These days, the Jewish National Fund is planting different types of seeds – those that will sprout hope for residents of the Galilee and the Negev and deepen the roots connecting Diaspora Jewry with Israel

Rebecca Kopans
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Daniel Atar with members of a youth movement supported by KKL-JNFCredit: Israel Peretz
Rebecca Kopans
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Most people associate the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel (KKL-JNF) with Israel’s transformation from a bleak desert landscape to a beautiful country full of green forests and parks. While KKL-JNF is still deeply committed to developing Israel’s landscape, today it is focusing on supporting the country’s human resources as much as its natural ones.

“The Power of Giving” recently met with KKL-JNF Chairman Daniel Atar to hear about the organization’s current priorities and initiatives, which will undoubtedly have a profound impact on Israeli society.

Strengthening Zionist education worldwide

In recent years, Mr. Atar revealed, KKL-JNF has made it a top priority to strengthen global Jewry’s engagement with Israel. He is particularly concerned about the issue of assimilation. “Every Jew who gives up on their Judaism of their own free will is a catastrophe for the Jewish people,” he believes, adding that the rate of intermarriage has reached 65% on average, but even Jews who have not assimilated often don’t feel connected to Israel.

KKL-JNF is trying to make a change through Zionist education. “We have two goals: to strengthen their Jewish identity and to strengthen their connection to Israel,” he says, adding that, “KKL-JNF has education shlichim (emissaries) in dozens of countries around the world and they work with the local communities to educate them about Israel. In addition, we bring to Israel delegations of Jewish teens, teachers and youth groups.”

KKL-JNF’s education staff invests a great deal of time and energy in preparing educational programming for young Jews in such places as the U.S., Canada, Western and Eastern Europe and Australia, in order to bolster their sense of engagement with Israel. The organization actively supports all the Zionist youth groups around the world and is closely involved with their programming. 

KKL-JNF is currently building an International Center for Zionist and Jewish Leadership in Zippori, northern Israel, which is expected to significantly boost efforts to instill Zionist education. “We plan to bring thousands of young people and teachers to the Center every year, and to train them. We are building a program that doesn’t only include lessons and traveling around the country, but also volunteering in communities in the Galilee and the Negev – in schools, in centers for the elderly and other places,” Atar explains. The idea is that by experiencing Zionism in a personal, hands-on manner, visitors to the new Center will then be able to transmit these personal experiences to their students and colleagues when they return home. 

Developing the Galilee and the Negev

Mr. Atar speaks passionately about KKL-JNF’s desire to develop Israel’s periphery, which lags behind the center of the country in many ways, including socially and economically. One of the biggest problems is demographic: Israel’s population is heavily concentrated in the center of the country, and the peripheral regions are too sparsely populated to thrive. “We aim to bring 500,000 new residents to the Galilee and one million to the Negev in the next ten years,” affirms Atar. “This means finding solutions for housing and employment. We are now assembling a ‘high-tech community’ that will be part of the planning process.”

One of the projects that is already starting to be implemented involves encouraging Engineering students from around the country to live in the Galilee and the Negev during their studies, in the hope that they will stay in the region after graduating. “Together with the Technion, the Open University and other academic institutions, we connect them to jobs in the periphery while they are still students. They receive financial support during their studies, including assistance with tuition and living expenses, and they work and live in the Galilee or Negev,” says Atar.

Another important initiative aimed at bolstering the periphery is a plan to establish high-tech industrial parks in the Galilee and Negev, in partnership with the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of the Economy and Industry. These high-tech zones will be divided into three parts: facilities for existing high-tech companies, space for conducting R&D, and high-tech incubators, which will enable start-ups to develop their businesses in a comfortable, nurturing environment. KKL-JNF will oversee the infrastructure for these high-tech parks. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s plan to give high-tech entrepreneurs financial incentives to locate their companies in the Galilee and Negev is expected to motivate more high-tech companies to move to outlying areas.

Investing in youth

Mr. Atar says that KKL-JNF is particularly eager to help kids in the periphery “dream big” and become achievers. Since people who grow up in the periphery face many challenges and, as a result, tend to not fulfill their potential, KKL-JNF devised a plan to give youth in the periphery the tools to succeed in life. “The mainstay of the plan is the establishment of Houses of Excellence, which allow them to break through the barriers of the periphery, including the financial barriers,” Atar reveals enthusiastically.

KKL-JNF Houses of Excellence are already starting to function and they are generating a veritable revolution in Israel’s outlying areas. The pilot program which took place in Upper Nazareth this past year was a phenomenal success. A KKL-JNF House of Excellence is essentially a free after-school program for high school students, where they can come and study subjects such as Math, Physics and Cyber, as well as attend lectures by opinion shapers and learn leadership skills – all at no cost. Most importantly, KKL-JNF enlists the best pedagogic staff. “The Technion and the top universities are involved, and our partners include 8200 [the IDF Intelligence Corps’ prestigious cyber unit],” Atar reports proudly.

