Passionate Zionist takes S.F. helm at New Israel Fund

When it was founded 22 years ago, the New Israel Fund was considered by some to be a renegade organization.

Begun here in San Francisco to advance causes that are often overlooked in Israel, NIF was viewed by some in the mainstream as "liberal American Jews throwing money at an American agenda in Israel," said Jim Scheinman, the new full-time regional director.

That may have been the case then, he said, but no longer. A case in point: NIF was a co-sponsor of Sunday's "We Stand With Israel" rally sponsored by all three area federations as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council.

That NIF stands in solidarity with the people of Israel now is a given, said Scheinman, so there was no problem on that count. And while certain donors to the fund worried that the organization would lose its distinct voice by participating in the rally, Scheinman and others felt that ultimately, it was a way to get the word out about NIF to those who don't know about it.

"People are being polarized in the current situation," said Scheinman, "but especially in the Bay Area, people are feeling good that there is an organization that is looking at social justice issues."

NIF moved its national headquarters to Washington, D.C., some years ago and also has an office in Israel. With half its international board made up of Israelis, Scheinman said that "Israeli citizens, Jews and non-Jews are calling out for us to help address these issues."

This is Scheinman's first job in both the nonprofit world as well as in the Jewish community. A 35-year-old attorney, he replaces Laura Talmus, who led NIF not quite full time for 10 years.

It's a big change from his last position as senior vice president for business development and channel marketing of NBCi Internet. "I get to talk about things I love and sell a product I believe in," he said. "I used to sell the Internet, and now I'm selling Israel. I love it."

Scheinman lives in Belmont with his wife, Emily, and their two children, Jacob 4, and Naomi, 1. At his family's synagogue, Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City, he founded the Israel action committee, which inspired a wave of pro-Israel activism at area synagogues.

Scheinman repeatedly described himself as a "passionate Zionist." He has long been involved with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and when he was in high school, he lived on Kibbutz Kfar Blum during the Lebanon War.

With his Israel activism thus far focused on AIPAC and similar groups, some might wonder what attracted him to the New Israel Fund, which is dedicated to protecting human rights, fostering religious pluralism and promoting Jewish-Arab relations.

For Scheinman, it's not at all a stretch. "For my parents' and grandparents' generation, it was support for the state of Israel, period," he said. "But for those of us who are passionate Zionists now, we have to look at the society and the issues occurring if we care about the continuing existence of Israel."

One of Scheinman's and NIF's main concerns is the discrimination suffered by Israel's Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the population.

That this issue has become mainstream is evident in the fact that Israelis themselves have given more than $1 million to a fund for Israeli Arabs, he said, adding that NIF money does not go to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

But the organization is not focused around only that one issue. NIF, which hosts its annual "Guardian of Democracy" dinner Tuesday, April 30 in San Francisco, has taken a leading role in funding organizations that promote religious pluralism, the status of women and the environment.

Most recently, NIF has set up a "Crisis Response Fund" that will fund grassroots organizations in Israel working to protect human rights, to provide humanitarian relief and to educate toward coexistence.

Over the years, NIF has attracted some 20,000 American Jews as donors, and it has given $122 million to some 600 nonprofit organizations.

That's small potatoes compared with some other fund-raising organizations, but Scheinman hopes to raise NIF's profile higher still in the Bay Area.

Locally, under Talmus' leadership, "we've grown 15 percent every year for the last 10 years with minimal advertising, by word of mouth. These issues are even more salient today than they've ever been."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."