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May 21, 2009

The Jewish Federations of North America convened a meeting this week of more than 60 Federation and Israeli leaders working to create a joint, regional approach for growing Israel’s Negev, an undertaking considered one of the most important Zionist goals of the 21st century.


The Negev Conference, hosted by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation from May 17-18, was the biggest gathering to date of Federations and Israeli leaders actively involved in improving life in the desert region. It was organized by JFNA’s Israel and Overseas: Global Operations department.


After briefings and intensive dialogue, participants – including mayors from three Negev municipalities – committed themselves to a coordinated effort to enhance the social and economic situation in the Negev, and to make it an attractive place for Israelis from elsewhere to live.


“One of the most important things that came out of the conference is the need to coordinate our efforts so we have a more systemic impact on the region,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey, which, like other Federations at the conference, has an individual “partner communiy” in the Negev through a program run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which works closely with JFNA.


“Before, we were concentrating on our own partnerships -- now we’re taking more of a macro view,” Kleinman said.


The Miami conference was an outgrowth of a Federation Negev Work Group begun three years ago by a group of Federation leaders, including Marilyn Blumer of Federation CJA of Montreal, who chaired the Negev Conference.


Blumer said conferees were galvanized by the sheer breadth of organizations and officials brought together in one room. There were Federations from Palm Springs to Central New Jersey; Avram Mitzna, former Labor Party leader and mayor of Yerucham; and several representatives of programs on the ground, such as the JDC-TEVET Employment Initiative.


“We thought we would attract maybe 25 people, just because of the travel expenses and the economy,” Blumer said. “But we ended up with 60, and I think everyone came away motivated to work together and make a significant impact.”


Thought it represents some 60 percent of Israel’s land mass, the Negev has only 10 percent of its population and, like the Galilee in the north, lags far behind the center of the country in terms of education, standard of living and economic growth.


Efforts by non-profit groups and Federations to improve the situation are already underway. One initiative set to begin soon is the Israel Teacher Corps, created by JFNA’s OTZMA program, which will send North American college graduates to teach English in Israel’s underserved schools.


Myriam Lasry, director of Resource Development at the Ayalim Association, spoke at the conference about that group’s work creating “student villages” in the region.


“When you listen to what’s happening, especially the things that young families are doing, you get a renewed sense of Zionism, of something positive and exciting that young people want to get involved with,” said Richard Bernstein, a vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and member of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.


Among the topics discussed at the conference were economic and community development, including attracting, integrating and retaining young people; improving education; the impact of Israel Defense Force bases moving to the area; and enhancing life for the region’s large Bedouin community.


Conferees hope to meet again to discuss specifics and to convene at this year’s General Assembly in Washington, D.C. To see a conference schedule and list of speakers, click here.


The Jewish Federations of North America represents 157 Jewish Federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across the continent. JFNA provides life-saving and life-enhancing humanitarian assistance to those in need, and translates Jewish values into social action on behalf of millions worldwide.





Joe Berkofsky, Director of Communications and PR

(212) 284-6714