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JNF Education Creating Meaningful Moments
By Meira Maierovitz Drazin

JCC PreschoolersGaby Schoenfeld began her Jewish education in the basement Hebrew School of her Conservative Synagogue in Riverdale, NY.  Every year on Tu B'Shevat she bought a tree with Jewish National Fund to be planted in Israel in memory of the grandmother she never knew and after whom she is named.  Today, Schoenfeld pinpoints these times in her Jewish educational experience as some of the most meaningful moments that connected her to Israel.

In her office, Schoenfeld keeps for inspiration all the tree certificates saved by her family, including some dating as far back as 1948.  Now National Education Coordinator for Jewish National Fund, Gaby works with over 4000 Jewish schools across the United States to give American Jewish children the same chance to connect to Israel that she had—through meaningful moments that connect the dots between education, the environment and Israel.

“When I graduated from college I knew I wanted to work for an Israel-oriented organization and I actually called JNF to see if they had any job openings,” says Schoenfeld. “I am so fortunate to have a job that allows me to share my love and passion for Israel and have such a direct impact on Jewish students across the U.S.  What could be more fulfilling than spending each day giving Jewish kids a meaningful connection to their homeland that will last a lifetime?”

Like millions of Jewish children everywhere for the last century, Schoenfeld's first connection to Israel—planting trees, putting coins in a blue box—was through JNF.  JNF is a common thread that weaves through all streams of Judaism to give children a direct link to the Jewish homeland—and not just by planting trees and putting coins in a Blue Box.  Through comprehensive educational programming initiatives and services, JNF provides a variety of channels and tools for educators to create the meaningful moments that ultimately are so powerful in creating enduring connections to Israel.
JNF works directly with educators, including taking them to Israel on Teachers Seminars so that they can bring Israel back to the classroom.  Judith Kirkley, who teaches Hebrew in the Orange County, CA high school Tarbut V'Torah, explained that going to Israel as part of the Teachers Seminar is a way of ensuring that she is doing her best as an educator to give the most to her students, which in this case is imparting a love and knowledge for the land of Israel. 

Water Monitoring Day“Going to Israel with JNF is a way of energizing me as an educator, making sure that my passion is reborn time and again and that I can transfer this love and passion to my students,” says Kirkley.  “Also, I am Israeli, but as much as I know about Israel, there's always more to see and learn, especially with regard to JNF—historically as well as in the present.  The Teachers Seminar is extremely significant for the impact we as teachers will have on our students as well as our extended communities.”
JNF's education outreach heightens each year for Tu B'Shevat. “The Jewish Arbor Day is a natural occasion for JNF to make a big push to teach about the connections, like in a jigsaw puzzle, between the land of Israel and the environment,” says Dr. Ben-Zion Bar-Lavie, Director of the JNF Education Department.  He explains that much of the school year is geared toward ensuring that as many schools as possible are signed up for the annual “Tu B'Shevat in the Schools” tree drive and that they receive posters, tree envelopes, and other educational resources including Branching Out, JNF's step by step “haggadah” for holding a Tu B'Shevat seder.

According to Dr. Bar-Lavie, JNF creates a variety of educational publications that have become part of schools' regular curriculum, such as My People Our Land, which is incorporated into the Israel education curriculum at the Manhattan day school Ramaz, or the JNF Negev Book which Manhattan's Heschel School uses to prepare its 8th grade students each year for their class trip to Israel. 

 “JNF's core of materials sets the foundation from where we as educators can then jump off,” says Richard Zemser, Director of Education at the Central Synagogue in Rockville Centre, NY and Vice Chair of LITE (Long Island Temple Educators.)

“JNF is also an amazing resource for what I actually do in the classroom,” says Kirkley.  “From seminars and other materials made available by JNF, I take poems, literature or work on the environment and adapt it for use in my lessons.  And I especially love Gesher L'Kesher, a Hebrew language newspaper JNF sponsors for high school students in which many of my students have been published.  It's a great tool in terms of giving them a goal to reach towards and it's really amazing for them to see their own work all formal and in print and to feel a sense of real accomplishment.”

