By Maxine Dovere/JNS.org
NEW YORK—For more than a century, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has prioritized a wide range of infrastructure projects to develop the land of Israel. Appropriately, building is the specialty of its new national president.
Jeffrey Levine, chairman of Levine Builders, has directed the new construction or rehabilitation of millions of square feet of commercial retail, office, and institutional space since founding the company in 1979.
“Building is a tangible business. Creating something that wasn’t there gives me a sense of accomplishment,” Levine says in an interview with JNS.org at his company’s offices in Manhattan.
The builder’s rise to the role of JNF president comes at a time when the Israeli middle class is speaking up about the lack of affordable housing.
“What better time for someone with a career in housing to step up and try to help,” Levine says. “Building is always about the implementation of tasks—getting things done. JNF has been involved for many years in the placement of infrastructure—be they roads, utilities—to help facilitate that. My interest in the State of Israel and my experience in building housing makes me well-suited to try to help the people of Israel get past the issue of housing.”
Levine’s relationship with JNF started with its global symbol, the iconic tin container known as the “JNF Blue Box.” The boxes are distributed to Jewish communities to collect funds to develop and cultivate the land of Israel.
“The little blue box that I grew up with in my grandmother’s house and in my parents’ home was just the beginning of my experience with JNF,” he says. “I have had the good fortune over the past 15 years of becoming far more familiar with JNF through my real estate business and a number of philanthropic people involved with JNF.”
Levine was president of JNF’s New York board, and a member of its national board for five years, before becoming national president.
Eighty percent of Israelis live on 20 percent of the country’s land, and affordable housing is particularly scare in major cities, Levine notes. A member of JNF’s Negev Society, Levine cites JNF’s initiative to revitalize Israel’s south, called Blueprint Negev, as a key step on the path toward solving the housing crisis.
“In matters of placement of infrastructure, JNF has created a building fund with a focus on eliminating common obstacles to the creation of affordable housing,” Levine says. “Blueprint Negev, which fosters the vision of [the first Israeli Prime Minister] David Ben-Gurion, is working to create building sites, bringing localized infrastructure and utilities to individual sites. Many such developments will be JNF-funded to assure that the evolution of the process proceeds rapidly.”
Asked how JNF works with the Negev’s indigenous populations—Bedouin in the south and Druze in the north—Levine says JNF “is a completely a-political entity” that does not “dispose anybody.” The organization has worked “very closely” with the Bedouin communities to create shade areas and enable water preservation, including building reservoirs, he says.
“The reason I chose to work with JNF is that we have a purpose—the sustainability of Israel. Whatever we do is always within the rules and regulations of the state of Israel,” Levine says.
In Israel’s north, JNF works with the Druze “with great sensitivity,” he says.
“We’re getting involved with the projects in the Galilee to help facilitate housing there and in general to help the process of creating affordable housing for the people of Israel, and we look forward to working with the many people who already live in the Galilee,” Levine says.
Among JNF’s partners is the Or Movement, a program of community building co- founded by Ofir Fisher and Roni Flamer, a winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Initiation and Innovations. Or develops dedicated communities in both the Negev and the Galilee.
“One can clearly see just how important our shared vision [with JNF] has been, especially when looking at the current housing crisis and lack of opportunity for the young generation in Israel,” Fisher tells JNS.org. “Jeff Levine, being one of America's leading builders—among the many other titles he holds—is the right person to take this vision into the coming years. On behalf of the Or Movement, I wish to bless Jeff on his new presidency and look forward to continuing our work for the future of Israel.”
JNF also works closely with the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah agency.
“They have feet on the ground and help us develop housing where there are jobs,” Levine says.
Besides the blue collection boxes, JNF is best known for the planting of trees. Levine proudly notes that Israel is the only country with more trees in 2013 than in 1913, including more than a quarter-billion planted during the last 100 years. Jews around the world sponsor JNF trees in memory of their loved ones. In addition, the organization raises funds for such projects as the construction of a playground for the children of Sderot, who could not play on the streets due to rocket fire from Gaza.
“JNF is very efficient at putting funds to work for the people of Israel and has a broad base and a large number of contributors. It has a wide base not dependent on individual donations,” Levine says.
During and after his years as JNF president, Levine hopes that he will have “in some way contributed to the prosperity and the well-being of the people of Israel through all the projects of JNF, and to the Jews here in the United States, where both as Jews and American citizens, the health of Israel is critical to our future.”
“I want to be one of those Jews who knows I did what I had to do to make sure the Jewish people have a homeland in the land of Israel,” he says.
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