Friday, April 25, 2008 | return to: local


Jewish National Fund plants an emissary in Bay Area

by dan pine, staff writer

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Most Bay Area residents take for granted hauling the recycle bin to the curb every week. For new South Bay resident Amir Halevi, it is still a weekly miracle.

A special emissary for the Jewish National Fund, Halevi moved here from Tel Aviv last December to talk up JNF and its many environmental projects in Israel. However, weekly municipal recycling isn't one of them.

"In Israel, we are 100 years behind with garbage and recycling," he says. "They recycle only bottles, not paper."

As much eco-knowledge as he may gain during his California sojourn, Halevi also hopes to better educate Bay Area Jews about the 106-year-old JNF.

If asked what they know about JNF, many American Jews probably would think of the tree planted in their name somewhere in Israel. Halevi says there's more to JNF than that.

"JNF in Israel is the leader of green activities and educational activities," he says. "JNF took the position that you can move things — because in the public sector, things move slowly. The government can't make decisions."

That's Halevi's way of saying the Israeli government and bureaucratic red tape go together like Simon Cowell and tight T-shirts.

He cites as an example the JNF's ambitious plans to revitalize Beersheva, long one of Israel's poorest cities. The organization launched the 900-acre River Walk (not unlike the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas). It includes 10 miles of promenades, parks, hiking trails, a lake, sports center and amphitheater, all likely to bring jobs to Israel's perennially poor south.

It's one component of "Blueprint Negev," JNF's $600 million campaign to develop the region.

"It's going to change the standard of living in the Negev," says Halevi. "The Negev is 60 percent of [Israel's] land, with only 6 percent of the Israeli people living there. This park can change that. In the Negev, JNF is the only organization that is changing things."

Now that JNF taken the first steps, Halevi says the government is promising to kick in $4 billion for "Blueprint Negev" projects.

Before he joined JNF, Halevi graduated from Bar-Ilan University, ran his own high-tech business and served as deputy mayor of Tel Aviv. During his term, he experienced first-hand the frustration of government inaction when he proposed creating bicycle lanes in the streets of Tel Aviv.

"In the beginning, it was not popular," he recalls. "The minister of transportation said, 'No, we don't want it. It's very dangerous.' I told them, 'Let me do one community in Tel Aviv.'"

He barreled through the resistance and now Tel Aviv is set to install 100 kilometers of bike lanes in time for the city's 100th anniversary next year.

Eventually, Halevi felt it was time to make a change. He left his business in the hands of a partner, joined the JNF emissary program, packed up the family and moved to the Bay Area. He is one of six such Israeli emissaries around the country, and the first locally in four years.

Part of the job is fundraising, but Halevi spends most of his time educating the local Jewish community about the range of JNF projects. To that end, he routinely visits schools, synagogues, federations and other Jewish agencies.

Beyond environmentalism and water development, the organization also builds Israeli security roads and restores ancient historical sights.

There's even baseball in Israel now, thanks in part to JNF, which has joined forces with the Israel Baseball League to develop the sport throughout the country. Presumably, the hot dogs are kosher.

Though he misses Israel, Halevi says he is settling into California life. His children now attend the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City. And all family members have become dedicated recyclers.

Par for the course for a representative of Israel's most venerated environmental group.

"JNF is the only organization that has systematically made [the environment] an issue for 100 years," says Halevi. "The combination of Israel, JNF and California is a unique junction. We can do a lot of projects together."


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