Suzy Polgar lived in Israel on and off for six years in the late 1970s. After moving back home to Canada, she didn’t return to Israel for more than 30 years.
“I loved to travel around Israel in the 1970s. When I returned in 2013, my husband and I were driving around and I mentioned that Israel looked more beautiful than I remembered,” Polgar says. “I knew the Jewish National Fund had planted millions of trees. So I realized at that moment, that Israel really was more beautiful. I would have to say that was my proudest moment.”
Polgar started working for the Jewish National Fund of Regional Ontario in 2012 doing programming and outreach before becoming executive director in 2016. Travelling to Israel each year, she says she sees the impact the JNF has. “It is more than trees now. It is amazing to meet the people whose lives we have affected or the organizations we have helped,” she says.
Recently, Polgar decided to step away from her role as executive director, with Orna Richter taking over the position in May. “Orna has an extensive background in the Jewish community and in fundraising and has a great understanding for who we are and who Israel is. It was a great match,” says Polgar, who is continuing as senior donor relations director in the organization. “My family is growing. I've got two grandkids now and I needed to step back. So it was just perfect. We work amazingly together and we will continue to work together.”
Richter moved to Hamilton five years ago with her family from Edmonton, where she had been director of development for the Jewish Federation of Edmonton. In Hamilton, she worked for the McMaster Children’s Hospital Foundation and then as director of development for “The House” in Toronto. Richter also sat on the board of Jewish Family Services and was a director on the board of the Association of Fundraising Professionals in the Golden Horseshoe region. Richter joined the JNF board in 2018 and became associate director of JNF Regional Ontario in April 2021.
Richter says she is guided by her strong connection to Israel. She says the story of Israel and the story of the Jewish people is about the triumph of the human spirit. Her grandfather was a member of the Haganah, building Israel from the ground up with his bare hands and assisting Jewish refugees from German-occupied Europe off boats and into safety. Her father at age 21, fought in the Sayeret Golani brigade in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. As a child, Orna and her brother spent summers in Israel with her father.
Growing up, Richter was involved in Jewish youth groups in Edmonton and then later with Hillel while she was a student at York University.“I have a very deep connection to Israel, and then there is my volunteer and professional experience. I want to bring that background and instill a sense of pride in our donors who have supported us for so many years,” she says.
“I find sometimes donors are giving to the JNF because they love Israel, but they don't actually know the work we're doing, and the extent to which their dollars are transforming lives in people from all backgrounds and faiths who live in Israel. My passion lies in educating donors about projects in order to foster deep ties, build trust and make sure that JNF and Israel remain relevant to them.”
Richter also plans to provide opportunities for community members of all ages, faiths and backgrounds, to engage with JNF and learn about Israel and the vital work it does.
“Sometimes, people do not understand why we care about Israel so much. Antisemitic rhetoric runs wild and free on social media. Our job at JNF is to have real conversations here in the diaspora. We do not only build the foundations of Israel’s future, but we must practise constructive dialogue even, and especially with, people who do not share our political or personal beliefs.
“Israel needs a voice in the diaspora. Israel is open, inclusive, progressive and the only democracy in the entire region. Let’s talk about that. Let’s create relationships where there were once enemies.”