JNFuture: Inviting young adults to help make the desert bloom

Jennifer Starrett, Jewish News’ marketing manager, writes about her Israel experience with the Jewish National Fund Leadership Mission:

I grew up in what I consider a very Jewish household. I celebrated Shabbat with my family, went to Hebrew school and was always taught the value of tzedakah. However, even though I grew up knowing the importance of Israel for myself and my family, I never felt a connection to the land as a young teenager.

Neither my parents nor my grandparents had been to Israel, and my Birthright trip as a young college student was my first dose of what Israel was all about. During my second visit as part of a volunteer vacation, I met my husband and found even more reasons to love Israel. Yet, it wasn’t until this past August while on the Jewish National Fund Leadership Mission in Israel (JLIM) that I truly found my connection and passion.

Halutza - JLIM 2015

JLIM 2015 participants visit Halutza, a growing farming community near the Israel/Gaza border in the northwest Negev. Photo courtesy of JNF

Before I went on the trip, I knew very little about the work that Jewish National Fund does. Like many people growing up, I remember the blue tzedakah boxes and received certificates for trees planted in my honor during my bat mitzvah and wedding. I realized this summer that JNF does more than just raise funds and plant trees; they build communities and help connect even more people to the land of Israel through their own programs and partnerships. In five days, we saw just a fraction of the impact JNF has had on the land of Israel, but what was even more inspiring was the potential for even more great projects and partnerships that have yet to be started.

This new playground in Be'er Sheva was a Jewish National Fund project.

This new playground in Be’er Sheva was a Jewish National Fund project. Photo by Jennifer Starrett

We saw small communities being built next to the border of Israel and Gaza where young families were able to learn how to farm and build their own land and businesses. In the Central Arava, we saw a medical center that was built with JNF funds, but envisioned by the people in neighboring communities because they were worried that the two-hour drive to the nearest hospital would deter people from moving to the area. In Be’er Sheva, a town that formerly had 2,500 residents, we saw a newly built, beautiful river park that has made the area into a thriving city, home to almost 200,000 people.

On JLIM, we also had the opportunity to meet the people JNF has touched. We heard from students at the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT), who traveled from all over the world including countries like Nepal and Vietnam to learn about the latest in agricultural techniques that they could take back home to their own communities. The impact that this school has had on students has gone far beyond teaching techniques and new methods of farming, but has also given them the ability to be advocates for Israel and the Israeli people once they return home.

We met with people who made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh, a partner organization of JNF, who made the choice to live in the Central Arava and learn to farm and create communities from the ground up. Only about 3,300 people live in this area that is approximately 6 percent of Israel’s total land mass. These residents are truly pioneers building formerly unoccupied parts of Israel into prosperous and lively cities.

By the end of the trip, my head was racing. There is so much that JNF has already done, and yet, there is potential for growth and exciting new projects and partnerships. I came back from this trip with more of an understanding for what past generations saw when they first began to build the Jewish state of Israel. As a member of JNFuture, the young professional division of JNF, I am excited to share with my generation a glimpse of what they can be a part of as a member of JNF and JNFuture. Together we can make the desert bloom.

JNFuture is holding its Arizona Fall Kickoff next week. Here are details:

JNFuture Arizona Fall Kickoff
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13
Where: ASU Kerr Cultural Center, 6110 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
Cost: Free event, but registration is encouraged at jnf.org/azkickoff
Learn more about the JLIM 2015 trip and how to get involved as a JNFuture member.
Hors d’oeuvres will be served (dietary laws observed).

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JNFuture: In the middle of the Arava

JNFuture Arizona board members are currently in Israel on the Jewish National Fund Leadership Mission in Israel (JLIM). They are sharing highlights from their trip on the JN Blog.

Day 4: Arava

This morning I woke up in the middle of the Arava and went for a run around the moshav without realizing how I would soon be so personally moved and inspired by the projects and people of the Arava and everything it stands for.

I had the understanding after 10 years of my involvement in JNF that the Arava was an important project that revolved around agriculture innovation. I had no idea that the Arava itself was an example of Zionist pioneering to the greatest extent. About 4,000 pioneers have established themselves in one of the most extreme and difficult environments in the world in order to show our Jordanian neighbors that we are here and flourishing.

