New regional director wants JNF to cultivate its Israel-centric roots

The Jewish National Fund is generally known for one thing — or, rather, 250 million things. That’s roughly how many trees the 110-year-old nonprofit has planted in Israel over the last half-century.

But if Aaron Parker has anything to do with it, Jews may soon be turning to JNF for a broader range of purposes — a focal point for those who want to get involved with and connected to Israel. As the new regional director for the JNF’s Northern California and Pacific Northwest office in Palo Alto, Parker says he’s eager to help JNF “retake center stage” as part of the pro-Israel community.

Aaron Parker

“Israel is central to my identity as a fully formed Jew,” says Parker, a San Francisco native. “It’s something that’s just always been important to me. It’s fundamental.”

Hardly a stranger to the landscape of the Bay Area’s Jewish organizations, Parker has served on the boards of the Friends of Israel Political Action Committee and BlueStar, as well as the local advisory committee of StandWithUs. He was a member of AIPAC for 10 years, and currently serves as co-chair of Bridges to Israel at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

In his new position at JNF, Parker aims to show that there are countless ways to support Israel — not just with your checkbook.

“I think there’s a pent-up demand to do more than just give money,” he says. “I hear it from all corners — Jews asking ‘How can I be involved, what can I do to help?’ And there are so many things we can do. The state of Israel is only 63 years old, and there’s a lot of infrastructure yet to be built. There are service projects available both here and in Israel that really allow us to get our hands dirty in the building of the state.”

JNF currently offers service projects that put interested Americans to work in Israel, including a popular “Alternative Spring Break” trip. Parker said he hopes to

develop more in the coming months, possibly partnering with Hazon on that group’s California Ride.

He added that the hands-on nature of service projects makes them a great way to reach young American Jews who might not feel much connection toward Israel — because they offer a chance to help build a nation that’s still coming into its own.

“To me, that’s the most exciting work a Jew can do,” he says. “JNF is building

the Negev: We’re building reservoirs to solve the water-scarcity crisis, we’re involved with cutting-edge research to solve oil dependency, providing firefighting infrastructure so that fires like the Carmel fire don’t take the devastating toll that took. The character of this country is still being formed, and there’s a place for every Jew to be involved.”

When he’s not working, Parker spends time with his wife, Illana, and two kids in Marin, and stays active at his synagogue; he’s in the process of starting what he hopes will become a Bay Area–wide Jewish softball league. The inaugural game — yet to be scheduled — will pit Conservative Kol Shofar against nearby Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom.

“For me personally, it’s all part and parcel of the same project,” he says. “We’re a people, and we’re so busy with our lives and the demands of the economy … but we still need to make time to be a people, to be a community and do things together as one.”

But for the time being, Parker is focused on building momentum at JNF. He says there’s plenty of work for anyone who wants to take part.

“I’m absolutely looking for people to join us, to join this movement,” he says. “It’s all of our country, so it’s all of our responsibility to make it what it can be.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.