JNFs new regional director sees the forest for the trees

With a degree in finance and years of corporate experience, Rebekah Wildman is adept at rattling off statistics. These days, her favorite stats have to do with the accomplishments of the Jewish National Fund.

“More than 240 million trees planted [in Israel],” she boasts. “We built 205 reservoirs around the country to recycle wastewater for agricultural use. Seventy-seven percent of sewage water is recycled, more than any other country.”

And this one: “Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees now than it did 100 years ago.”

Rebekah Wildman photo/cathleen maclearie

On board a little more than a month as JNF’s new regional director for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, Wildman has plunged into her work raising funds and awareness for the 108-year-old organization. Its mission has always been about protecting the land of Israel. Literally: the land.

Though this is her first staff position, Wildman is not new to JNF. Over the years, she’s been a lay leader with JNF regions based in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Chicago native had been drawn to the organization ever since attending a lecture given by longtime CEO Russell Robinson.

“He was in Cleveland speaking about water,” she recalls. “He talked about desalination, at the time a cutting-edge technology. I remember being very intrigued, and then meeting some great, energetic people.”

That drew her into volunteering for JNF as a fund-raiser. She points out that the organization does a lot more than plant trees, even though that has been its signature program since its founding. “If we were still just focusing on trees we’d be missing the point,” Wildman says.

Other ongoing projects of note include rooftop rainwater cisterns installed at dozens of Israeli schools, and the 10-year, $600 million Blueprint Negev, a development project intended to bring an influx of new residents to Israel’s vast southern desert region.

The latter is not without controversy.

In July and earlier this month, the Israel Lands Administration demolished homes of around 300 Bedouins in the village of Al-Arakib. JNF slated the land for reforestation. However, Wildman says her organization had nothing to do with the home demolitions, which sparked violent clashes between police and protesters, and which made headlines around the world.

“It was a completely government decision,” she says of the demolitions, adding that JNF has sponsored many programs to assist the 160,000 Bedouin Arabs living in the Negev. “We are developing a medical center [that] serves as a training ground for doctors and nurses in the Bedouin community. The JNF has funded and built parks for [the Bedouin] as well.”

Some activists, including Israeli Jews, have objected to Blueprint Negev, claiming it places an undue burden on the Bedouin, as well as poses an environmental threat.

Wildman counters that the JNF strives to help equally both Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. “All of our efforts are meant to be accessible and open to all of Israel’s residents,” she says.

She also defends Blueprint Negev on the grounds that Israel’s growing population means more Israelis cannot afford to live in pricey Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other major cities.

They have to go somewhere, she argues, and the Negev, which played home to Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is the logical place to develop.

In addition to her JNF duties, Wildman sits on the board of the East Bay’s Jewish Federation and serves as a vice president of El Cerrito’s Tehiyah Day School, which her daughter attends.

Wildman moved to the Bay Area two years ago. At JNF she replaces Sherri Morr. As she meets with current and potential JNF donors, Wildman finds herself more enthusiastic then ever about the organization’s mission.

“What speaks to me so strongly is my absolute knowledge that we should set an example for the rest of the world,” she says of Israel and the JNF. “I have the opportunity through my organization to show people the beauty and ingenuity of Israel.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.