Grapes are among the produce grown in the Arava in Israel. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Starrett

Grapes are among the produce grown in the Arava in Israel. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Starrett

Our JNFuture group was fortunate to learn about the Arava from Noa Zer. While I was impressed by the agriculture innovation and spirit of the residents, the AICAT school astounded me and I was overwhelmed with passion and a true sense of connectivity that I had not yet experienced with a specific JNF project. The AICAT is a program in the Arava that attracts young adults from all over the world to learn about the Arava’s agricultural innovation. These students come from farming communities, mainly in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where very little is known about Israel and the Jewish people, and much of which is rarely positive. AICAT hosts 1,200 students every year among a population of only 4,000 people in the Arava. In addition to learning and practicing farming skills, the students travel to historical Israeli sites and learn about the history of the land of Israel and its people. They return to their villages with not only an immense capability to transform their entire farming community, but also a deep understanding of Israel and its values.

Noa shared a story with me that nearly moved me to tears and I am proud to continue to share this story with my peers in order to explain the vision and passion of JNF. Earlier this year, there were 165 students studying at AICAT from Nepal when the tragic earthquake shook their nation and destroyed everything they had. Their friends and family back in Nepal encouraged the 165 students to stay in Israel instead of returning home where everything was destroyed. The group of students discussed their situation and together came to a unanimous decision. Having recently visited Yad Vashem and learned about the Holocaust for the first time in their lives, the students from Nepal explained:

“Of course, we will return home to Nepal and help our people rebuild their nation. What we lost in the earthquake was just things and possessions. The Jewish people lost generations in the Holocaust, yet they still came to the land of Israel to rebuild their nation from scratch. This is the most important thing we learned while studying agriculture in the Arava — building something from nothing through perseverance.”

This story resonated so deeply in me that AICAT and the Arava have become my focus within JNF. The AICAT program is doing more than just teaching these students agriculture techniques to take back home with them and build their countries —  it gives them the knowledge to help spread the strong morals and values of the Israeli people in a positive light throughout the world. It is this ripple effect that is crucial to our growth and survival.

— Stephanie Kelman


JNFuture: Sderot’s indoor playground; seeing the Negev

JNFuture Arizona board members are currently in Israel on the Jewish National Fund Leadership Mission in Israel (JLIM). They are sharing highlights from their trip on the JN Blog.

Day 3: First stop, Sderot indoor playground

Arizona JNFuture board members (back, from left) Andy Becker, Stephanie Kelman, Jennifer Starrett, (front, from left) Penelope Karp Abad and Talyah Sands visit the indoor playground at Sderot. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Starrett

Arizona JNFuture board members (back, from left) Andy Becker, Stephanie Kelman, Jennifer Starrett, (front, from left) Penelope Karp Abad and Talyah Sands visit the indoor playground at Sderot. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Starrett

As we walked in the door, we were greeted by the donor wall where we spotted names from our community such as the beloved Zinmans and the Karps. Represent! This JNF vision turned reality, like many others, started with a primary objective and ended up having a ripple effect of positive benefits beyond the initial opportunity.

We spoke informally with a local mother named Chava, who brought her young boy to celebrate his friend’s birthday party. Chava lives in Ashkelon, which is about 15 minutes from Sderot by car, and, like us, it too was her first time at the playground. [She generally doesn’t make it to Sderot.] Chava hadn’t heard of JNF before but when she learned that we were all volunteers visiting from the U.S., she instantly connected the dots and her face filled with emotion. “Aize yofi” she said, which in Hebrew means “how wonderful.” Standing in an entrance hall to one of the bomb shelters and both experiencing the amazing facility for the first time, we exchanged some more admiration for the great privilege it provides for the area. We probably would have chatted all morning but it was time for the JLIM bus to take us to our next destination.

– Andy Becker, JNFuture Arizona vice chair

Day 3: Part 2

I’ll remember Day 3 of JLIM by the familiar faces and striking emotions felt as we toured JNF visions in the Negev.

We spent the morning at Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, a rehabilitative center for people of all ages with cognitive and physical disabilities, named in memory Maj. Gen. (Res.) Doron Almog’s son who inspired the creation of this magical place. Avnet Kleiner greeted us (he is a liaison between JNF and the center) — a familiar face that joined a JNFuture Social Club parlor meeting (June 2015) in Phoenix by Skype as he was delayed in his travels to Phoenix. It was a treat to meet Avnet and hear the story of Aleh Negev again on site and with the dedicated employees and incredible patients they serve. Avnet spoke of the work of Aleh Negev based on one thing — love. When you take that approach to serving people with disabilities, he said, miracles happen. The open heart that Avnet and his colleagues embody left me in awe, with so much respect and appreciation for fellow humans who truly exemplify selflessness and justice. The patients receive quality, innovative care that is truly a global model.

Off to Halutza. We visited this new Negev community of familiar face No. 2, Yedidya Harush, who visited Phoenix in April. It was impressive to see the pieces of this community come together — permanent and temporary housing, a beautiful synagogue, and farm land managed by young farmers who receive incentives to begin their livelihoods here. The structure of a medical center was being bolstered up in the community to provide a source of health-care services and to attract additional residents to the area for jobs and to settle their families. The communities they are building are reminiscent of the times of the original settlers of Tel Aviv.

