New JNF area head to help fix damaged national image

The JNF is currently emphasizing that its past management and fiscal problems are exactly that — in the past. Hiring Harris is part of its effort to turn over a new leaf.

"The theme from the national office is: This is the new JNF," Harris said late last month in her office on Market Street. "I want to be part of the new JNF."

The organization's image careened in the fall of 1996. A JNF-appointed panel found then that only about 20 percent of donations reached Israel — even though JNF literature claimed 70 percent was going there. The investigation discovered no fraud. It blamed sloppy accounting and poor management.

Since then, leadership on the national level has changed dramatically. Cosmetics heir Ron Lauder became the new president early last year and decided to clean house. Since then, numerous lay leaders and professionals have left.

Lauder recently compared JNF's previous incarnation as a "tree with health threatened by overgrowth, lack of light and misguided care."

Lauder has vowed that more than 50 percent of donations will go to Israel this year — and 70 percent by 2001. He cut $5 million from this year's expenses as a start.

Such actions influenced Harris' decision to take the job.

"It made a difference to me that I could see the JNF was on the path of change," she said. "It's a very out-in-the-open reorganization."

Harris replaced Stanley Bresh, who joined the S.F. office in 1984. Bresh, who left over the summer, insisted his decision to quit had nothing to do with the scandal.

Regional lay leaders actually sought out Harris, who hadn't previously been involved with the JNF.

"Ruthellen brings many years experience in Jewish philanthropy…She is dedicated to the principles which the Jewish National Fund stands for. She is a dedicated Zionist," said John Leipsic, JNF's regional president.

Her fund-raising region includes Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska and Hawaii.

Since 1991, Harris had worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose. She split her time between running the JCRC and fund-raising for the federation, most recently as the women's division director.

Harris also has served as a lay leader in several local groups over the years. They include the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, the S.F.-based JCRC, the Peninsula Jewish Community Center and the regional American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Because she wasn't directly involved in JNF until now, Harris is facing a learning curve.

"I was the average person who knew about trees and thought fondly of blue boxes," she said, referring to the ubiquitous JNF tzedakah canisters.

Since January, she's gotten a crash course on the JNF's work in Israel beyond tree planting. She's learned of its effort to clean polluted rivers, for example. She's also found out about its management and reclamation of deserts.

Regardless of her lack of previous involvement in JNF, Harris' commitment to Israel is clear.

"Israel has always been a central focus of my life," she said.

Harris, who lives in San Mateo, estimated that she's been to Israel about 20 times.

One of her daughters, Heather, has immigrated to Israel. Her other daughter, Jamie, has been living there since she took a JNF environmental tour for college students about two years ago.

Her son, Greg, is studying to become a Conservative rabbi.

Harris attributes her children's commitment to Judaism to the family's constant emphasis on the importance of living a Jewish life.

She adds, "A lot of it is luck."

Harris is personally convinced that the JNF's problems stemmed from its failure to adjust to changing times.

As an example, she points to the computer at her desk. It's a terminal from the 1980s before anyone used a mouse. Green letters glow on its screen. Its software is from 1989.

Right now, the national office is looking for someone to donate a new computer system for all the JNF branches.

In the S.F. office, Harris will work with Leipsic on such activities as revamping the regional board.

Leipsic describes the board as loaded with too many longtime members. JNF's regional letterhead even had names of dead board members, he noted.

"We want to bring in some new fresh faces," he said.

Harris is also interested in boosting fund-raising, although she isn't sure exactly how much the regional office has been bringing in. She blames poor record-keeping.

The regional office previously reported it raised about $2.7 million in 1996. Harris questioned the accuracy of that figure and said she didn't know the amount for 1997.

"It's very difficult for us to get actual figures," Harris said.

She's not alone. Nationally, the JNF raised about $33 million in 1996. But the national office isn't sure yet of the 1997 figure.

Lynda Kraar, the national marketing director, said donations definitely dropped last year. However, no one will know how much until a current audit is complete.

Meanwhile, Harris is just beginning to assess the value of JNF fund-raising mainstays such as the annual phonathon and walkathon.

"JNF needs to have more visibility here," she said.