DENVER opened its arms to supporters of the Jewish National Fund last weekend, offering bucolic October weather and warm words of welcome during the first JNF national conference to be held in the Mile High City.
For their part, the several hundred JNF lay and professional leaders seemed to return the sentiment, adding a palpable sense of excitement and enthusiasm as they gathered to discuss and celebrate an organization that is clearly beloved by its supporters.
Although a band of protesters — the usual anti-Israel crowd oddly joined by members of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect — did their best to crash the party with vocal demonstrations at the main door of the Grand Hyatt hotel downtown, few JNF’ers seemed to pay them much mind.
The few who did engage them in lively debate were firmly defiant of the critics’ anti-Israel canards and outspokenly unapologetic in their own unflagging support of Israel.
If any single theme came through during the three days of the JNF conference, it was the organization’s unshakeable bond with Israel.
In an age when many Jews are questioning or redefining the relationship between Israel and American Jewry, JNF supporters — including the many younger members who attended the conference — embodied a spirit of old-fashioned passionate Zionism.
THAT was the main point of the conference’s opening address, given by JNF-KKL (Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael) world chairman Efi Stenzler on Friday afternoon, Oct. 25.
Stenzler spoke of the 40th anniversary this year of the Yom Kippur War in which he served and “in which I lost many of my friends” among the 2,500 to 2,800 Israeli soldiers who died.
Like all of Israel’s wars, Stenzler said, the Yom Kippur conflict solidified his conviction that “Israel and Jerusalem will never fall,” but also that in order to survive, Israel “must be the best.
“Little Israel cannot afford to make a mistake. To survive we must be better than others in education, science, medicine, agriculture and sustainability. All these issues are related to each other.”
In all of those are fields, Stenzler said, JNF is not only an active participant but an innovative leader.
He laid out a laundry list of JNF’s projects in forestry, water conservation and management, agriculture and community building, particularly in Israel’s under-populated Negev and Galilee regions.
Stenzler also spoke of the organization’s efforts to strengthen relations with the Jewish world by opening new offices in international locations and setting up summer camp programs to expose world Jewish youth to JNF’s work.
He did not ignore those who criticize Israel and the Jewish National Fund’s mission to support it.
“There are demonstrators outside,” Stenzler said. “They are protesting against us because we represent Zionism and strength. We represent the organization that brought the land of Israel to its people. Our enemies use minority groups in Israel not to help them but to hurt us.”
He defied the protester’s charges that Israel is racist, that it practices apartheid or ethnic cleansing, by detailing the JNF’s work on behalf of Israel’s Arabs.
He defended the organization’s role in the controversial program to relocate Bedouin populations into permanent communities as an effort to bring them out of isolation and poverty into Israel’s social mainstream.
“We do this with the understanding that this is the proper and right way to integrate the Bedouins into Israel as Israelis,” Stenzler said. “It’s a part of real social justice. We give dignity to all residents in Israel.”
AFTER the next speaker, John Hickenlooper, addressed the JNF attendees, it was clear that the governor of Colorado had made several hundred new fans.
Speaking in the informal and earnest style that Coloradoans already know very well, Hickenlooper enthusiastically described his first trip to Israel last spring during which he participated in a JNF-sponsored tree planting near Jerusalem.
Introduced by Denver attorney Norm Brownstein (whose firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck was a sponsor of the JNF conference) Hickenlooper called his journey to Israel “the trip of a lifetime.”
“I thought I was going to die from lack of sleep,” he said, “ . . . but I’ve never had a trip that showed me such diversity and landscapes and people, of beauty. I had never been to Israel before and I was so taken and so transformed by all the riches, in the landscapes and the people.”
The governor characterized the conference as an opportunity for Israel supporters and Coloradoans to establish contacts that will evolve into the sort of friendships that can result in joint projects and programs.
“This is one of many ties between Colorado and Israel,” Hickenlooper said. “We are thousands of miles apart but we’re really not that different. People see differences but really there are so many similarities.”
During his trip to Israel he was impressed by Israel’s “culture of innovation” and noted that Colorado is trying to cultivate that same culture here.
“I got to Israel and said, we still have a long ways to go. We have shared values and interests in addition to the ties of friendship. Israel is a leader in high tech, in agricultural innovation, water management, natural gas development, renewal energy technology.
“Each of these areas — high tech, agriculture, water, natural gas, renewable energy — are things that we care deeply about in Colorado. I think we can learn so much from you. It’s interesting that JNF is active in many of these areas.”
Hickenlooper displayed his pro-business orientation, already well known locally, to the JNF supporters last week.
“My commitment to you all is that we are partners,” he said. “When we are a step ahead in innovation we will invest in Israel.
“We will take your thought leaders and make sure they have our best technology.
“And we hope vice-versa, when you are ahead of us, we can benefit from your experiences and your knowledge.”
THE governor highlighted several areas in which Colorado and Israel share common concerns.
Hickenlooper noted that as mayor of Denver he embarked on a goal of planting one million trees in Denver over 20 years.
“I was proud as punch,” he said. “Then I found out that JNF in a little over a hundred years, has planted, what, 240 million trees. It made me feel about that high. But you know, we can learn.
“JNF is also a leader in fire prevention. We’ve had a number of wildfires here in the last couple of years and we are very focused on that. We’re learning in leaps and bounds and again, we are happy to trade our learning and are hoping to get some lessons from you that you already have.”
He spoke of Israel’s progress in high tech industries in almost envious terms, adding that Colorado is also aspiring to become a world force in high tech development.
“Israel, in the world, is second only to the entire United States in startups. You look at the top 10 cities in the US, four of them are in Colorado. We’re very proud of that.
“But if we were in Israel, our four cities would be in the bottom.
“We are just beginning to create the ecosystem and cultivate that environment where people just naturally start business and take those ideas and that research and evolve that into businesses that create jobs.”
Hickenlooper took note of the business relationships already in place between Israel and Colorado, adding that he hopes to increase the scope of those ties.
“We do have 80 Colorado companies that are doing business in Israel and about $45 million in exports to Israel. I want to focus in the next 12 to 18 months and set up a planning place so that we can say that in five years we’re going to double that.”
Further shared concerns in water conservation, biotech industries, irrigation, renewable energy and oil development will provide a rich field of opportunity for Israel and Colorado to develop joint ventures in both research and business, Hickenlooper predicted.
“I came back from my visit to Israel and felt so powerfully that the greatest benefit would be for us to get more Americans to go visit Israel, not just to lie on a beach but to let them have the same kind of experience I did, where I got to go and meet the people running businesses and starting businesses,” Hickenlooper said.
“To allow Americans to go and to drink deeply at the spring of Israeli culture, would be no greater gift for America.”
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News