JLIM participants visit Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, a rehabilitative center for people of all ages with cognitive and physical disabilities.

JLIM participants visit Aleh Negev-Nahalat Eran, a rehabilitative center for people of all ages with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Next stop, one of JNF’s newest partners, a young grass-roots nonprofit called HaShomer HaChadash. The New Israeli Guardians are committed to upholding the ideals of Zionism by protecting the land of farmers and ranchers in the Negev and Galilee whose lands are threatened by raiders. This organization recruits and trains volunteers to guard farms and ranches to stave off threats of crime. The sense of collective responsibility that the organization instills in the young people it works with is an inspiring social justice movement.

Another inspiring day! I am energized by the love and care these leaders have for the people and the land of Israel.

— Talyah Sands, JNFuture Arizona chair


JNFuture: The concept of vision, identity through history

JNFuture Arizona board members, from left, Penelope Karp Abad, Andy Becker, Talyah Sands, Jennifer Starrett, Stephanie Kelman visit Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Starrett

JNFuture Arizona board members, from left, Penelope Karp Abad, Andy Becker, Talyah Sands, Jennifer Starrett, Stephanie Kelman visit Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Starrett

Five JNFuture Arizona board members are currently in Israel on the Jewish National Fund Leadership Mission in Israel (JLIM). They will be sharing highlights from their trip on the JN Blog.

Day 1: Understanding the concept of vision

As this group of 27 leaders begins our JNF leadership mission in Israel (JLIM), we are asked to share a bit about our journey to JNF. While our backgrounds and stories may vary, one consistent theme that is shared is the vibrant and hopeful vision we see, as future JNF leaders in our own communities, nationally and in Israel.

Our first stop after an incredible lunch at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv is to Ben-Gurion House, the former residence of Israel’s first prime minister. The modest living space David Ben-Gurion and his family shared was proof that he wanted to live amongst his people. The one luxury he had was his massive book collection, and our tour guide spoke about the importance Ben-Gurion placed on knowledge and learning.

Books that ranged from history to yoga in multiple languages filled his second floor library, and when we had the privilege of hearing from Ben-Gurion’s grandson, he reiterated this by sharing that his Saba only gave him books as gifts and was always concerned about his education and grades. Next, we visited Independence Hall and further learned about Ben-Gurion’s vision for the state of Israel.

To end the day, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Goshen restaurant in Tel Aviv and spoke to Knesset member Erel Margalit, a leader in entrepreneurship and business helping to bring more than 70 technology companies to Israel and launching the country’s first four technological incubators.

Margalit’s passion and vision for not only the future of Israel but also the future relationships with world leaders was truly inspirational and motivating. He envisions working with organizations like JNF to bring technology and agriculture together and making Israel the forefront of innovation. By working with world leaders he hopes to not only improve trade and economic growth in the country but also believes that this will help build strong political relationships.

Many of us left the dinner feeling proud to represent JNF and continue the vision of past leaders like Ben-Gurion and looking towards our future paths as young leaders ourselves.

– Jennifer Starrett, marketing chair of JNFuture Arizona and marketing manager of Phoenix Jewish News

Day 2: Identity through history

We took a tour through historical sites that show the resistance our people faced in creating the State of Israel. We struggled ourselves throughout the day through the oppressive humidity and heat wave overcoming Israel this week. Before getting to the historical sites, we started off our day at Alexander Muss High School in Israel where five other Arizonans had been the week before through the Schwartz-Hammer Impact Fellowship. Feeling the power of their journey, we learned about the amazing center for Jewish learning co-directed by a familiar face, Rabbi Leor Sinai, who came to one of our first JNFuture events in Phoenix. The emphasis of this incredible experiential education program is solidifying students’ Jewish & Zionist identity through history (though students don’t have to be Jewish). Impressed by what our successors experienced, we looked toward the rest of the day with hopeful eyes.

Next, we took a look back at where we came from by visiting Atlit Internment Camp and walking through the boat ride and barrack shelter our ancestors had to experience in hopes of freedom in our homeland. Visiting Akko prison (after a yummy lunch at Alto Dairy) next was another eye-opening walk through the steps of those who fought for their freedom to give us our own.

Seeing all these historical venues coupled with where Israel is today through AMHSI and the Western Galilee small business programs we learned about brought an understanding of how far we’ve come as a people in building our homeland. There are still more ways we can work toward building strength as a people and a nation. JNF is clearly doing so with strategy and efficiency, expediting our progress toward a more complete Israel.

– Talyah Sands, JNFuture Arizona chair