‘We don’t do projects — we do vision’
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‘We don’t do projects — we do vision’

Russell Robinson, one of the Jerusalem Post’s ‘50 Most Influential Jews,’ talks about the Jewish National Fund

Russell Robinson is on one of his many trips to Israel, before the pandemic struck. (Jewish National Fund)
Russell Robinson is on one of his many trips to Israel, before the pandemic struck. (Jewish National Fund)

We’ve all heard about a growing chasm between American and Israeli Jews. We’ve heard that young American Jews don’t give much thought to the national homeland; that their philanthropic dollars and spare change are less likely than in previous generations to go into blue-and-white Jewish National Fund tzedakah boxes.

Russell F. Robinson of Livingston has heard all of that too, and it doesn’t square with the facts he knows.

Mr. Robinson, now marking his 23rd year as chief executive officer of the Jewish National Fund-USA, appeared this year — not for the first time — on the Jerusalem Post’s annual international list of “50 Most Influential Jews.”

“The facts are these: At the Jewish National Fund, the fastest-growing part of our donor base is 20- to 40-year-olds,” Mr. Robinson said. “We have 20,000 children participating every year in Zionist activities between kindergarten and high school.

“Our Alexander Muss American High School in Israel is sold out. We have 110 kids — 40 percent day-school kids and the majority public and private school kids — there right now on a semester-abroad experience, taking general courses like AP calculus while learning and living 4,000 years of Jewish history,” he added.

“The facts are that the Jewish community in America is growing, that more people in the United States speak Hebrew than ever before, and that more people are connected to Israel in the most positive way than ever before.”

JNF-USA’s “One Billion Dollar Roadmap for the Next Decade” campaign, launched seven years ago, has hit the $720 million mark, he reported. “And despite the pandemic, this year’s campaign ended up $5 million ahead of last year’s campaign. It grew not just in dollars but in number of donors.”

Founded in 1901, the organization Mr. Robinson leads so passionately and optimistically has long been known for planting trees across Israel. While forestry still claims a 35 percent piece of the JNF allocation pie, along with water solutions, special-needs services, and heritage preservation, the biggest slice goes toward community building — in particular, the Negev down south and the Galilee up north.

“The Jewish National Fund has done over 1,700 housing sites in Israel over the past four years,” Mr. Robinson said. “We don’t do projects — we do vision.”

Mr. Robinson talks with animation about what JNF has been doing for the last 18 years to reach its goal of bringing half a million residents to the Negev, particularly to its unofficial capital of Be’er Sheva. The city was losing population 16 years ago, but now it is the fastest-growing city in Israel, he said.

In five years’ time, a $300 million Zionist Village in Be’er Sheva will encompass a second Alexander Muss high school campus, a technology center where recent college graduates can get a foot in the high-tech door, and an adult Zionist education center for Israelis and tourists of all stripes.

In the Upper Galilee, JNF-USA hopes to lure 75,000 new residents, and to that end it has partnered with Israeli NGO ii2020 to build an ecosystem of food technology and innovation, business accelerators and incubators, and a world-class culinary arts institute set to open in a year and a half.

“I love cooking and I always wanted to go to the Culinary Institute of America,” Mr. Robinson said with a laugh. “So when we started plans for the Galilee Culinary Institute, my friends started kidding me that I couldn’t get into the CIA so I’m building my own.

“Really, it has nothing to do with me, but I can’t wait to go there and learn from some of the best chefs in the world. And it will be the best in the world, because in Israel you have 80 different cultures coming together to make the finest food anywhere.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Robinson flew to Israel at least once a month to oversee the organization’s operations and meet with the seven-person local staff.

“We don’t come in as the big brother from America telling people what to do,” he said. “That was yesterday. Now we try to set agendas with the people of Israel. Our lay leaders work closely with Israelis, set priorities, raise the money and implement the vision. We don’t get involved in the hallways of the Knesset but with the people in the streets of the towns and cities.

“Our army of lay leaders can tell you everything about, for example, the Negev town of Yeruham and the fire department they built there, and about the medical center we’re building there.

“They can tell you the same thing about the Arava Valley, where we are the main partner in a school called AICAT — the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training — where 1,100 students from southeast Asia and Africa are earning college credit and going back to their countries not as job seekers but as job creators.

“They can show you a new community, Tzukim, developed in the Arava by our Women’s Campaign. Fourteen years ago, all that was there was a dirt hill. Now it looks like Santa Fe, New Mexico.”

How would a guy from Livingston know what Santa Fe looks like?

Mr. Robinson, now 62, grew up about 300 miles south of Santa Fe in El Paso, Texas. The city of 300,000 includes about 1,500 Jews. He began his long career in Jewish communal service there, as youth director and assistant director of the local Jewish community center.

“In El Paso you’re hundreds of miles away from, like, anything,” he said. “You had to work to be a Jew. You had to learn to lead. And Zionism was that connection that you had. Israel was kind of a unifier of the Jewish people.”

He vividly recalls the transformative effect of Israel’s miraculous victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. “Jews became unhidden,” he said. “We were, all of a sudden, not just the survivors or the wandering Jews. We were talking less about the ‘oy vey’ and more about the greatness. That was my inspiration.”

In September 1997, Ronald S. Lauder, then president of JNF-USA, hired Mr. Robinson to be chief executive officer. This turned his inspiration into an opportunity.

“The Jewish National Fund is the caretaker and builder of the land of the Jewish people for the Jewish people everywhere,” he said. “It’s what we do with the land that makes the difference.”

Mr. Robinson and his wife, Marci, have a son, Sam, who lives in North Carolina, and a daughter, Alyssa, who made aliyah several years ago.

“Today, Israel is a place that people want to go live in because they love it, not to ‘save’ it or because they are running away from something,” Mr. Robinson said.

“But we cannot make Israel a choice for everybody to come to without making it a choice for Israelis to stay in. We have to give opportunities for growth in the great vast places we have available to us: the Negev, which comprises 60 percent of the land, and the Galilee, which is 17 percent of the land of Israel.”

He said that both legally and operationally, JNF-USA is a separate organization from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund in Israel and from JNF branches in countries such as Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and South Africa.

“It’s a great relationship but a separate relationship,” he explained. There are many points of contact between them. For example, “at Alexander Muss we have almost 200 Australian students every year and next year we hope to have 100 from Great Britain.”

Now, with travel to Israel strictly curtailed, JNF-USA has been offering a wide variety of virtual experiences through its website, dubbed Jewish National Fund on Demand — it’s at jnf.org.

“We have Zoom events across the country and we’re getting unbelievable turnouts,” Mr. Robinson said. “From the beginning of the pandemic until now we’ve had over 117,000 people join our meetings.”

One such program is a series of virtual Israel missions led live on Zoom by Israeli tour guides who otherwise would be out of work right now. Each session costs $50 per person and has 24 spots. “So far, 4,200 people have participated. We’re sold out throughout October and November.”

Upcoming regional virtual events include the annual Northern New Jersey Brunch on November 15, featuring TV writer and producer Alan Zweibel of “Saturday Night Live” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” fame; the Central New Jersey Women for Israel event on November 18 featuring author-lecturer Erica Brown on the benefits of friendship; and the Central New Jersey chapter’s Breakfast for Israel on December 1 featuring writer and producer Phil Rosenthal.

The tenor of these events illustrates Mr. Robinson’s point that “oy vey” doesn’t work in Judaism anymore, “but wow, celebration does,” he said.

“It’s a different world, and the Jewish world now has the opportunity to capture this unbelievable moment of change. We can debate, but we have to dialogue. The Jewish National Fund’s vision is to build that conversation.”

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