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By Michael Jacobs | mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

The absence of the Rev. Charles Stanley meant the presence of several rabbis and other community leaders who had planned to stay away from Jewish National Fund’s Yom HaAtzmaut breakfast April 23.

But JNF leaders didn’t shy away from the controversy that had split community opinion for weeks.

In making the closing plea for donations at the 12th annual Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast at The Temple, JNF Southeast Region Co-President Alan Lubel looked around a room filled with nearly 400 people and declared that efforts to boycott the breakfast had failed.

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JNF Southeast Region Co-President Alan Lubel asks breakfast attendees to help him send a message to Charles Stanley of stronger-than-ever financial support for JNF.

“You each have a chance to send a message, a message that the Atlanta Jewish community and its support for the Jewish National Fund is as strong as ever and is stronger than ever,” he said.

Lubel noted that Stanley, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church Atlanta, had decided days earlier to decline JNF’s Tree of Life Award and thus shift the focus from himself back to support for Israel. Despite the criticism he took from members of the Jewish community over his public declarations against the LGBT community, Stanley made a generous donation to JNF, Lubel said.

Lubel earned a standing ovation when he said: “I would like to be able to report to Dr. Stanley that each person in attendance here made a contribution for the work of JNF in Israel. I would like to be able to report that despite the protests, JNF raised as much or more support for Israel as it ever has in the past at this breakfast.”

Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Congregation Gesher L’Torah, who like such colleagues as The Temple’s Peter Berg and David Spinrad and Temple Sinai’s Ron Segal was planning to skip the breakfast if Stanley attended, said he attended the breakfast in the end because Stanley’s exit allowed him to show his support for JNF in good conscience. Boycotting the breakfast was a statement about Stanley, not about JNF.

JNF CEO Russell Robinson on May 8 will meet in Atlanta with people who protested Stanley’s honor. Rebecca Stapel-Wax, the executive director of SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, said that meeting will have a large effect on how SOJOURN’s board members and supporters feel about JNF in the future.

The breakfast did go on with a second honoree, Yedidya Harush, a representative of the northwestern Negev town of Halutza, founded by his parents and others after they were forced to evacuate Gaza in 2005. The town faced repeated rocket attacks during last year’s Gaza war.

He received the Cantor Isaac and Betty Goodfriend Community Service Award from the Goodfriends’ son Enoch.

Beth Gluck, JNF’s regional director in the Southeast, kept the crowd focused on the agency’s work to meet Israel’s needs. While acknowledging the controversy, she tried to move past it and never mentioned Stanley.

“If it wasn’t clear a month ago, it surely is crystal-clear now that Jewish National Fund exists for the sole purpose of supporting the land and people of Israel” and that the agency must resist mission creep.

For over a century, JNF has been the constant for Israel even as the nation has changed because JNF has worried only about how to benefit the Jewish state, she said.

Defense of Israel is necessary but reactive, Gluck said, and JNF is a proactive, visionary force. That vision includes supporting a place for everyone who wants one in Israel’s future, and it involves tackling projects that are too big for anyone else to handle, such as developing the Negev and securing enough water for the future. That vision requires Atlanta to contribute its share of the $1 billion JNF has vowed to raise for Israel over a decade.

“Urgent is sexy, but vision is really smart,” Gluck said.