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JNF launches drive to plant a ‘Unity Forest

NEW YORK, April 2 (JTA) — The new vanguard running the Jewish National Fund of America has launched its first major project: the establishment of a “Unity Forest” in Israel. So far, 45 synagogues in the New York area, representing the three major streams of Judaism, have joined together to celebrate the Jewish state’s 50th anniversary. Beginning next month, the JNF will expand the enterprise to Los Angeles, Chicago, and eventually, the entire country, according to Russell Robinson, executive vice president of the JNF. Each participating synagogue has committed $5000 to plant 1000 trees apiece in Israel’s Negev Desert. A fresh and excited JNF staff — the newest member came on board last week — and 50 rabbis gathered recently at the home of Ambassador Shmuel Sisso, Israel’s consul general in New York, to celebrate the event. The ambassador said the main goal of the forest is to build a symbol to Jewish unity in the face of the religious pluralism crisis in Israel. When people ask, he said, “We will tell them that these trees were not planted by Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Jews.” “The new forest was planted by all of the Jewish people, for the benefit of every member of our diverse family.” After being hurt by disclosures of fiscal mismanagement a few years ago, JNF hired a new staff, as part of a broad plan designed to restore confidence in the non-profit charitable organization known best for planting trees in Israel. “The JNF had grown tremendously over the years, and its systems had not adapted to its size. The organization had to take an internal look at itself,” said Robinson, who was wooed from the upper echelons of the United Jewish Appeal in July by JNF’s new president, high-profile philanthropist and cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder. The probe was triggered in the spring of 1995 after two Houston-based volunteer leaders of the JNF began raising questions about what they perceived as discrepancies in JNF’s enterprise. Indeed, donors were infuriated when it was exposed that a surprisingly small portion of the millions raised annually by the charity for land reclamation in Israel actually gets there. Most stayed in the United States for Zionist education and promotion of the JNF enterprise. “Now, the JNF is owned by the lay leadership,” said Robinson. “Now you have a group of lay leaders who have a stake in the organization.”