A Cup of Coffee with JNF-USA
“We are a growing, and vibrant community. Anyone would be lucky to be a part of the greatest show on earth, called the Jewish people”
As I sat down to chat with Russell Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund USA (JNF-USA), I was reminded of my own passion for my people, one that brought me to the Land of Israel eight years ago. While Robinson and I may have very different stories, we are brought together for a cup of coffee in our shared homeland, with a shared dream. A dream to have every Jew call Israel their home, in whatever way they decide that home to be. It is a dream of empowerment, celebration, and reclamation.
Like 97% of Jewish children living in America, Robinson grew up in the public school system, disinterested in his Jewish roots and resenting his Sunday mornings spent in Hebrew school. To him, Judaism forced him to work twice as hard at fitting in and his eventual Bar Mitzvah was no more than a release from Hebrew school prison and a cashflow opportunity, rather than an initiation into adulthood.
Unfortunately, as Robinson explains, the majority of Jewish youth see their heritage this way. For decades, the Jewish narrative has been one of victimhood. After centuries of pogroms, attacks, and destruction, it seems to be that our pain has been the driving force that brings us together. And while that may create a strong togetherness of a people in fear, it is most certainly not a narrative that elicits pride in our nation, pride in the Jewish people.
It took many years, and many more experiences for Robinson to begin to understand a new, emerging narrative that JNF USA is committed to sharing with the world’s Jewry.
“Eventually I found myself in Jewish summer camps and Jewish conventions, with Jews laughing and having fun! I saw non-religious Jews moved by the experience of lighting Shabbat candles.”
This is the message of JNF USA. Judaism is a nation of empowerment, and our country should be one of pride. As Robinson explains, Judaism is the only religion, and Jews the only nation, with land so closely intertwined with our very existence. And yet, when you ask many young Jews around the world what Israel means to them, as JNF USA has done, responses sometimes vary. With many beliefs reflecting an anti-Israel politicized agenda, the reality of the situation is clear.
Jewish leaders have made a mistake.
“We have robbed our very selves of the term Zionism”
A word that once symbolized hope, redemption, and unity has become misconstrued, obfuscated, and delegitimized.
What is true Zionism?
Well, that is left for us to decide, and JNF USA is asking for our help in reclaiming Zionism as our own.
“Zionism is about what it is to YOU. And whatever it is, it is beautiful. It is about the Jewish people having a homeland on their ancestral soil”
Think of a vibrant and colorful collage of Zionism. There is beauty in the multiplicity, magic in the different faces of Zionism. As we allow ourselves to expand what Zionism means to the world’s Jewry, we begin to bridge the gaps among our communities that have been in place for far too long.
We are not allowed to hide anymore. Zionism is the foundation of our homeland, and it is already ours to claim. So let us claim it.
What is JNF USA’s role in all of this?
Their vision is one of dialogue, and they are committed to creating a forum for these very conversations to happen.
29 acres of land has been set aside for JNF USA in Be’er Sheva to do just this. JNF-USA’s ‘Zionist Village’ is already underway, a home to Jewish teens and young adults from all over the world- Israel, Australia, North America, and Africa- to come together and be Jews, in the very many flavors, cultures, and languages that Judaism is. In Israel. As Zionists.
Think of a Zionist ecosystem, home to all forms of Jewish life, in one village, part of one tribe.
“In the times we live in, we now have the opportunity to create a global synagogue. We no longer need to stay still in the hometowns of our parents and grandparents. We can go out and expand the Jewish community in ways we have never seen before. And Israel is the center of that.”
Yes, as Jews we may have pain. As Jews, we may have made some mistakes, and we accept responsibility. But who are we to not then celebrate all of our great wins?
We have an Israeli baseball team and Israeli swimmers going to the Olympics! We vaccinated a whole country before the rest of the world in a global pandemic. Our very own irrigation systems and agricultural technologies are helping farmers in Africa put food on their tables! Israel makes the world a great place, and we can never forget that.
What can we do to help JNF-USA’s Zionist initiative?
Be part of a conversation.
Our greatest enemy is our own silence. If we fill the voids with good, we wipe out the bad. If we sit on the sidelines, the bad will fill us up.
We need to be loud and proud of who we are as the Jewish nation. And who we are is a beautiful and vibrantly colored, patchwork quilt of Jews with many faces, colors, cultures, and values. But we are one people. With one land.
Want to be a part of the conversation? Hop on to zionistvillage.jnf.org to be a part of a focus group, and help JNF-USA learn what people are thinking about Israel.