The history of Israel is closely tied to that of Jewish National Fund, CEO Russell Robinson said at JNF Atlanta’s 14th annual Jack Hirsch Memorial Breakfast on Tuesday, May 2.

“No other people on the face of the earth have a land as part of their existence. Only the Jewish people,” Robinson told the crowd of about 300 people gathered at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North in Sandy Springs to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s 69th birthday. “We could have made a very good legal argument that piece of land was ours. But, instead, we collected coins and collected money to repurchase the land of Israel. That is Jewish National Fund’s story, and that is the story of the Jewish people.”

Gladys Hirsch, the widow of JNF stalwart and Holocaust survivor Jack Hirsch, gets a hug from honoree Ron Blomberg after the breakfast named for her husband.

Robinson acknowledged that when he was a Hebrew school student growing up in El Paso, Texas, sometimes the coins meant for JNF bought candy instead. But he has more than made up for that lost money since becoming CEO in 1998. This was his first Jack Hirsch Breakfast.

Since its founding in 1901, JNF has developed more than 250,000 acres and planted more than 240 million trees, in addition to helping Israel solve its water problems.

When JNF purchased the first parcels in the early 1900s, Robinson said, Tel Aviv was little more than sand dunes.

In 1951, JNF drained Lake Hula, which had been a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitos in northern Israel, and turned it into agricultural land. An estimated 500 million birds now pass through the Hula Valley each year.

In Sderot, where residents live in fear of rocket attacks from the nearby Gaza Strip, 75 percent of children are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2009, JNF built a 21,000-square-foot indoor recreation center that also serves as a bomb shelter so that children have a safe place to play. Now JNF is building outdoor playgrounds as well.

JNF is focused on developing the Negev, which has 60 percent of Israel’s land but only 8 percent of its population. In Be’er Sheva, long a target of Atlanta donations, JNF is continuing to turn a former garbage dump into a 900-acre river park in the center of the city, with trees, running trails and a large artificial lake.

The population of Be’er Sheva is around 200,000, but Robinson said he hopes it will one day eclipse 400,000.

Native Atlantan Ron Blomberg, a Druid Hills High grad who was the first designated hitter in Major League Baseball history in 1973 when he played for the New York Yankees, received the Cantor Isaac and Betty Goodfriend JNF Community Service Award during the breakfast.

He spoke about his love for Atlanta and Israel and his pride in being Jewish, and after the breakfast he answered questions — he thinks Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame — took photos and signed autographs.