Local JNF officers speak for Israels trees and water

Marlene Maier knows when people think of the Jewish National Fund, they tend to associate the New York–based organization with planting trees in Israel.

At JNF’s offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto — which opened just two months ago on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life — Maier is working to update the nonprofit’s image.   

Marlene Maier

“We do love our trees,” said Maier, co-president of JNF’s Northern California board. “But we’re taking a very fresh direction from the way JNF has been run up until today. We have a strong presence in the Bay Area, with the focus right now on the Peninsula.”

Though JNF’s new Palo Alto office is on the small side (roughly 700 square feet), that’s no hindrance to Maier’s mission to reach out to the community, share JNF’s mission as “caretaker of the land of Israel,” and highlight ongoing projects in water conservation, tourism and recreation, community development, and forestry and ecology.    

“We believe the environment belongs to everybody, not just Israel,” Maier said. “[The environment] transcends politics. When people work together, a lot of the mythology falls away.”

The tricky part is demonstrating that to Jewish high school and college students, a key demographic for Maier  as she settles into her new role.

To that end, she wants to start a young adult chapter of JNF and incorporate some of JNF’s projects, specifically those tied to water, into local schools’ curricula.

“Young adults seem to really understand the need for environmental awareness, so it’s a perfect fit for the community,” Maier said.

Sherri Morr

“Many times we disagree on politics. The environment is something we can come together on.”

One of JNF’s environmental priorities is Israel’s ongoing water shortage. In January, JNF’s chief water expert, Sharon Davidovich, visited several Bay Area synagogues and schools to discuss how JNF is helping to replenish Israel’s natural water sources through its donations.

A second priority of JNF, and one that is tied to the water crisis, is restoring and revitalizing the Negev Desert, which currently makes up roughly 60 percent of the land of Israel but is home to just 8 percent of the population, according to JNF’s Web site.

“We want to bring half a million people to live and work in the Negev,” said Sherri Morr, who just stepped down as director of JNF’s Western zone. “Of course, none of that can happen without water. Streams need to be restored, and we need new ways to capture water.”

Morr, who was with JNF for 12 years, left her post March 2. She specialized in donor management and stewardship, believing that, from a professional standpoint, donors are “our most important partners in the Jewish world.”

“It’s a huge responsibility to engage, stimulate, motivate and maintain relationships that benefit Jewish life,” Morr said. “I know how easy it is for people to pick up their marbles and go elsewhere.”

As JNF searches for Morr’s replacement, Maier will continue her work in Palo Alto to help alleviate Israel’s water crisis and ensure the local community knows about JNF’s role in Israel’s environmental issues.

“We’re involved in the everyday work that has to happen to enhance the lives of Israelis,” she said. “From the time people wake up and turn on the faucet, to the time they turn off the light at night, JNF has been involved in their day.”