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Why JNF’s Split from KKL Is Actually Good for Everyone

The relationship between the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Keren Kayemeth L’yisrael (KKL) was the topic of a recent “expose” in these pages. It seems that direct support by JNF for KKL’s activities in Israel has hit an all-time low of 1%. The article implied that this represents some sort of aberration or departure from the organization’s mission.

But as someone who sat for twelve years on the KKL board observing these interactions, the development is hardly surprising. Indeed, while I’d be happier if the two organizations renewed their history of working together more on common projects, the new dynamics reflect an institutional makeover that’s good for JNF, good for KKL, and most of all, good for Israel.

The transition began after JNF’s American offices reshuffled its deck at the end of the 1990s following allegations of financial mismanagement. Ronald Lauder, an American businessman and former diplomat, took on the position of President, which he held until 2007. In this capacity, he quickly made many changes to the organization, both substantive and institutional. For example, he expanded JNF’s focus and began emphasizing the strengthening of Israel’s water infrastructure. Lauder also began to reshape the organization’s relationship with KKL, assuming greater autonomy in its philanthropic agenda. Perhaps most importantly, he recruited Russell Robinson in 1998 to serve as the youngest CEO in JNF’s history.

Robinson, originally from Texas, brought an ambitious vision with him to New York City. He also brought his considerable talent for persuasion, a no-nonsense management style, and an unremitting love of Israel. Robinson deserves most of the credit for dramatically increasing the scope and magnitude of JNF operations. Before he took over, JNF’s support for Israel had dwindled to trivial levels. Today, the organization works according to a ten-year, billion-dollar strategic plan.

Robinson also built a remarkable community and organizational culture. Unlike some American Friends organizations, which by design are kept small and only welcome six-figure donors, JNF has created a massive, diverse community of Israel supporters around the country. New access to Israel via the internet, telecommunications, and relatively inexpensive flights meant that for the first time, it was easy to monitor what was happening in the promised land. In this capacity, JNF members were encouraged to think for themselves and bring their own creativity and passions to their Israeli philanthropy.

But not everyone was pleased. The greater engagement and the new transparency engendered by these changes initially proved problematic for KKL. As a board member, it was clear to me that at times, KKL could be cavalier in the way it used donors’ funds. Frequently, KKL racked up what I considered ridiculously high overhead on projects, and failed to meet the timetables that it promised. And I found KKL sometimes maddeningly opaque to its partners.

Slowly but surely, JNF began to take matters into its own hands. In this new iteration, JNF was impeccably organized. If I were teaching a course in non-profit management, I would use the past twenty years of JNF’s progress as the case study about how to take an organization and transform it from a top-down paradigm – to a far more sustainable, bottom-up model. Its lay leadership swelled in new chapters and regions. It initiated its own projects, forging partnerships with an array of Israeli recipient non-profits. It kept money dedicated for projects in escrow until projects were completed, and eventually it established its own offices and oversight operations in Israel, ironically, a block away from the KKL offices in downtown Jerusalem.

Naturally, there was resistance at the KKL. The major concern was that the Americans were transferring power from the Jewish people to wealthy donors who would control its agenda. KKL on the other hand is fundamentally a democratic organization; its officers are elected according to the balance of powers at the Zionist Congress, which convenes every four or five years.

But I believe that opposing this new order of things is ill advised. To begin with, the old model where Israelis bring their “expertise” to Jews around the world who compliantly accept their priorities is no longer valid. In an age of partnerships, such paternalistic assumptions no longer resonate. The laundry list of worthy Israeli organizations, vying for support among the finite supporters of Israel around the world, is astonishingly long. During the years when KKL shut off American donors from initiating and funding their own projects, supporters began to vote with their feet.

This trend flipped when Russell Robinson created a culture of lay leadership, where thousands of individuals became inspired and engaged. If William Shatner is passionate about therapeutic riding for disabled children, JNF can accommodate his inclination and boost existing Israeli riding programs. If you want peace and care about the environment, the JNF has projects with the Arava Institue for Environmental Studies; if you are concerned about making the Negev a more compelling place for Israelis to live, JNF is the unquestioned leader. If you want to help the Bedouin minorities living there, a JNF-supported sustainability center in the town of Hura is proving to be a game changer. If you are under 35, there is JNF Futures and Alternative Spring Breaks in Israel. If you want to ride a bike across Israel, JNF does that to. There’s something for everyone. To me, this feels like real democracy.

With these new competitive dynamics, KKL proved to be extremely slow in designing compelling projects that would excite American donors. It’s not like they didn’t have opportunities to present their important environmental and social initiatives at JNF gatherings. But with a budget of eight or nine hundred million shekels a year based on its land leases, the organization was fundamentally less “hungry” than dozens of Israeli institutions who learned how to create real partnerships with JNF donors.

Eventually, KKL smelled the coffee and it has begun to evolve. In fact, it is JNF’s independence that’s made KKL far more responsive to the concerns of other JNF offices around the world. But it is JNF U.S. that offers the richest menu of options to be engaged with Israel through tax-exempt donations. Take for example, retired Maryland school teacher extraordinaire Anne Podell and her husband, government computer maven, Dr. Harold Podell. Quietly, without fanfare, the couple has supported grassroots environmental activism in Israel via the JNF for years. They were recognized this week in a ceremony at a KKL forest outside Jerusalem. Through the JNF, their support has funded public interest legal actions against egregious polluters, as well as campaigns to save beaches and habitats from fool-hearty development. They’ve also made it possible for student activists to raise public awareness about climate change. This kind of targeted, strategic and personal philanthropy would never have been possible in the past under the antiquated model that squelched individual enterprises.

But the Podells are an example of perhaps the most heartening aspect of the new JNF makeover: the wide tent that it successfully maintains. Among JNF activists you will find men with kipot working closely with atheists. Women increasingly assume leadership roles. At JNF national conferences you will find proud Republican-appointed ambassador Lauder and plenty of folks from his side of the aisle. But they mix it up with the likes of Attorney Ken Krupsky, who brings a liberal commitment for human rights and equal opportunity to his volunteer work as co-chair of Go-North, JNF’s plan for supporting Galilee development.

At a time when Israeli and American societies are so painfully divided, it is refreshing to see one safe place where decent people remember that they hold about 95% of their values and aspirations in common — and are happiest working together.

JNF is one of America’s most important Jewish organizations today and the Forward’s decision to run a series of scrutinizing its work is certainly legitimate, though I’m not sure that they’ll find outrageously high salaries. Indeed, I was a bit surprised at how little money the top management at JNF takes home, given their astonishingly effective economic performance. But JNF is not flawless and some imperfections are likely to emerge.

Because of the “bottom-up” culture, however, I am confident that problems will be addressed and corrected. That’s the nature of a nimble, democratic organization.

Alon Tal is chair of the department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. He served as a volunteer member of the KKL-JNF international board from 2004-2016.

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