Penny S. Tee at JNF

The Jewish National Fund’s Mishpachah (Family)

Penny S. Tee Article

I just got back from my second time at the Jewish National Fund’s Annual Conference, this time in Washington D.C. Next year we were told that the conference will be in Israel!

If you’re Jewish, and older (I hear my mother in my mind . . . oy, since when did I become an alter cocker (Yiddish for old person . . . would be the polite term)? Anyway, you may be thinking of the metal cans with the slit in the top

JNF Donation box

JNF Donation box

that you received in Hebrew school and were asked to put your coins into for Israel. Today, as always, helping Israel is the goal but the organization has moved far beyond coins (although there is the belief that every coin counts!) and they have a mission to raise one billion dollars in ten years.

I agree with JNF, Dream Big! It’s one of my life lessons in my book, “Blasted from Complacency: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel.” We seem to think the same about so many things. This belief is another reason I feel so at home here, no dream is too difficult to work toward if your heart and mind lead the way.

JNF and I both want to help Israel—they want to help through raising funds and helping support Israel through essential projects that make life better for all Israelis.

I chose to help through speaking and describing what happened to us in my book—giving a glimpse of what it’s like to be an Israeli subjected to frequent terrorism, sharing how being Palestinian missile targets changed me and teaching about the many incredible positives that Israel creates and distributes throughout the world whether its inventing the USB or providing humanitarian aid for victims of tragedies. And not surprising, synchronistically it turns out JNF has a division called Positively Israel—as I’ve said, JNF members are my peeps.

And not to worry, the organization definitely has their eyes on the future. Not only do they have the JNFuture division of JNF, there were 500 attending the conference under the age of 40, and 300 who are students. Given that my son is in college and the oftentimes harsh climate on college campuses with the B.D.S. movement, this particularly tugged at my heart. Having our youth proclaim just by their sheer numbers that we have a young, strong next generation where being Jewish and supporting Israel is important to them. Hallelujah!

Twenty-five percent of JNF’s planned vision for their One Billion Dollar Roadmap for the Next Decade Fund is dedicated to connecting to the next generation. I’m always impressed at their forethought in keeping the continued passing of the baton to the next generation as key to our people flourishing in the years to come.

The Jewish National Fund also supports the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI-JNF), “the only pluralist Jewish high school study-abroad program in Israel.”

One of the greatest attractions of JNF is that they promote love and positivity whether amongst their staff, associates, programs or donors—they build and move forward, channeling their donations to strengthen the state of Israel from the ground up. Whether planting trees or helping people be the best they can be by supporting Israel’s citizens with intellectual disabilities, they bolster all of Israel’s communities by improving their lives. These are just a couple of the myriad projects that JNF is involved with. In so many ways, the oft quoted expression lives on—they make the desert bloom.

Russell F. Robinson and Penny S. Tee

Russell F. Robinson and Penny S. Tee

What I’ve come to understand is that JNF feels like a family. I noticed this the first time I attended their conference in Arizona last year. It was strange for me to feel that way because I was amongst strangers, yet that was how I felt. It’s a gathering of mensches (good, giving people). Who wouldn’t want to spend your time amongst them?

This year I knew and saw people that I had met previously and they welcomed me with open arms—even their CEO, Russell F. Robinson. But then again he leads this organization and sets the example. I had been lucky enough for him to read my book and provide a testimonial for it . . .

“. . . compelling and wonderful story. An awakening for sure! The motto of the Jewish National Fund is to teach our leaders that you must standup and be counted. Your book exemplifies that.”

I thought to myself, will he even remember who I am with all of the thousands of people he meets every year? Sure enough when I saw him, he greeted me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek and later took a picture with me and my book. He has a reputation amongst his staff for kindness and consideration that every CEO should strive for. I was told on December 31 each year, employees receive a call from him thanking them for their work. Need I say more?

He’s led JNF for more than twenty years and we were told that he is considered one of the top fifty most influential Jews in the world. In my belief system that says do what you love, and doors will open, the organization has benefitted from his guidance and love for Israel and doors and many wallets have opened to help Israel—supplying 250 water reservoirs and covering the land with forests. I was impressed to learn that Israel is #1 in the world today recycling 90% of their water with the next closest country being Spain with only 20% of their water being recycled—Israel’s capabilities are truly impressive.

