In the first of a series of six special features Telegraph editor Paul Harris witnesses the rebirth of JNF UK and sees at first hand its diverse projects
FOUR years ago JNF UK was in chaos. There had been unsavoury and unpleasant legal battles with its Israeli ‘parent’.
Accusations had been levelled against staff members and, sadly, for the first time in its near-100 year existence the name and reputation of JNF was severely tarnished in the eyes of the community.
There were those who felt that the funds they were donating were not being used for traditional JNF projects and that the costly legal action had eaten into cash intended for Israel.
Sections of the community believed that JNF had lost its way; that it had forgotten what it stood for — greening the land of Israel and making the desert bloom.
Amid all the upheaval, there was a change of personnel, both at board level and lower down the pecking order. Even the chief executive left.
It would be fair to observe that JNF UK stagnated for a period as it attempted to find its way under it new chairman Samuel Hayek, a prominent businessman.
Today though the future looks not only green but multi-faceted.
The overmanning of decades has disappeared, replaced by a streamlined operation evidenced by the obvious empty spaces and desks at JNF headquarters in Edgware.
A new, highly professional and highly motivated team is now in place; one which understands JNF and is able to identify the projects which are consistent with the organisation’s ideals set down by its founding fathers.
And that includes remembering the value of the famous Blue Box and the emotions it still engenders.
The emphasis is undoubtedly on the beleaguered and still relatively undeveloped south of Israel — the Negev.
Jeremy Kelly, fundraising director, observed: “For 100 years JNF was involved in draining swamps and preparing land for agricultural use and development, building roads and creating the infrastructure of the fledgling Israeli state.
“What we’ve simply done in the last four to five years is moved that agenda on to the 21st century Zionist agenda, strengthening existing communities, building new communities and populating the Negev in a way it needs, fulfilling Ben Gurion’s dream
“We’ve not lost our roots. We’re very much rooted in the traditions and values of the JNF.
“Those values have evolved into a more modern vision for the State of Israel and one that I think is more truly reflective of real need in the Negev.”
Daniel Frohwein, head of marketing and brand explained: “What most people don’t realise is that Samuel Hayek and the trustees who came in four years ago were actually the cavalry to the rescue.
“They’ve essentially tidied up and put in place incredibly strong processes.
“Those accusations by the critics in part — but only in part — had truth to them and where they were found to be true were dealt with rigorously.
“What we have in place now is a fantastically strong rigorous set of controls, a highly motivated team of people and a streamlined operation with professionals and volunteers working hand-in-hand.”
Daniel added: “The phrase ‘sustainable community building’, where in the previous century there was a physical requirement to drain the swamps, in this century there are more integrated and slightly different challenges in the Negev.
“They are a combination of infrastructure, people support and really quite innovative programmes that have come out of the ingenuity of those on the ground.
“It is community building at its heart and its core. JNF is there to help build and support Israel and her people and this where Israel and her people need the help the most in this chapter of its growth.”
Last week I had the opportunity to witness at first hand precisely what JNF is doing in Israel and how it is helping to make a difference, based on 21st century requirements.
It was an enlightening experience, not least because, as editor of a Jewish newspaper for longer than I care to recall, I believed I was au fait with our communal organisations, the services they offered and their very raison d’etre.
How wrong I was in the case of JNF. The breadth and diversity of the projects it supports is mind-boggling and humbling.
And its is an ever-changing scene to which those on the ground are well- attuned and able to react with immediacy.
The escalation of the rocket attacks from Gaza saw JNF UK, via its Rocket Relief Appeal, not only funding entertainers for those virtually incarcerated in shelters and providing emergency relief but also supplying emergency funding for psychologists and social workers to handle the stress and trauma suffered by residents of towns and cities near to the border.
Daniel said: “We’ve got a community out there that we’re very responsive to.
“The community here is gradually waking up to the work we’re doing. JNF has not lost its values. It is hard working, caring and forward thinking.”
Yonatan Galon, JNF UK’s representative in Israel, is the organisation’s main man on the ground.
He has been with JNF for a a couple of years. As well as identifying potential new projects which then go before the board for approval, he constantly visits existing projects to ensure that funds are being deployed in the right direction and to oversee construction and other work.
Over the next five weeks I will be featuring what I saw.
That includes assisting farmers in the Negev with security as they face regular attacks from Bedouin and the theft of all their land, livestock and possessions to the funding of a yeshiva dormitory in a new community made up of some of those who were displaced after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza just over seven years ago.
Or helping to fund a school for disabled Bedouin children and the reasons why JNF should actually be offering support in that direction.
Or how the JNF is encouraging young people to relocate to the Negev region and populate it.
Daniel observed, in response to those who might still entertain the belief that JNF should be exclusively about land and trees, as it was in the early 20th century and beyond:
“Supporting Israel for life requires evolving needs on the ground. JNF continues with trees, with water and with agriculture.
“But it’s about community building and about supporting the vulnerable in the strategically important south — a 21st century vision of Israel which actually has its roots in Ben-Gurion’s vision, the Negev being the place that we need to build.
“And with both Israeli governmental and local municipality support JNF UK has maximised donor money by looking at strategically valuable projects which have long term staying power and need immediate help on the ground.”
That includes education where JNF offers support through playgrounds and facilities.
For instance, the fact that JNF funds disadvantaged teenagers entering a pre-military programme means that they are able to enter more elite units, enjoy post-military training and then settle in and contribute to the Negev where previously they could not have envisaged that kind of future.
And Israel, too, benefits because those young people are now contributing to those communities.