As soon as the first House of Excellence was opened in Upper Nazareth, its success far exceeded expectations. “We couldn’t get the kids to leave at the end of the day! And their improvement in school was meteoric, almost unbelievable,” Atar enthuses. The second KKL-JNF House of Excellence will open soon in Kiryat Malachi thanks to donations from Friends of KKL-JNF in France. The goal is to open ten houses, six in the Galilee and four in the Negev.

The Houses of Excellence are designed to impart a pleasant ‘high-tech-style’ atmosphere, with state-of-the-art technologies and even a café. “It turns out that they enjoy it so much that the kids often arrive an hour before their class and stay afterwards until the place closes at 10,” reports Atar, adding that a summer program offered at the Upper Nazareth house was also enormously successfully. “During the summer, we opened a three-week course for 70 high-school kids, where they developed four types of applications together with soldiers from Unit 8200. I can’t say more, since at least one of these apps has international potential!”

The youth who participated in the pilot program received an important boost to their self-confidence. “There’s no limit to their capabilities. When you give them the tools and they succeed, their motivation just grows and grows. Thanks to their ties to soldiers from Unit 8200, they become potential candidates for this unit,” notes Atar. Indeed, in Upper Nazareth, the KKL-JNF House of Excellence has become the talk of the town.

Atar’s vision is that the kids who attend the House of Excellence programs will feel part of Israel’s high-tech world. The plan is to have them visit high-tech companies on a regular basis and to feel a connection to the ecosystem. “In this way, we hope that they will see their future not only in the world of high-tech but also in the communities where they grew up. Hopefully, this will help stop the phenomenon whereby whoever is ambitious and successful escapes from the periphery and moves to the Tel Aviv area,” he explains, adding that, “Their higher income will generate the largest social revolution Israel has seen in many years. This vision will be realized thanks to the Government’s cooperation as well as donors from around the world who are investing in Israel’s periphery.”

Supporting the area close to the Gaza Strip

KKL-JNF’s missions of enhancing Israel’s landscape and strenthening the periphery have recently intersected in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip. For four months during the spring and summer of 2018, the region was plagued by hundreds of fires caused by burning kites and balloons from the Gaza Strip. These primitive devices scorched over 15,000 dunam of farm land and nature reserves, seriously damaging the area’s flora and fauna and destroying its beautiful landscape.

“KKL-JNF has been responsible for dealing with most of these fires. Our firefighters and workers were on-call 24/7 for over four months,” says Atar. In addition, KKL-JNF has been working intensively with all the towns, kibbutzim and moshavim in the area in order to devise a plan to help them rehabilitate themselves and strengthen their communities following the hostilities of the past few months. The goal is to help them restore the scorched land to its previous state and enable the area’s residents to live normal lives.

During the summer, KKL-JNF organized fun outings to parks and forests in other parts of the country for children in the affected area, so that they could enjoy much-needed breaks from the missiles and fires. Moreover, KKL-JNF has decided to spearhead a lawsuit against organizations that donate to Hamas. “They burn, we plant,” Atar insists. 

KKL-JNF also works with Israel’s Defense Ministry to improve security in the North. In addition to planting trees along the northern border for security reasons, KKL-JNF helps increase the protection of northern communities, especially in the Golan Heights and along the Lebanese border, by installing shelters and building by-pass roads. This July, when the situation along the Syrian border became extremely volatile, KKL-JNF’s Board voted on an emergency budget of an unlimited amount to provide immediate shelters to Golan Heights communities that lacked proper public shelters.

In such a small country where the entire population is essentially vulnerable to enemy attacks, Israelis are grateful that KKL-JNF is there to support them and to help ensure that all citizens can live in an environment that is as pleasant, safe and beautiful as possible.

Connecting people to nature

Although KKL-JNF is deeply involved with education and strengthening both Diaspora Jewry and residents of the Galilee and Negev, the organization is still closely identified with developing Israel’s natural environment – and for good reason. Just as it has done since its founding in 1901, KKL-JNF continues to develop the Land of Israel and to contribute enormously to the quality of life of Israel’s population.

Today, KKL-JNF is particularly proud of the community forests it has developed near residential neighborhoods. “In the digital age, our programs help connect people to nature,” explains KKL-JNF Chairman Daniel Atar. “In addition to the community forests, we are now developing a new model for people to grow fruit and vegetables near their homes,” he adds.

Another important project involves establishing bicycle trails around the country, so that people can enjoy this popular sport in the great outdoors. “We’re planning to build 5,000 more kilometers of bicycle trails in the next few years. These will include all types of trails: for families, for extreme bikers, single tracks, and so on,” says Atar. 

Other important fields where KKL-JNF continues to be a world leader is in the fight against desertification and contending with Israel’s perennial water shortage. Every year, KKL-JNF desertification experts plant 10,000 dunam in the desert, and its water experts are constantly upgrading and modernizing Israel’s water supply. Innovative projects such as reservoirs for recycled water and biofilter facilities that utilize rainwater and replenish the groundwater are making a significant impact on Israel’s water supply.

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