In 1898, at the 1st Zionist Congress, Tsvi Herman Shapiro, professor of the Heidelberg University, proposed to found a national fund with its main goal of creating a national center in the then Palestine.
Embodiment of the idea was undertaken by an engineer from Odessa Iona Kremenetsky. As a result, delegates of the 5th Zionist Congress founded the Jewish National Fund.
Menahem Usyshkin was one of its founders, and Yehiel Chlenov became the first director of its Russian division. They insisted on the immediate beginning of buying up of lands in Erets Israel and repatriation. They were supported also by other leaders of the Russian Jewry. Thus, new settling in the Promised Land began…
At the end of the 19th century, agricultural settlements were founded, but force to support them did not suffice. Many Jewish politicians preferred to be engaged in diplomacy and long negotiations on purpose to obtain from Turkey permit to immigrate to Palestine. They did little for organization of settlements, support of repatriates, creation of workplaces for them… In those conditions the JNF started to have more and more influence, and not only in purchase of the ground areas, but also in education and in culture development.
In spring of 1903, the JNF bought the first plot of land: Isaak Goldberg, an active worker of the Jewish movement in Russia, performed quite a royal feat: he presented to the Fund 20 hectares of land. The name of that patron of arts is closely connected both with the JNF and with Israel: 10 years later its second donation made it possible to buy land in Jerusalem for the Jewish University.
In general, the Jews of Russia were exceptionally active in fund raisings for the Fund projects. In cities and towns money were constantly raised and so redeemed were lands, houses for workers were built, assistance was provided for repatriates … From year to year the sums increased (see the Table). Almost any holiday, any memorial of the Jewish calendar, any important event of the public life did not do without Jewish active workers visiting every house with the Fund money boxes. So, the collected copecks made up the sums for which lands in Erets Israel were purchased, houses, settlements and whole towns erected, roads constructed, trees planted …
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Fund financed buying land for the first town quarters. There, where there were deserted sandy dunes, now there are fine houses, a shady parkway and a memorial sign in memory of the founders of Tel Aviv – a fantastic city on the Mediterranean sea coast.
The Fund played a major role also in the education development. At the end of 1905, a married couple of Cohens - teachers from Russia, opened in Jaffo a school teaching in Hebrew. Soon it became the first-ever in the world grammar school using Hebrew. The JNF raised money and constructed a special building for it. The “Hertsliya” grammar school became the center of education and culture in Erets Israel.
The idea of creating the Jewish University appeared together with the one of setting up the Fund. The project was approved, but its realization was delayed. There was no sufficient money, and only very few people trusted in real Hebrew lectures on a high scientific university level.
Despite the sceptics’ opinions, the JNF began gathering of donations, searches for a suitable plot of land. Thanks to the sum presented by I.Goldberg, a lot was bought on the Mount Scopus. In 1917, the first 12 stones were laid as the bedding for the University. Eight years later, the Jewish University in Jerusalem admitted its first students.
It is clear that the huge work was carried out by joint efforts of all the JNF national divisions. The Russian one was one of them.
The First World War reduced the Fund’s work to a minimum. The main office of the JNF in those years was in Germany, therefore the authorities beheld anti-governmental character in its work. If reprisals in Russia against active JNF workers started from first days of the Fund’s work, at the beginning of the war the authorities also began to persecute its ordinary sacrificers. Communication with the main office and Erets Israel was interrupted. As it turned out, it was for a long time …
After October 1917, the JNF in Russia was outlawed at all. Some active workers managed to leave the USSR and went to the Promised Land. Others were shot by Bolsheviks, died of hunger in the civil war, disappeared in the GULAG. Almost for the next 90 years the word-combination “the Jewish National Fund” disappeared from the lexicon of the Jews in the USSR.
Only in 2005, the JNF returned to Russia. Hundreds, thousands of people supported it in the first months and years of its work. They supported it not only with good words, but also with charitable payments. In Moscow and Tambov, in Kursk and Ekaterinburg, Kamensk-Uralsk and Izhevsk, Voronezh, Bryansk, Rybinsk, and in many other cities and settlements events were held where they spoke about famous actions of the JNF, money for its projects was gathered.
In October 2007, Moscow was visited by the chairman of the international JNF Efi Shtentsler, his deputy Igal Yasinov, and other employees of the Fund. They familiarized themselves with the work of the Russian division. Presentations and round tables were held, an exhibition was organized. Efi Shtentsler handed over Certificates of the Fund on planting trees in the Land of Israel. A session of the Fund Board was held, in it the work done by the Russian division for several years of activity in Russia was positively assessed.
A decision to make changes in the Fund’s charter was taken, having considered the legislation of Russia and the accumulated experience, and to improve the JNF structure. Everything was realized. Now we work under the new Charter, having been registered in the Ministry of Justice as a Russian organization.
Like 100 years ago, activists, philanthropists and volunteers of the Jewish National Fund of Russia are working for the good of the people and the Land.
To be continued…