Longtime JNF director Stanley Bresh is moving on

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As a child in Southeast England, Stanley Bresh slept with a map of Israel pasted to the wall above his bed.

Images of Israel's landscape must have danced through his dreams; eventually they came to life when he visited the Jewish state in 1974. He ended up staying nearly a decade.

"I just fell in love with Israel," he says.

He also fell in love with a San Francisco native, Loretta. They married in Jerusalem and returned to the Bay Area in 1983. A year later, Bresh took a job as regional executive director of the Jewish National Fund.

Now, after more than 12 years with the organization that helps make Israel bloom, Bresh, like a JNF-funded forest, is branching out. Last month he left the organization to pursue personal business interests, the details of which he prefers to keep under wraps for now.

Originally, Bresh came to work for the 96-year-old Zionist organization because "the JNF is absolutely Israel," he says. "It is the land development agency for the state."

The three letters "JNF" evoke images of children dropping coins into signature blue boxes and tiny saplings blossoming into trees. But in the last few years, the organization has also invested in preparing housing sites for new immigrants, cleaning rivers and building reservoirs.

During Bresh's tenure at the regional JNF, the organization raised more than $20 million for such pursuits. JNF past president John Rothmann credits Bresh with keeping the fund-raising thriving.

Bresh "plays his British charm to the hilt," Rothmann says. "He makes people laugh as he asks them to open their wallets and he makes people feel good about the good work they're doing by giving."

Under Bresh's tutelage, the JNF cultivated an active young leadership program. The director also propagated a national fund raising walkathon here, the Walk for Water.

Bresh's Zionism, says Rothmann, spread among donors like dandelion seeds in the wind. "He is a man driven by his love of Israel," the past president and JNF chair says.

Working for the JNF, the 50-year-old Bresh says, has kept him in daily contact with Israel — and with his feelings about the state.

"It gave me the opportunity to dig into my own soul and recreate the experience of the state of Israel to share with others. That was always a very fulfilling thing to do."

Also satisfying Bresh says, has been taking donors to Israel to see the fruits of their philanthropic labor.

"It's always the greatest pleasure for me seeing the look of excitement and the tears in their eyes upon seeing their own accomplishments."

Of course, the JNF has also faced rough times. Last year, a JNF-appointed panel found that only about one-fifth of the approximately $30 million JNF raises annually goes to Israel, with the rest staying in the United States for what JNF calls Zionist education and "Israel-based programs."

While the audit found the agency innocent of fraud malfeasance and misappropriation of funds, allegations of sloppy accounting procedures shook the confidence of some JNF supporters.

"There have been difficult days," Bresh admits, "although I must say it has not affected our fund-raising at all."

Bresh was never himself a target of any charges, and he insists the organization's troubles had nothing to do with his decision to leave. "I believe my own integrity was unimpeachable," he says. "The truth always works because it's the truth."

Now, as he leaves the organization, he views its future optimistically. Among changes instituted by the JNF following last year's shakeup, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria, assumed the presidency. That move was seen as a boost.

"I feel the future of the JNF is bright and promising," Bresh says. "It will continue to make great strides."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.