Jewish National Fund held its National Conference in Denver over the weekend, bringing over 700 people from all over the US and Israel.

JNF National Conference Comes to Denver

Stephen Muss Presents $5 Million Gift

l-r: Russell Robinson, JNF CEO, Governor John Hickenlooper, and
l-r: Russell Robinson, JNF CEO, Governor John Hickenlooper, and KKL World Chairman Efi Stenzler

Jewish National Fund held its National Conference in Denver over the weekend of October 25 – 28, 2013, bringing over 700 people from all over the US to hear speakers as diverse as Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Israeli Minister of Environmental Protection Amir Peretz.

If you haven’t experienced JNF since your tree certificate for your b’nai mitzvah, this isn’t your father’s JNF — or the JNF of your childhood.  JNF President Jeffrey Levine announced that JNF had just concluded its most successful campaign ever: $121 million, including an estate gift of over $60 million.  More importantly, he also announced a ten-year, $1 billion initiative to carry JNF/KKL’s development plans in Israel through its 75th jubilee in 2023.  This campaign has three focus areas: Connecting the next generation to Israel; continued development of the Negev with the goal of attracting 500,000 people to the area; and continued encouragement of Jews to immigrate to Israel, especially from North America.

l-r: Jonathan Lev, Joan Nagel, Judy Lemberger and Barbara Trager

The conference opened on Friday with a plenary devoted to the various connections between Colorado and Israel in both programs and interests: water, the environment, sustainability, and economic development.  Governor Hickenlooper discussed his recent trip to Israel wherein he did what many of us do on a first trip to Israel: plant a tree with JNF.  Efi Stenzler, KKL World Chairman, Jerry Tinianow, Denver’s Chief Sustainability Officer, and Dr. David Brand, JNF/KKL’s Chief Forester also gave presentations as well as Naty Barak, Chief Sustainability Officer, Netafim (the Israeli company that developed drip irrigation systems).

Sunday’s full day sessions were mainly focused on JNF leadership development and donor engagement.  At the afternoon plenary, Russell Robinson, JNF CEO, moderated presentations from new and old JNF partners:

  • Doreet Freedman, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Nefesh B’Nefesh talked about how her organization has, in ten years, increased the success rate for North American olim from a 40% retention rate to today’s astounding 97% retention.  Nefesh b’Nefesh also now runs the Lone Soldier program, currently supporting 3,000 Lone IDF Soldiers from 32 countries, as well as the Go North and Go South programs, encouraging olim to settle the north and the Negev rather than continuing to clump in the already crowded Jerusalem – Tel Aviv – Haifa corridors.
  • Yedidya Harush, Liaison, JNF Halutza described how JNF partnered with the Israeli government and forward-thinking former residents of Gush Katif to create new strategic settlements in the northwest Negev.  Starting with 20 families, the Halutza communities now number 2,000 residents and plan to grow to 30,000 in ten years.
  • Incoming Mountain States Regional President Ron Werner (c) with Boulder Co-Chairs Evie Cohen (l) and Vicky Kelman (r).
    Incoming Mountain States Regional President Ron Werner (c) with Boulder Co-Chairs Evie Cohen (l) and Vicky Kelman (r).

    Ronald E. Werner, Alumnus, Alexander Muss High School in Israel, spoke of his experience as an AMHSI student and how it changed the course of his life.  Not only has he been involved with Israel and Israel education, but Werner is the incoming President of the Mountain States region of JNF.  Over the next couple of years, AMHSI will complete a partnership agreement with JNF that will expand its programs from 1200 students per year to 2500 students per year five years from now and create grassroots college advocates for Israel year after year.  JNF plans to invest $200 million in Zionist education over the next 10 years.

  • Carly Coons, Alumna, JNF Alternative Spring Break Program shared how IST started her on a path of love for Israel and Jewish education that led to her majoring in International Relations and Jewish Studies at CU Boulder, and her desire to get back to Israel led her to a JNF ASB experience that she described as life-changing.  She is now Director of Youth Engagement at Temple Sinai in Denver.
Hagit Yaso, Israeli Idol Winner

At Sunday night’s Gala, JNF Chairman Ronald Lauder spoke about his lifelong commitment to Jewish continuity and helping fulfil Herzl’s dream of a strong and secure homeland for the Jews while thanking outgoing JNF President Stan Chesney.  Incoming President Jeffrey Levin spoke about his vision and passion for Israel and JNF, and Israel Idol Hagit Yaso sang beautifully.  But Stephen Muss, founder of Alexander Muss High School in Israel stole the show when, after thanking JNF for agreeing to acquire the school and integrate it into its Zionist education efforts, presented a check for $5 million to JNF, along with a challenge grant to raise an additional $1 million before the end of 2013.

Monday’s closing plenary features former US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar talking about water issues; Shachar Zahavi, founder and chairperson of IsrAID, Rachel Ishofsky, Managing Director, Innovation: Africa, Hanni Arnon, Executive Director, Arava International Center for Agricultural Training,  and Clara Tsao, Alumna, Caravan for Democracy Student Leadership Mission discussing ways Israel does good in the world; and a tribute to Gene Kay, outgoing Rocky Mountain Region President and Stan Kamlet, longtime Denver JNF Regional Director.


About David Fellows

I've been writing things since grammar school, and served as a writer, photographer and/or an editor on my junior high and high school newspapers; the Daily Trojan at USC (where I earned my journalism degree); the student newspaper at the Anderson School at UCLA (where I earned my MBA); and written and edited countless business documents and presentations in the ensuing twenty years. I've been involved Jewishly since my bris and in Boulder since 1995. I'm married to my Executive Director Cheryl, and we have two children, Lauren and Ethan.

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  1. I've attended several JNF conferences all over the country and Denver stood up to the best of the best. Our out of town attendees truly enjoyed all that downtown Denver had to offer including the fabulous weather!
    The programs were educational and the speakers inspiring. Clearly, JNF is leaps and bounds beyond "greening the desert". Thank you David and Cheryl for the great coverage…. great seeing you there.

  2. Tiny note of correction: Stephen Muss is the Chairman of Alexander Muss High School in Israel, not the founder. That honor belongs to the late Rabbi Morrie Kipper (z"l) and his wife, Lenore Kipper, who founded the school in 1972 together with the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Stephen Muss named the school after his late father, Alexander, in 1980.