John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy. Photo by AP
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Yad Kennedy. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

When the 35th U.S. president was assassinated in November, 1963, the planning of the America-Israel Friendship Forest was already in high gear. With the death of John F. Kennedy, it took on a new urgency.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF), established in 1902, is in the business of land reclamation. Its best-known activity is planting trees in Israel, with some 240 million trees to its credit to date. In the early 1960s, the organization’s American branch took on the long-term development of an area of barren rocky hillsides outside Jerusalem, gradually draping it with bright and dark evergreens. After the president’s death, the project was renamed the John F. Kennedy Peace Forest, and a memorial was commissioned on the rocky peak at its center. It was dedicated on July 4, 1966.

Take the road to the Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem campus, on the southwest edge of Jerusalem. Just after the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood, where the road veers right and begins its final descent to Hadassah, turn sharply left onto another road marked “Ora” and “Aminadav” and – a brown sign – “Yad Kennedy." Don’t enter the villages, but follow the winding road on the hillside below them. (High-scale maps designate it Rte. 3877, but there are very few signs with that information. The occasional brown signs to Yad Kennedy or “Kennedy Memorial” are reassuring.)

Exactly 4.5 kilometers from the turn-off, the low, flat-topped monument suddenly appears across the valley to your left. You cannot stop here, but even a quick glance is enough to appreciate its design: the huge stump of a tree cut down in its prime.

The road climbs a few hundred meters more to a T-junction. Turn left to the Kennedy Memorial. The road winds several times around the hill and ends at a spacious parking lot just below the site.

Fifty-three concrete “ribs,” separated by high narrow windows, curve upward to form the distinctive silhouette of the structure. The two that flank the glass door carry the logo of the JNF. Embedded on the exterior of the other ribs are brass-colored seals of each of the 50 United States of America and the District of Columbia. There is a comfortable awe about this sanctuary of sorts, its echoing interior adorned only by a bronze relief of JFK’s face, some greenery, and an eternal flame inspired by the one that burns in Arlington, Virginia.

The pine-grove opposite the entrance to the memorial includes trees planted by members of the Kennedy family that have visited Israel over the years, among them Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Edward Kennedy and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Name plaques give details.

The lone hill rises to 823m, or 2,700 ft., above sea level, offering sweeping panoramic views in all directions. On a clear day, you can see the coastal city of Ashdod to the west. Shaded wooden benches and a drinking fountain make this a welcome and tranquil rest stop.

There was a time when the Kennedy Memorial was an integral part of tour-group itineraries; but 50 years after the assassination, that sense of immediacy has dissipated, the relevance for younger visitors is less compelling, and an entire slew of newer historic sites and museums have elbowed their way up the list of must-sees and must-dos in Jerusalem. You are quite likely to be alone when you visit: not a bad thing for a few moments of quiet contemplation.

The memorial itself is meant to be open Sunday to Thursday, 8 A.M. to 3 P.M., but it is worth a visit even if you need to peer into the inner sanctum through the windows. For information, call the JNF at 1-800-350-550 or (02) 670-7411.