By Fran Memberg
For the first time in the 109-year history of the Jewish National Fund, Atlanta will host the organization’s national convention on Oct. 10 and 11 at the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead. Some Sandy Springs and Buckhead residents are in the top echelons of JNF leadership locally, regionally and nationally.
At the beginning of the 20th century, JNF began purchasing land in what is now modern-day Israel, fueled by the dream of a Jewish state. Generations of American Jews have grown up dropping coins into blue JNF collection boxes and donating money to plant trees in Israel, historically the most well-known of JNF’s projects.
Cities all over the U.S., including Atlanta, organized JNF chapters for fundraising and education about the organization, its projects and Israel. Atlanta’s chapter became dormant for many years until about eight years ago, when an administrative office opened.
Sandy Springs resident Michael Miller remembers dropping coins into a JNF blue box and buying trees for Israel during his childhood and decided he wanted to help.
He went on a mission to Israel and learned that JNF had become much more than just blue boxes and trees. In Israel, JNF has evolved into a global environmental leader by planting 240 million trees, building over 210 reservoirs and dams, developing over 250,000 acres of land, creating more than 1,000 parks, providing the infrastructure for over 1,000 communities, bringing life to the Negev Desert and educating students around the world about Israel and the environment, according to www.jnf.org.
When the Atlanta office reopened, Miller said, “I recruited anybody and everybody to come to meetings. People who were touched by [the JNF mission] came on board.”
He helped create a board of directors and served in leadership positions. This month he steps down as Southern zone president and will assume a position on the national board.
“[After the] stress and grind of the day, when I leave work, it’s my time to give to charity. JNF is my charity of choice,” said Miller, a residential and commercial property owner and manager, restaurant owner and banker.
Native Atlantan David Birnbrey, who has lived in Sandy Springs for 15 years, will become a co-president of JNF’s Southeast region in January. He was one of those who heeded Miller’s call to become involved.
“I liked the mission,” said Birnbrey, chairman and CEO of The Shopping Center Group. “Everything about JNF is positive. It’s patriotic, ecological and mostly noncontroversial – how can you argue with reforestation and water preservation?”
Abe Schear followed in his father’s footsteps to become involved in JNF about five years ago after the elder Schear passed away. “It was an organization he really enjoyed,” said Schear, the JNF Southeast region major gifts chairman.
His involvement is “a natural joining of business and pleasure,” said Schear, a 30-year Buckhead resident and an attorney with Arnall Golden Gregory law firm, which has a practice area focusing on Israeli clients.
Miller, Birnbrey and Schear have all seen firsthand how JNF has contributed to the blossoming of Israel from barren desert to a flourishing land.
JNF projects are in place “from one end of the country to the other,” said Miller, adding that a vital byproduct is job creation.
Recently, Birnbrey visited several JNF projects, including an indoor playground in Sderot built in large part with contributions from Atlanta donors. The facility offers a safe environment in which children can play and learn, protected from rocket attacks that have rained on the area in recent years.
Before business and JNF involvement took Schear to Israel, family trips to the Jewish state included visits to the ubiquitous JNF forests. “Now, knowing more about JNF resonates more, especially the infrastructure projects. The more you learn about what JNF is doing, the more meaningful the connection to the land and people,” said Schear.
Like Miller and many others, JNF board member Honey Workman of Sandy Springs has a lifelong association with JNF that started with the blue boxes and planting trees.
“My grandfather was involved with JNF from its beginnings in the early 1900’s, and we never began Shabbat without putting money in the blue box. We were taught about planting trees in Israel for as long as I can remember,” said Workman. “We spent 10 days in Israel in May to see the [JNF] projects first-hand and learn about the many ways JNF supports Israel. We were reminded on a daily basis of how productive and intellectually driven the Israeli people are. It was a chance to recognize their resiliency and strength.”
The community is invited to attend the JNF national convention. For information, call 404-236-8990.