Even Russell’s choice as to who would interview him for this plenary—Lucy Aharish, an Arab Israeli (who I will be writing another blog about—she’s fascinating) evoked reaching toward the future. Lucy is an Arab-Israeli news anchor, reporter, television host and actress. She stands out as the first Muslim Arab news presenter on mainstream Hebrew-language Israeli television. Oh, and one more thing. She’s married to an Israeli Jew. They work on Peace within their own family : ) I thought that was great, but apparently others have given them much grief for their decision. You may not know who she is—I didn’t either, and I’m grateful and excited to learn so much at the JNF conference, learning about Lucy was just one new morsel to digest.

Lucy told Russell given the influence of the B.D.S. movement and others on college campuses, many college students she’s spoken to have said they are afraid to say they are Jews.

“What can you tell them so they will understand that they shouldn’t be ashamed and be proud of who they are?”

Russell said, “To be a Jew is a verb. You must live and be a Jew.” I couldn’t help but think that being a Jew has always meant protecting yourself and your family, working hard, thinking with intention and marching forward. It’s a legacy to be proud of!

Jewish parents, especially with teens, there’s hope. . .even Russell, who has dedicated his life to our people was once by his own description an unenamored teen who felt that Judaism took away his afternoons at Hebrew school and he looked forward to his bar mitzvah because it would be a release from prison and a good cash flow opportunity. He lamented as an adult that he wished he had been shown more directly what he gained by being Jewish.

But then he attended a BBYO convention (I too remember the fun of those days when I belonged to Aliyah B.B.G., my first boyfriend . . . ahh good times) where teens were having fun and his attitude began to change. His love for his Grandfather was evident as he described him telling Russell that someday he would visit the Kotel and touch The Wall and asking him whether he would break the chain? His answer when he finally got the opportunity was absolutely not—he became committed to working for the Jewish people and our homeland.

I also remember each time I’ve visited The Wall. There’s something special in the atmosphere being surrounded by Jews of every age, denomination and color, praying or putting down on scraps of paper their most important desires and placing them into the crevices—from generation to generation, it’s a sacred place.

On our trip, seeing our thirteen-year-old son put his own message and carrying his Grandmother’s from back home and putting it also into The Wall—at the time brought tears to my eyes.

They get millions of visitors to The Wall each year. If they didn’t collect the notes it would get too full. Twice a year they gather all of the people’s prayers, put them in bags, and bury them on the Mt. of Olives.”1

There were many dignitaries at the conference that we heard from such as Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Chris G. Neeley, Chairman, President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, Elan S. Carr, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and U.S. State Department and the Governor of Maryland, Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr.

And there were many topics discussed whether your interest was the many JNF projects, summits and meetings, The U.S./Israel Relationship, Israel and the Media, Anti-Semitism, the Days of Awe: A Philosophical Discussion About Fate vs. Choice, Developing Leadership, The Challenge of Jewish Identity in the 21st Century, The Principles and Actions that Led to the Independence of Israel’s Water, Positively Israel: Influencing the Narrative on Campus, The Challenges and Opportunities in Building an Inclusive Society and Life on the Border . . . The Challenges Continue. With these and others, there were more than enough interesting topics to choose from.

There were also religious celebrations for Shabbat and even a unique session of Torah Yoga for the flexible.

Special for me was getting to meet so many people attending the conference, having the opportunity to share my story and selling Blasted from Complacency: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel. I was encouraged by their responses, hearing several times that my story gave them chills. Some Israelis even thanked me for trying to explain through my story what their lives were like—to increase understanding.

I was speaking with one of my Israeli friends at the conference, and the message I wanted him to be sure to bring back to Israel was that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. I was thinking how alone they must feel. Pummeled too often daily by terrorist attacks of various shades of evil terrorizing their people and destroying their land: missiles, incendiary devices, shootings, car rammings and stabbings—it all would be too much for me. When they look beyond their neighbor who wants to destroy them, they find a gang of nations not much more friendly for the most part, some that tolerate them and finally some that are willing to partner with them.

Russell recounted that in 1964 Look magazine ran a cover story entitled “The Vanishing American Jew.” At the time, Look was a national publication with millions of readers. The article described why assuredly in the 21st century Jews would no longer exist in the United States.

Well, guess again.

Jews survived, but Look magazine disappeared. Today’s Israel is strong, resilient and isn’t going anywhere. I bet on the side of the Jewish people and Israel. Am Yisrael Chai! Peace, שלום, سلام

I invite you to Join Me On My Journey. . .

1 Where do all the prayer notes go?, accessed September 23, 2019,

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