River park to transform desert

May Mann, who died in October 2006, bequeathed $1.3 million to Jewish National Fund.

Longtime Phoenix resident May Mann has bequeathed $1.3 million to Jewish National Fund, the majority of which will go toward a visitors' center at a historic site in Be'er Sheva, Israel.

The donation from Mann, who died Oct. 26, 2006, more than doubles the annual revenue of the Arizona Region of JNF, moving Arizona to one of the top five JNF offices in the nation in terms of 2007 fundraising, according to Ted Kort, JNF regional director.

The 2006 revenue totaled nearly $1 million, he says.

David Frazer, an attorney and a former JNF board member, represented Mann and is responsible for directing the funds to two projects in Israel that will bear the names of Mann and her late husband, Howard.

Frazer says that Mann had "been to Israel and admired what JNF did." The Manns had no children, and, after designating gifts to family members and another charitable organization, May Mann asked Frazer to select a JNF project for her remaining assets.

The bulk of the donation, $1 million, will go toward establishing a visitors' center at Abraham's Well, a historic site in southern Israel's largest city, Be'er Sheva. The center will include a museum and an audiovisual presentation of the story of Abraham meaningful to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The stone-enclosed well is said to have been used by Abraham to water his flocks and to have been the subject of an oath between Abraham and Abimelech, the king of Gerar, regarding its ownership. The name Be'er Sheva means, "Well of the Oath."

"I thought (Abraham's Well) would be a wonderful tribute to May and Howard," Frazer says. The project "appealed to me immediately because I've been to Be'er Sheva, and ... it appeared to me to be an important project for developing one of the cities of Israel that hasn't been nearly as developed as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa. It really has the potential."

The remaining $300,000 of Mann's donation is expected to go toward a dormitory, library or auditorium at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a regional center for environmental leadership located on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel's Southern Arava Valley, a desert in the Syrio-African rift near the Jordanian and Egyptian borders and the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat.

Remembering May Mann

"May Mann was a very special lady," Frazer says. "She was a sweet person, she was a capable person. She liked people (and) was very outgoing."

The Manns moved to Phoenix from Chicago in the early 1980s, and May Mann served for several years as the financial secretary and membership vice president for the Brandeis University National Women's Committee.

"She was a wonderfully personable woman," says Sue Plosker, a Brandeis past president who shared many holidays with her. "She would personally call new members to follow up with them. ... She worked tirelessly for the benefit of the university."

Mann also loved to garden and always fed stray animals that found their way into her yard, Plosker says.

Lois von Halle also met Mann through Brandeis and remembers JNF plaques hanging on the hallway wall in Mann's home, commemorating trees planted in Israel for her parents and siblings.

"Israel was important to her whole family," she says. The display of plaques showed that "this was something that was important, and it was the next generation that was making donations in their name." She says that Mann grew up on a farm in Vermilion, Ohio, into "a very Jewish family, (although) she didn't have a lot of community around her growing up."

Von Halle says that Mann "was a generous spirit and very welcoming to people."

"We had a 20-year friendship. I was very lucky."

Be'er Sheva River Park

The Abraham's Well visitors' center is part of a larger project: the Be'er Sheva River Park. Park project manager Itai Freeman visited Phoenix on May 9 to meet with JNF board members.

Freeman described the River Park, which will cover 900 acres and include a promenade, groves, an artificial lake using treated water from the city's water supply, an amphitheater and sports facilities, as a "revolution."

"Millions of people will go each year," Russell Robinson, JNF chief executive officer, told Jewish News during an April visit to Phoenix.

Be'er Sheva, known as the capital of the Negev, was founded at the start of the 20th century by the Ottomans and was the only city that the Turks built in the land of Israel, according to goisrael.com. It houses Ben-Gurion University, the Turkish railway station and a Bedouin market. Abraham's Well is between the Old City and the future river park.

A large percentage of the population is made up of Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, according to Freeman. The city is home to about 200,000 residents, including a large Bedouin population.

Before 2002, the area in which the park will be developed was "one big dump, ... the forgotten part of the city for many years," Freeman says. The industrial landscape included solid waste piles, a sewage treatment plant and a quarry expansion. By 2004, the area was cleaned up and ready for development.

The project is designed to improve the quality of life in the Negev, develop employment opportunities and preserve the desert river environment, according to Freeman's presentation. As a result, it will change Be'er Sheva's image and help the city's economy, by attracting businesses, building housing developments and increasing tourism.

During his one-day visit to Phoenix, Freeman met with a landscape architect who may work on the Israel project, but nothing has been finalized, he says.

The Be'er Sheva River Park is the Arizona JNF office's current major project, Kort says. The region plans to raise a minimum of $1.5 million to develop at least two miles of the Central Promenade.

"There's going to be so much Phoenix in Be'er Sheva."

  • JNF regional mission

  • What: Phoenix/Las Vegas Mission to Israel
  • Who: Jewish National Fund, Arizona Region
  • When: Oct. 15-24

This regional mission to Israel will be led by Ted Kort, regional director, and chaired by Steve Freidkin. Participants will see firsthand the work that JNF does to help Israel in its continued growth and survival. In addition to visiting Be'er Sheva River Park, the group will also visit Jerusalem, northern Israel, Tel Aviv and Yad Vashem.

Contact: Ted Kort, 602-277-4800 or Tkort@jnf.org.