As comforting aromas of freshly baked challah waft through the air and children eagerly ran to their seats, singing and clapping to welcome the Sabbath, it was hard to believe that six months, a rocket hit the roof of this very kindergarten.

That kindergarten in Kissufim is one of the dozen communities affected by the escalation of violence from Gaza, which has flared up over the past year.

However, in many ways, the young children singing as Shabbat approached is an evident reminder of the optimism, strength and pride that these communities have in their future.

Joining in that chorus was Jewish National Fund-USA CEO Russell Robinson, who also met with community leaders from across the Gaza Envelope. His message to them was clear: JNF’s involvement started long before the rocket attacks, and will continue well after the dust from every single shell and mortar settles.

“If it wasn’t for JNF’s help, it would have been very difficult for us to continue,” said Gadi Yarkoni, head of the south’s Eshkol Regional Council, who is in talks with the Israeli government to receive financial assistance not just to deal with the security situation, but to foster community growth.

“JNF’s partnership has been very important for us,” he said. “The difference between the government and [JNF] is that when we speak to [JNF], you always say, ‘No, do it bigger and better.’ But with the government, we have to fight over every miniscule amount. You always tell us, ‘What do you need? We are here.’ ”

An example of this partnership is Jewish National Fund’s $3 million investment to build a resilience center that supports children and adults suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The Gaza Envelope’s prosperity is a piece of JNF’s “Blueprint Negev” initiative, whose long-term goal is to bring 500,000 new residents to Israel’s Negev Desert.

Jewish National Fund-USA CEO Russell Robinson with children at a kindergarten in Kissufim in southern Israel on a Friday morning getting ready for Shabbat. Credit: JNF.

Leaders like Yarkoni and the newly elected mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev, Ofir Libstein, spoke to Robinson about how to change the conversation about the south. Think more flagship music and food festivals and less emergency-relief efforts. Together, Yarkoni, Libstein and Robinson are dedicated to drafting an innovative playbook regarding life in south Israel that focuses on fostering business opportunities, community engagement and demographic growth.

“When we vote on a project, I always tell board members to ‘vote yes’ if they think a project will have an impact, not in two to five years from now, but in 25 years from now,” Robinson said of the nonprofit’s vision for creating lasting change.

It is an approach that Yarkoni, Libstein and their peers respect because it shows JNF’s commitment is about mutual respect and fostering an investment, not giving charity.

Homes, health care and other amenities

Of course, for every community to flourish, it needs people to come, live and invest.

To that end, JNF’s Housing Development Fund has quietly helped hundreds of families afford a new home in the region, lending strength in numbers and further cementing JNF’s vital impact in the area.

Additionally, a nearby JNF project that started long before the barrage of rockets began last year includes investment in the Halutza region that will eventually be home to 10,000 residents in three communities. Three years ago, the new JNF Helmsley Charitable Trust Halutza Medical Center was announced; today, it is open and serves the growing population, also offering a dental clinic, pharmacy and physical therapy—all the necessary services that people previously drove two hours to obtain.

This year, Jewish National Fund will host Americans visiting and volunteering on “Alternative Spring Break” in the nearby community of Kerem Shalom, where young adults will also spend quality time with residents around their same age. And in February, JNF will organize a trip to Masada, where 1,000 bar and bat mitzvah-aged children from the south will receive a newly completed Torah scroll for Kerem Shalom’s new synagogue.

“Yes, the situation is 24/7. Yes, there was a military drill recently and rockets last month. There’s always something,” said Ram, a farmer, with a shrug. “But living here is heaven. The goal every day is to hear from my son that ‘everything is fine, Aba.’ ”