JNF group

At the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA) annual Arizona Breakfast for Israel, from left, Scott Weiss, event co-chair; Adam Brooks, event co-chair; Deb Rochford, JNF-USA national campaign director; Sharona Feller, event co-chair; Dr. Mel Bottner, JNF Desert States board member president; Leila Mikal, JNF-USA director; and Gil Hoffman, keynote speaker.

On Feb. 23, more than 600 people gathered in the ballroom at the JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa for the annual Breakfast for Israel presented by Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF-USA).

Dr. Sol Lizerbram, JNF-USA’s president, announced that the organization had recently exceeded its $1 billion goal and five years from now intends to open the largest philanthropic capital project in the Zionist world.

“A 20-acre world Zionist village in Be'er-Sheva, a project without parallel that will take the conversation Herzl started and create a new one driven by the next generation of Zionists from every corner of the globe,” said Lizerbram.

The village will incorporate a second campus for Alexander Muss High School in Israel, conference facilities, short-stay accommodations, technology internships and programs for Israelis before they enter the Israel Defense Forces.

Dr. Mel Bottner, JNF-USA’s Desert States board member president, shared that he is the child of Holocaust survivors and that “Israel is the sole place on earth where Jews have a chance to create an entire society.”

He shared more projects that JNF-USA has created in Israel, including the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, educating more than 20,000 students from 13 countries, Africa and Asia; the GrooveTech Center, the largest technology center in Israel, located two miles from the Gaza border; The ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran Rehabilitation Village that serves children and young adults with severe disabilities and complex medical conditions and provides a host of rehabilitative solutions for individuals from all backgrounds and levels of need. 

Bottner also explained the project that he and his wife, Mim, are funding in an area one kilometer from the Egyptian border.

“We wanted to memorialize our daughter, Lauren, who was an avid reader and a journalist by providing access to books to both adults and children in a way previously unavailable to them in this area of the Negev,” he said.

The 2,500-square-foot library in Israel will be named Lauren’s Library and is part of the 40,000-square-foot community center being constructed in Shlomit. Lauren Bottner died in 2014 at the age of 34.

Bottner also introduced Deb Rochford, JNF-USA’s national campaign director, who was being honored for a decade of service to the organization.

Rochford said in eighth grade, she was involved in BBYO and someone asked her what she wanted to do as a career. She said,“I want to be a Jewish nonprofit fundraiser.” They responded, “That’s a lousy job.”

She went to college, became a wife, a mother and owner of two businesses. Rochford didn’t pursue a job as a nonprofit fundraiser for 31 years until community member Sheila Schwartz got her an interview with JNF. At the time, she didn’t even know what JNF was.

Her first time in Israel was a VIP trip to celebrate the 90th birthday of then-President Shimon Peres.

“On that trip, I understood how this tiny democracy became one of the world’s top innovators, an economic powerhouse and a cultural phenomenon,” said Rochford. “I fell in love with Israel. And I fell in love with her supporters. I understood for the first time we are a family, and we must stick together and not let the noise around us split us apart. Please travel to Israel, be her cheerleader; we need her more than we know.”

The speakers at the event expressed their continued commitment to Israel and didn’t dwell for long on any of its current political turmoil. The country held five elections in the past four years, recently electing former leader Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister after he was ousted from power in 2021 amid corruption charges. His political appointments and plans to reform the judiciary have caused alarm in some quarters, both in and outside of Israel.

Keynote speaker Gil Hoffman said that Israel is facing internal and external challenges right now and shared a quote from past Prime Minister of Israel Naftali Bennett, “A time of crisis is not the time to abandon your family.”

Hoffman is the executive director of HonestReporting.com and covered politics out of the Knesset for the Jerusalem Post for nearly 25 years, having made aliyah in 1999. One of his early jobs in journalism was at the Arizona Republic. He recently made history in Hawaii becoming the first speaker to have lectured about Israel in all 50 states.

“This is an intense time in Israel right now,” he said. “I’ve seen Israel through other challenging internal divides when Israel went through various peace processes. I was there in an IDF uniform in Gaza when Israel evacuated, and this is the most intense I’ve ever seen the Jewish state.”

He said that Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power under the slogan, “vote Netanyahu for four years of stability.” Security was the primary issue Israelis voted on, enduring 382 terrorist attacks in the month before elections were held in November.

“I don’t justify or defend anything my government does in Israel, or America, no matter who is in power,” he said. 

First, he explained the uncontroversial things like passing a budget, Netanyahu’s plan to make peace with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf state of Oman allowing Israeli carriers to fly in its airspace.

“That is a step on the way to expanding the Abraham Accords and normalizing relations between Israel and more countries,” said Hoffman.

Israel and the United States held the largest long-range military drill a few weeks ago after attempts to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement faltered. 

“A few days after that, coincidentally, a nuclear facility in Iran went bump in the night,” he said. “The ambassador to Israel said that there won’t be more negotiations with Iran as long as President Biden is in power.”

But what divides Israel right now and what Americans have criticized are the legal plans of the new government, Hoffman said. The controversial plans call for changing the way judges are elected, taking the power of the Supreme Court to invalidate Knesset decisions and, for the most part, allowing the Knesset to invalidate Supreme Court decisions.  

“Those on Netanyahu’s side say this will strengthen Israeli democracy, the rule of law and the economy,” he said. “Those who have been protesting on the streets for the last seven weeks say that this is a judicial coup that could potentially destroy Israeli democracy and it is very intense.”

Hoffman said that the Knesset will adjourn a few days before Passover and they want to pass this plan into law by then. But there is time to work on a compromise and Hoffman believes that President Isaac Herzog, who he said is “the most consensus figure for Israelis other than Gal Gadot,” is the man for the job.

“No matter what your views are about what’s going on in Israel, I appreciate that you continue supporting the Jewish state no matter who’s in power,” he said.

“Being a Zionist means you stand for a safe and secure Israel. Period,” said Bottner. “Let us not rest until Israel’s light shines throughout the world. It is the world’s great symbol of life and hope. Amen.” JN

For more information, visit jnf.org.