Sometimes, when an organization has been around for a good many years, it feels the need to adapt its mission to the times — to create bells and whistles to entice a new generation. That’s not why JNF’s annual Teaneck reception has been renamed the Jewish National Fund Winter Reception, Bob Levine of Teaneck said.
Indeed, said Mr. Levine — a longtime activist and board member of JNF in Teaneck and education vice president of the national organization — JNF’s mission is the same today as it was when the organization was founded in 1901, and it remains relevant and compelling. That mission is to educate people about Israel and encourage them to participate in the building of the land. While JNF’s specific activities may vary with Israel’s needs — think water as well as trees; and there now are some 300 million of them — its goals remain very much the same.
The name change, which simply acknowledges northern New Jersey’s growing Jewish community, does not mark a change of focus, said Mr. Levine, whose formal title is JNF-USA Vice President, Zionist Education Continuum and Winter Reception Ambassador. Instead, it’s a commitment to keep expanding. (And if any modern “bells and whistles” are needed to appeal to modern sensibilities, the organization is rated a “four-star charity” by Charity Navigator.)
The reception has a new venue as well as a new name. “We’re moving into the Glenpointe to draw more people than we could fit in a synagogue ballroom,” Mr. Levine said. Until now the reception, which generally drew between 150 and 200 people, took place at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
Mr. Levine recalls working on the first event the organization held in Teaneck, some 52 years ago. “Things were a lot different back then,” he said. “We held a breakfast on a Sunday morning. We went out and bought paper tablecloths and plastic ware and paper plates. We bought lox and bagels and sliced the bagels. It was a bit primitive, but it was direct volunteer work.” Six of those people who sliced the bagels all those years ago still are on the reception committee, Mr. Levine said, crediting his wife, Helen, with “spearheading the event and doing most of the planning.”
If JNF and its ubiquitous and iconic blue boxes helped buy the land of Israel, and later to plant trees, both for ecological reasons and as place markers, the organization has remained flexible enough to address new needs as they arise, Mr. Levine said. “We expanded into water reservoirs, then got into preparing land for agriculture and developing technology suitable for the desert.”
This includes helping farmers who grow tomatoes in the Negev, “the most beautiful tomatoes, exported all over the world,” as well as helping to “foster plantations of date palms,” including one along the border with Jordan. There’s also an interesting new venture, raising tropical fish in man-made desert ponds. Surprisingly, Mr. Levin said, the fish are doing extremely well. “The warm temperature seems to help them propagate quickly,” he said. The business of fish raising has become quite profitable, he added.
Mr. Levine has been to Israel 100 times. His first trip, in 1951, took five days by propeller plane from New York. He still is excited to see the differences between the Israel of his early visits and the country today. He recalls that before his first trip, his sister, who had moved to Palestine before the creation of the state, asked him to fill his suitcase with soft toilet paper. “The desert reached to the outskirts of Tel Aviv,” he said. “Today you can go south of Beersheva, and it’s still green. Agriculture has expanded all over the desert. It’s an amazing achievement.”
His own proudest achievements have been in education, here in both day schools and afternoon schools and at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, of which he is treasurer. “I want to see Zionist education and JNF activities as part of what is introduced in our schools,” Mr. Levine said, adding that he’d also like to see a blue box in every Jewish home. (Speaking of which, he said, if we don’t see him marching up Fifth Avenue at the annual Celebrate Israel, it’s because only his arms are visible from the life-sized blue box costume he wears.)
The Jewish National Fund was created to make Israel habitable and later to beautify the land, and that hasn’t changed, Mr. Levine said. “None of the original purposes have changed. We haven’t stopped” doing what JNF has traditionally done, “but have just added more. For example, we support the scouting movement in Israel, look for new ways to grow seed as well as to grow food in the desert, create reservoirs to capture the winter rain and not lose water — and we export this knowledge all over the world.”
What may have changed, however, are the things that drive JNF supporters. “For my generation, it was the memory of the Holocaust that fueled our desire to support the land and people of Israel,” Mr. Levine said. “Today, while the Holocaust is still relevant, young people are inspired to support JNF-USA because they see all of the incredible things Israel is achieving in the fields of R&D, technology, and the arts.”
He pointed to efforts underway in Beersheva, including “a huge amphitheater and a bridge that lights up at night and changes color.” Calling Beersheva Israel’s fastest growing major city, he said the completed project will include a large park, with a lake for boating, as well as facilities for concerts and educational projects.
“Promotion of education about Israel is what I’m most proud of,” he said; he has led hundreds of missions to Israel, touching the lives of thousands of people. He is especially proud when he receives calls and letters of thanks. Now retired and at work on an autobiography, the JNF macher goes into JNF headquarters in Manhattan to work on his memoirs.
He tells a story. “A non-Jewish teacher from Ohio went on one of our missions and was amazed at what she saw. On the next-to-last night, we do a fundraising pitch. She was a single woman, a teacher with a small salary and little spare money. But she said she would donate $100 every year for the rest of her life. Every year I called the Cleveland JNF office and they told me they got her check. Eight years later, I called and said I didn’t see a record of her contribution.” In fact, she had died during the year. “I remember her yahrzeit every year,” he said.
What: The Jewish National Fund Winter Reception
When: Will take place December 3 at 6:45 p.m.
Where: At the Teaneck Marriott at Glenpointe
For more information: Go to www.jnf.org, email the organization’s northern New Jersey and Rockland County director, Jacqueline Yehudiel, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at (973) 593-0095, ext. 823.