This year, JNF received a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to provide water monitoring kits to hundreds of American Jewish schools as well as schools in Israel, so that they could participate in an international program to test water quality in streams, rivers, lakes and coastal areas and enter the data into a global database in honor of World Water Monitoring Day on October 18. 

“Thank you for bringing to us such innovative thinking,” Dina Shtull-Leber, Head of School for the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor, MI wrote in an email to the JNF Education Department.  “We chose Erev Succoth and went down to the creek where we do Taschlich…(We also highlighted the significance of water in our Tefillot [prayers] throughout the week of Succoth.)  The children were divided into pairs and there were three parents (and me) who helped.  I registered the site [] on my computer so now the kids have to come into my office (fun!) to register the data.”

Tu B'Shevat 2002For a “legs on” experience, JNF's Big Map of Israel is a 30 x 15 foot floor map of Israel that is as close as you can get to walking Israel without actually getting on a plane to the Middle East.  Zemser walked on it at a CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Educators) conference a few years ago and fell in love with it.  His synagogue raised the money to pay for their own customized Big Map through a community Blue Box campaign and it now serves as the centerpiece at their family education programs.  In fact, this past June Zemser conducted a series of workshops at the 2003 CAJE Conference on how to develop Israel education programs utilizing the JNF Big Map.

“The map is so versatile, with ancient and modern Israel represented as well as topography, geography and population density, that the entire temple community has been able to utilize it on any number of levels,” says Zemser.  “Parents and children can work together to orient themselves and find answers to questions such as why would the north have more growth than the south, where is the West Bank and why is it called that if it's in the east.  Our Big Map of Israel encourages hands on problem solving and shows an Israel accessible to everyone.”

Another unique JNF education brainchild is Plant Your Way to Israel™, a program that allows individuals ages five to 25 to help fund their trip to Israel by selling tree certificates. Each time participants in the program sell a tree for $36, the money is divided evenly with half of it going to plant a tree in Israel and the other half put into an account held by JNF on their behalf. The money accumulated in their Plant Your Way account can be used toward any trip to Israel, whether it is through camp, school, or with their family, and can be redeemed once a minimum of 10 trees is sold. 

“What's especially great about this program is that: one, kids help pay for their trip to Israel in a proactive and meaningful way; and two, it lets kids take the initiative and be really creative in how they go about selling trees,” says Bob Levine, JNF National Vice President for Education.  “One young man from Ohio wrote a letter to everyone in his congregation connecting his dream to go to Israel for the summer with Ilan Ramon's dream to have more trees planted in Israel, and one young woman from Michigan has written a letter to everyone she knows connecting the words of a popular song with her aspiration to spend next semester studying in Israel.”
In the Fall 2002 issue of JNF's educational newsletter A New Leaf, published four times a year, the JNF Education Department launched a creative writing contest called “Seeds of Thought.” Schoenfeld recalls receiving literally thousands of entries—so many that her entire office was filled with piles of children's drawings and essays.  What was so remarkable to her was that until then she had not realized quite how many people they were reaching through the newsletter and beyond—“it was an oddly physical and tangible way of measuring how many students and their families we are able to reach out to and engage in thinking about Israel and the environment,” she says.

Jewish National Fund's mission is to serve as caretaker of the land of Israel on behalf of its owners, Jewish people everywhere, and on its Website, brochures and other marketing materials it takes care to list its seven action areas: Water, Forestry and Ecology, Community Development, Security, R&D, Tourism and Recreation, and Education.  The only action area not undertaken exclusively in Israel is Education, for which the goal is to provide a direct link between Jewish people everywhere and the Jewish homeland.  JNF's Education initiative, which dates back to its inception in 1901, is a vehicle for creating adults who, like Gaby Schoenfeld, at the very least are committed to Israel and who even more often become Jewish communal professionals, advocates and significant leaders within their communities and beyond. 

For more information on JNF's educational initiatives and to get involved with its newly formed Education Committee, call 212-879-9305 ext. 263 or email


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