What the money in those blue boxes bought
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What the money in those blue boxes bought

Alan Dershowitz and Jewish National Fund head Russell Robinson speak at brunch at Rockleigh

Alan Dershowitz and JNF CEO Russell Robinson at a recent JNF talk. (Perry Bindelglass)
Alan Dershowitz and JNF CEO Russell Robinson at a recent JNF talk. (Perry Bindelglass)

You can trace the history of the State of Israel simply by scrutinizing maps depicted on the dozen or so Jewish National Fund blue boxes in Alan M. Dershowitz’s growing collection.

The JNF — Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael in Hebrew — was established on December 29, 1901, and the tzedakah boxes followed in 1912. The coins the Jewish families across the diaspora dropped into these pushkes went toward buying and developing land for Jews trickling back to their ancient homeland.

“The front of each box from before 1948 shows the Jewish areas of what was then Palestine,” Mr. Dershowitz, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law school, said. “The oldest one I have is stamped ‘made in Palestine’ and shows 15 Jewish settlements.

“The modern state was founded based on land purchases, largely by the JNF. On the later boxes you see more and more Jewish areas as the JNF buys more land. Gradually you see the outlines of the basic State of Israel that you don’t see on the earlier ones.”

While Mr. Dershowitz is best known as a lawyer in the United States, and the JNF is best known for planting trees in Israel — about 250 million since 1901 — they each have many other, sometimes lesser-known, accomplishments and areas of interest that have several points of intersection.

On May 5, Mr. Dershowitz and the Jewish National Fund’s CEO, Russell F. Robinson, will discuss some of those mutual points of interest as they engage in “an in-depth and dynamic discussion” at a brunch sponsored by the JNF’s Northern New Jersey chapter. (See box.)

“I often talk about the way JNF has made a big impact on my life,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “If you look at one factor that unites Jews over the centuries it’s tzedakah. As a lawyer, it is interesting to me that the root of that Hebrew word is ‘tzedek,’ justice. Giving tzedakah is an obligation of justice in Jewish law. The blue JNF tzedakah box, like the one we had in my house growing up, has always been a very important part of Jewish giving and Jewish Zionism.”

He believes that most people are not familiar with JNF’s work “beyond the important work of planting trees.” For example, he said, in general people do not know about the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, “a sheltered playground that JNF built for children in the South that allows them to play while being protected from Hamas rockets.”

Indeed, chapter co-presidents Joan and Bob Oppenheimer of Cliffside Park say the May 5 brunch is an opportunity for the community to learn what JNF does with the donations it collects.

“People know about the trees, but it’s so much more than that,” Ms. Oppenheimer said. “JNF is an amazing multifaceted organization that together with collaborative partners enhances the people and land of Israel in so many ways as well as educating people in the United States and around the world.”

This JNF blue box from 1940s Italy was auctioned for $1,200. (Kedem Auction House)

“JNF is involved in so many different areas, something is sure to resonate with everybody,” Mr. Oppenheimer added.

Among the myriad KKL-JNF projects in Israel are water management and conservation, ecological and technical research and development, historic-site preservation, forestry, community building (mainly in the Galilee and Negev), education, and medical and rehab services for people with disabilities and special needs.

In the United States, JNF is said to be the single largest provider of Zionist engagement programs and works to counter anti-Israel activity on 57 college campuses.

The latter topic is of great concern, Mr. Dershowitz said. A prolific lecturer and author, he has spoken on some 100 college campuses about Israel, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism.

“On campuses, we’re seeing a new movement called intersectionality, which attempts to turn all oppressed groups against Israel,” he said. “We have to fight it, and we are fighting it by going on campus and telling the truth about what is really happening.”

On some occasions, Mr. Dershowitz has needed armed guards for these appearances. “There have been several people who have attempted to disrupt my speeches. But I come from Brooklyn, so I just speak over them,” he quipped.

“Mostly I receive positive feedback. My speeches are effective because college students want to hear all sides of the issue and they have not heard the liberal case for Israel, which is what I provide.”

A Yale Law School graduate, Mr. Dershowitz joined the Harvard Law School faculty when he was 25. Three years later he became a full professor of law, and he retired only five years ago, when he was 75. Among his 20 works of fiction and non-fiction are “The Case for Israel,” “The Case Against Israel’s Enemies,” and “The Case Against BDS.” His next book, “Defending Israel: The Story of My Relationship with My Most Challenging Client,” is due out in September.

“Alan is one of greatest Jewish leaders we have,” Mr. Robinson said. “He’s written books we use extensively on college campuses. Nobody else talks about the concern of how to defend Israel on college campuses better than Alan Dershowitz. And he’s been very amenable to appearing at our events because of his lifelong connection to JNF.”

Ms. Oppenheimer stressed that JNF is a nonpartisan, apolitical organization, and accordingly the conversation between Mr. Dershowitz and Mr. Robinson will not be about politics but rather “a conversation between two dynamic human beings about JNF and the growth of Israel, and how people can become more engaged and involved. It will be a fun and interesting morning of coffee and friendship.”

Mr. Dershowitz said he never comes with a prepared text but speaks generally “about JNF and the future of Israel, about the challenges Israel is facing externally and internally. It’s all about being responsive to the needs of the audience.”

He expects that some attendees will ask about the much-anticipated American peace plan for the Middle East “because I’ve been consulting with the White House on that for a year and a half. Mostly it’s confidential, but I’ll say what I can.”

Mr. Dershowitz travels to Israel every year and recently took his grandchildren — 24- and 26-year-old medical students — to Israel to show them the work JNF does.

Coincidentally, the fastest-growing donor demographic in the JNF is 25- to 40-year-olds, Mr. Robinson said. He became JNF’s chief executive officer 20 years ago and has appeared many times on the Jerusalem Post’s international list of “50 Most Influential Jews.”

He said the organization counts 600,000 donors and its fundraising events in the United States reach 12,000 people annually. JNF’s “Billion Dollar Roadmap,” released five years ago, aims to raise $1 billion within a decade. So far, it has hit the $590 million mark.

“We’re focused on making sure Zionism is part of the everyday conversation of Jewish people in the U.S.,” Mr. Robinson said. “Israel is part of who we are as a Jewish people. We always say that the Land of Israel is a country of almost 15 million Jews, only 7.5 million of whom are living within its borders. It’s for the Jewish people everywhere.”

The May 5 brunch is chaired by Ruth and Bruce Pomerantz; Mr. Pomerantz is chairman of the board of JNF Northern NJ. Tracy and Karl Kaplan are co-chairs.


What: Jewish National Fund brunch featuring a discussion with Professor Alan M. Dershowitz and JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson

When: 10:00 – 11:30 a.m. Sunday, May 5, 2019. (Arrive at 9:30 am for registration and brunch.)

Where: The Rockleigh, 26 Paris Avenue, Rockleigh

How much: $54. Walk-ins accepted; advance reservations preferred. Donations of $5,000 or more in the JNF 2019 annual campaign come with invitations to an intimate gathering with Professor Dershowitz immediately after the talk.

For more information: Email Jacqueline Yehudiel, the director of Northern NJ JNF, at jyehudiel@jnf.org or call her at (973) 593-0095, ext. 823

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