Jewish National Fund Chief Executive Officer Russell Robinson is passionate about JNF’s why.
“The soil of Israel is where we all have our growth from. God said to Abraham, ‘Go forward to a new land.’ No other people are linked to a land. We talk about Israel and Jerusalem, that was the story then and it’s the story now.”
But Robinson recently attended to some business closer to home, when he traveled to Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey, for the dedication of a memorial to the victims of the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building. The trip provided Robinson with an opportunity to reflect on that terrible day and one of the things that came out of it: a memorial to the victims in Israel.
As he recalled, the attack occurred during JNF’s national conference in Phoenix, Arizona. New York Times columnist and Pittsburgh native Bari Weiss had spoken to the 1,500 in attendance about anti-Semitism just a few hours before word of the unfolding tragedy reached Robinson and JNF’s leadership.
“It was a really unbelievable moment for us. It shocked the world and the Jewish community,” Robinson recounted.
“We said, ‘We’ve got to do something. We raised money and went to Israel thinking, ‘Where are we going to put this?’ We had an emotional response, but we needed a logistical response as well.”
They eventually decided to place a memorial plaque with the names of the 11 Pittsburgh victims at the 9/11 Living Memorial Plaza in Jerusalem.
“We wanted a place that resonated to the world in Israel, that had all these similar sacrifices but always talks about tolerance and peace,” said Robinson. “It’s important to recognize these horrific murders and to remember the victims in a place called Israel, to memorialize them.”
The location also provided instant foot traffic.
“People come constantly from countries all over the world. You have to remember, there were 3,000 people killed in 9/11 from something like 98 different countries,” Robinson explained.
The memorial was visited by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto in February 2019. He planted an olive tree next to the plaque honoring the victims. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf planned to visit the memorial on his trip to Israel this month, according to JNF Communications Manager Sam Zalta.
Back in the States, the JNF CEO spoke at the memorial dedication in New Jersey. He said that Temple Shalom decided to create the memorial after visiting Pittsburgh, to provide a space where people can pause and think about tolerance, much like JNF’s memorial in Israel.
“That’s why they called me to speak. I’m bringing a picture of the victims with me for them to hang as part of the memorial.”
While JNF is known for planting trees in Israel, its mission is larger than that.
“We started 118 years ago, repurchasing the land of Israel acre by acre, not just for a place called Israel, but a place called the Jewish homeland. Today we’re helping to develop the frontiers of Israel. We do that with hundreds of thousands of donors that are joining with us to be a part of the development of Israel and the nation.”
Surprisingly, Robinson noted that the largest segment of JNF’s donor demographic is 22 – to 40-year-olds. That may be due to the not-for-profit’s commitment to education and work to connect with Jewish children as young as 6 or 7 years old.
Robinson will visit Pittsburgh in February 2020, when he plans to meet with leaders from Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.