On Dec. 8, the Jewish National Fund’s Baltimore and Delaware office celebrated two milestones with the appointment of Orly Shalem as president, the first woman and first Israeli to hold the post.
Growing up in Be’er Sheva and living on a kibbutz as a teenager near Ashkelon (Baltimore’s sister city), Shalem was aware that there was money for Israeli infrastructure projects, but she didn’t know where it was coming from.
On her year off from the kibbutz, she visited the United States, where she met two people who would greatly impact her — her husband, Yair “Ron” Shalem, and Diane Scar, who now serves as the JNF’s national campaign director.
“As an Israeli, it isn’t really something that is explained to us, where money is coming from,” said Shalem. “Talking to Diane made me realize that the money came from organizations such as the JNF.”
Part of why Shalem was so drawn to the JNF is the Be’er Sheva River Park, “a massive environment and economic project that is transforming the riverfront into a 1,700-acre civic paradise,” according to JNF’s website. The project helped to clean up Shalem’s hometown. “As a child, it was just the end of the city, all trash and old cars,” she recalled. “Today, it is a place where you would want to live; they made it beautiful.”
Now that Shalem, 49, is JNF president, one of her top priorities is to involve Israeli with the organization.
“We want to bring more Israelis to the table,” she said, “to educate them and get them more involved. I don’t think they even know how much the JNF does for Israel. There are a lot of young people and families here, and I want to draw them closer to us.”
Stuart Diamant-Cohen, director of JNF for Greater Washington, D.C., and Virginia, said Shalem will be great at bringing in more community involvement.
“There has never been a JNF president who is a woman or who is Israeli in the Maryland area, so for us, this is a wonderful breaking of the glass ceiling,” said Diamant-Cohen. “Personal outreach is the most effective way of engaging people, and we could not ask for a better person to be doing that.”
One way that Shalem hopes to engage people is through the JNF’s mission programs, which provide a means for American Jews to engage with Israel in a manner that takes into account one’s personal and professional interests, ranging from counter-terrorism groups to doctors and lawyers.
Diamant-Cohen serves as the staff professional for the JNF’s law and justice mission.
“We have the opportunity to meet with everyone from the minister of justice to Supreme Court justices. We see the court system in action in Israel, see how it interacts with the environment, with young people and the law,” he said. “To look at it from the aspect of the leadership is a very unique experience. These missions are where the JNF offers the opportunity to effect positive change in Israel.”
Shalem believes that missions are important because they enable individuals to engage in activities and subjects that interest them while still helping people in Israel.
“On my last mission, I went to Halutza, a community right on the border of Gaza,” she said. “We got to see how they live under the rockets. It’s not easy. If their house gets bombed, some would think they would go live elsewhere, but most do not. They stay and rebuild with the help of the JNF. This is something that you need to go on a mission to understand.”
Shalem is now building her agenda for the next two years. “Hopefully, I will be able to achieve everything I have in my mind, in spite of every day there being a new project,” she said.
These new projects vary drastically and can come up unexpectedly, such as the recent fires throughout Israel. In the past two-and-a-half weeks, devastating forest and urban fires have had a dramatic effect on the JNF’s work. In that time, the JNF has raised more than $6 million toward the cause. Among other things, this money has been put toward 23 new fire trucks, each of which costs approximately $450,000. One of JNF’s goals is to increase Israel’s fire-fighting fleet to 900 trucks.
Shalem works every day to ensure that Maryland continues to support and contribute to causes in Israel.
“This is the time and place to start a new chapter in my life and to make a change,” said Shalem. “I think bringing the face of a woman to the [JNF] board is already making a change, and I can’t wait to see what the future brings.”