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Harnessing the Negev's Natural Brilliance –

The Negev Funding Coalition's Chair Presents a Philanthropic Model

The Renewable Energy Conference, held February 22 -23 in the Eilat-Eilot region in the South of Israel, was host to an elite crowd of individuals involved in the forefront of environmental, energy and scientific development who met together to trade ideas. Richard Bernstein, as Chair of the Negev Funding Coalition, was invited to speak and led a professional workshop on the ways in which philanthropy and renewable energy are connected.

The Jewish Federation of North America's Negev Funding Coalition is a group of nine Federations interested in impactful engagement with the Negev's key challenges. Currently involved in two long term projects, one of which is the funding of Eilat-Eilot's renewable energy initiative, the Coalition is playing a significant role in philanthropically funding the Negev's development.

The Coalition’s involvement in Renewable Energy builds upon a significant philanthropic investment of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, which has seeded and supported the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy hub and its development of a vital and dynamic renewal energy policy community, educational curricula and other initiatives. The Eilat-Eilot renewable energy site is the location of state of the art solar installations, heat energy resources and a myriad of yet unpatented new technologies which are harnessing the area's natural resources in a clean, green and sustainable way.

The first time Bernstein, from the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, had the opportunity to visit the site itself, he spoke of the conference as an opportunity to connect with others interested in the venture and to unite in a pan-Negev approach. Bernstein affirmed that the conference was a re-emphasis on the Negev Funding Coalition's aims. 'I’ve reconnected with the aim of the whole enterprise. Over the last few days I’ve felt a confirmation of the amazing opportunities this project holds for Israel.'

Much of the initiative's appeal lies in its innovative, pioneering nature. 'It was a real shot in the arm,' Bernstein declared. 'It was a thrill to see it all on location and I felt a profound sense of awe at all the activity, which, incidentally, is taking place earlier than scheduled.' Summing up his impression, Bernstein pithily described the attractiveness as, 'smart people doing good things.'

The renewable energy initiative has attracted a great deal of attention from the Israeli press who recognize the public's uncomplicated interest in cheaper, commercially beneficial energy sources. However, the project's ramifications are greater than merely monetary. 'The enterprise in the Eilat-Eilot region of the Negev is something unique. You can see the creation of a whole new system at work,' proclaims Bernstein.

The area of the Negev makes up around 60% of Israel's land mass but only a tiny 8% of its population. Often ignored by immigrants choosing a new home town and bypassed by Israelis seeking convenient urban modernism, this renewable energy initiative is key in changing perspectives both to Israelis and to those abroad.

'It's one way of promoting a positive hasbara channel,' described Bernstein. The non-political aspect of renewable energy means that those who feel distanced from Israel's political agenda can find neutral ground. The project is an opportunity not just for the Coalition's nine Federations to come together but for many other NGOs and interested individuals to stake a share in Israel's development.

Linking together the opportunities for philanthropy and renewable energy, Bernstein explained that, 'We're talking about the opposite of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions]'. This is a way of adding undeniable legitimacy to the land of Israel, of making a proactive investment'. The project's goals are not limited to helping Israel alone; the international academic communication and collaboration allow philanthropic engagement with this project greater weight.

Often it can be difficult for donors to decide which charity to give to and how to ensure impact directly proportional to the sum of dollars in their hand. Bernstein, respectful of philanthropy of any size, advocates being a smart and strategic donor. He described to the conference's attendees the indubitable logic that a donation to a Negev project has a greater impact on each individual; small cities and kibbutzim can gain more from each dollar than a larger city would.

Bernstein's session explored different ways to reach out to the North American philanthropic audience and connect them to the natural brilliance (no pun intended) of this venture. Two audience members were Israeli philanthropist Ronny Douek and his son, learning about the options available. Israel's periphery is the 21st century opportunity for pioneers to make their mark and the Negev is indubitably in need of philanthropic involvement.

Bernstein presented the Renewable Energy Initiative as having a voice of its own allowing it to motivate others through its innate appeal. Unexplored territory, innovative entrepreneurship, exciting global economic potential, and a green initiative which is enabling Israel to be independent in energy sources and promoting care for the planet, Eilat-Eilot is home to something much bigger than the few square miles the Initiative spans.

Investing in the Negev means building up the socio-economic potential of the area, creating a hub of scientific brilliance, bringing employment and improved facilities to all and making the area more attractive, nationally and globally. Who doesn't want to move to an area slated to receive top notch scientific facilities, an integrated 'green' section in the school curricula and significantly lower energy costs than the rest of the country?

Richard Bernstein's zeal about this initiative is the product of experienced analysis, focusing on achieving the maximum philanthropic impact and participating in the group of pioneers seeking to build up the Negev.  With contagious conviction, Bernstein speaks of the 'urgent need for communities to find a way to reengage with Israel'. 'The paradigm of connection', he explains, 'has to be shifted. We're dealing with a modernist, technologically advanced country which can offer so much to us; not least a new model of Zionism.'

Bernstein said with a smile, 'There's a certain chutzpa to it, to be sure – calling it the 'Israeli Silicon Valley'. But I can't think of a time when Israel has needed some chutzpa and hasn't benefited from it.'

'We’re helping create a center of excellence for the Negev as a whole. It’s not a pipe dream; this project is very real.'

 

solar panels in the Eilat-Eilot region