill its overall vision of “ensuring a prosperous future for the people and land of Israel,” Ms. Kahn said.
To that end, JNF-USA creates and supports quality-of-life programs for people with disabilities. That includes Special in Uniform, which integrates young adults with disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces; programs for populations in the periphery, such as the reinforced Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, which gives children living on the border with Gaza a place to play safely; and programs for new immigrants, such as JNF Project Baseball in Beit Shemesh.
The organization recently completed a billion-dollar campaign to further the development of new communities and employment opportunities in the north and south of Israel. And in the education arena, JNF-USA operates Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a fully accredited study-abroad experience.
“There are so many different projects that everyone can find something that resonates with them,” Ms. Kahn said. “What speaks to one person may not speak to the next person, so when you’re looking to engage people it’s incredible to have all these possibilities to share. Wherever someone’s interests lie, there is a space at JNF they can commit to and support.”
She plans to bring a sizable contingent from New Jersey to the organization’s first Global Conference for Israel, to be held in Denver from November 30 through December 3.
“Every one of us has a responsibility to be a part of the conversation shaping our homeland’s future,” Ms. Kahn said.
She emphasized that how someone feels about Israel’s government and its leaders at any particular time is irrelevant to involvement in the organization’s work. “JNF-USA is completely nonpolitical,” she said. “We always say that we like to have our conversations with the people in the streets, and not in the hallways of the Knesset.”
Opportunities to have those conversations arise throughout the year through a variety of missions to Israel, for example trips for rabbis or for lawyers, and tours focused on themes such as art or fashion. Ms. Kahn expects to travel to Israel for JNF-USA once or twice a year.
At home in Fort Lee, Ms. Kahn and her husband, Freddie, who grew up in Riverdale, are active in Chabad of Fort Lee. Ms. Kahn’s mother, Sheila, also lives in Fort Lee. Her father, Mark Rosalimsky, and his wife, Jill, live in Teaneck.
She began her duties with JNF-USA in mid-February. “JNF has done an amazing job filling director and associate director positions throughout the country, and we all strive to determine what works best in each region toward meeting our goals,” she said. “I feel privileged to work with people who have devoted their life to advocate for Israel. The lay leaders who have chosen to support us really keep us inspired.”
JNF-USA is cosponsoring an Israel at 75 celebration at the JCC in Rockland Country on April 30.
“As we find ourselves living in times of elevated Jew-hatred and anti-Zionism, it is crucial for our community to show support and advocate for the land and people of Israel,” Ms. Kahn said.
For more information, email Rachel Kahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (973) 593-0095, ext. 824.