Gary Jay Kushner remembers growing up in a home with a Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blue Box always being present. But it was an unforgettable trip to Israel in 2010 on JNF’s Culinary, Wine, and Music Tour that forever changed his life and view of Israel. “My wife Gail and I went on this trip because it looked like a great way to see Israel,” said Kushner. After visiting several JNF partner projects, especially the Be’er Sheva River Park, a 1,300-acre urban renewal project that’s rehabilitated the city into a vibrant and desirable place to live, Kushner wanted to get involved. “After that visit, Gail and I decided to make our first pledge,” Kusher said.
Kushner, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, and practices law in Washington, has three grown children, and has gone on to hold several prominent roles within JNF. He co-chaired JNF’s Lawyers for Israel, an affinity group for lawyers interested in making an impact on Israel, from 2012-2015; served as vice president and now president of the Washington, D.C., board; dedicated a plaque in honor of his father at JNF’s Wall of Honor at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem in 2012; and helped found JNF’s Task Force on Disabilities in late 2015.
“It’s a labor of love to be part of JNF’s projects and programs. I feel so inspired,” said Kushner. He also proudly mentioned that his children, whose ages range from 24-33, “are all supporters and will soon become JNFuture members.”
Although Kushner takes pride in the work he does for the land and people of Israel through this involvement with the organization, he is most proud of his involvement with the Task Force on Disabilities.
He first became acquainted with JNF’s work in providing services to Israel’s special needs community after a meeting with Israel Defense Forces Maj. Gen. (Res.) Doron Almog, chairman of JNF’s partner organization ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran, a state-of-the-art rehabilitative village in the Negev that offers care for people with severe disabilities. “I was introduced to Doron and his wife Didi through JNF and had lunch with them in Washington. We connected instantly,” Kushner remarked. On his following trip to Israel, Kushner visited ALEH Negev and Almog asked him to join and be the chairman of ALEH Negev’s international board of governors. Once the task force was formed, Kushner was asked to be its chairman. Kushner characterizes his visit to ALEH Negev and his friendship with Almog as the genesis of his “commitment to helping people with disabilities.”
Each year, the Jewish world recognizes the month of February as Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), and JNF is a trailblazer in working to help children and adults in Israel who have physical, sensory, mental health, and intellectual disabilities enjoy a better quality of life.
“I had no special interest in disabilities, but after meeting Almog and visiting ALEH Negev, I thought that this is an area where I could really make a difference,” Kushner said. Almog echoed this sentiment, and added, “Gary could not conceal his excitement and love for the residents he met during his visit to ALEH Negev. He promotes and develops a vision for ALEH Negev with his extraordinary sensitivity, admirable leadership, and approach to teamwork.”
“My trip to Israel with JNF literally changed my life in a positive and meaningful way,” said Kushner. Growing up in Southern New Jersey and facing anti-Semitism in a community with few Jewish families, Kushner credits that visit to Israel for making him feel like he was part of a broader family: “I gained a sense of community and appreciation that Israel is a place where I belong and can feel at home. I also realized that I can make a difference in Israel because every day JNF is investing in the land and people, and you can see and feel it in so many ways.”
By Daniel Peri
To learn more about JNF’s work for people with special needs and disabilities, visit jnf.org/jdaim.