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The Citation Ceremony with Mel Lazareck President of the Prairie Region, Rob Berkowits, Ex. Director of JNF Manitoba & Saskatchewan Region, Bonnie & John Buhlers - Honourees, Efi Stenzler - KKL-JNF World Chairman

Chen Zimbalista - Renowned Israeli Percussionist and Members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Rob Berkowits - Ex. Director JNF Manitoba & Saskatchewan Region, Frank Wilson - National President and Joe Rabinovitch - Vice President Jewish National Fund.


by Rhonda Spivak, July 6, 2012

"I love bell peppers" declared honouree John Buhler as he began his speech to the Negev Gala audience at the Concert Hall, promising that "every penny" of the funds raised from this year's Gala would go towards the Arava Greenhouse Project to improve the cultivation of the bell pepper.

As Nora Kaufman, Honourary Negev Gala Chair wrote in this year's program, "This project's goals are to maximize agricultural production of green peppers and other vegetables, despite extreme weather conditions and expand the growing season to a year long process. This unique project will play a significant role not only in Israel's economy regarding agricultural production, but in teaching Israel's global partners the art of growing agriculture in arid desert climates."

As far back as the 1930's, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel's first Prime Minister spoke of developing the Negev. Today, the small population of the Negev produces about 5 billion shekels of agricultural produce. About 60% of Israel’s agricultural exports are produced in the Central Arava, which includes 90% of the bell peppers exported outside of the country. As Ben Gurion once said, "On what is accomplished in the Negev, Israel will stand or fall ."

Wold Chair of the KKL - Jewish National Fund Efi Stenzler was in town from Jerusalem to present Honourees John and Bonnie Buhler with their Negev Gala award. One of the reasons that the JNF has been focusing on projects in the Negev is to increase the areas economic infrastructure so that the area will be attractive to new residents. As Stenzler wrote in his message in the Gala program, " the scarcely populated expanses of the Negev cry out for new residents. " JNF's involvement in the agricultural infrastructure of the Negev is tied into the plans of the Israeli Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, which aims to have 1.2 million residents – double the current figure – in the Negev by the year 2025.

Stenzler spoke of the Buhler's legacy of philanthropy and also of the strong ties between JNF and the Province of Manitoba. Stenzler also reminisced about when he first learned that Manitoba had 100,000 lakes when he met then Minister of Water Stewardship Christine Melnick (who is now Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism).

He drew laughter when he said , that Israel has two lakes "one dead one" and another "that is going to be dead." In addition he said "there is the Jordan River which has "no water but a lot of PR."

The crowd also laughed as he referred to Mayor Sam Katz as "Shmuel Katz." Katz gave greetings from the City of Winnipeg and also spoke of the Buhler's many contributions to Winnipeg in the fields of education, health and the arts.

Premier Greg Selinger spoke of the Buhler's having "touched so many people through their generosity," through the supporting and building of "hospitals and schools."

Selinger spoke of Manitoba's ability to celebrate diversity, and of the community minded outlook of the Buhler's.

Rob Berkowits, Executive Director of the JNF, noted in his message in the program book, "The Jewish National Fund's organizational roots are deeply planted in agriculture. Whether it is plowing the land for agricultural plots, building water reservoirs for farm irrigation systems and exporting the rich vegetables that Israelis produce, the JNF continues to be dedicated in developing new technologies and systems that will maximize agricultural production in Israel's arid desert land."

Former JNF Shaliach to Winnipeg, Zev Kedem was in town for the event, as was long-time Executive Vice - President of the JNF National Office Joe Rabinovitch, who will be retiring from his position shortly. Rabinovitch told the Winnipeg Jewish Review that he is "not retiring to play golf," but that he has other opportunities that he will become involved in. JNF National President Frank Wilson was also present

Mel Lazareck, who is the President of the JNF Manitoba-Saskatchewan region, directed his written remarks in the Negev Gala program to answering the question John Buhler had pondered, that of how a Mennonite get to be honoured by a Jewish organization. As Lazareck wrote:

"As Theodore Herzl said 'we are a people-one people.' "Lazareck then added  "regardless of religious or ethnic background and the sooner the world realizes this, we all will be able to live in a more safe and prosperous world."

Lazareck also wrote "Manitobans and Canadians are truly fortunate to have extraordinary people like John and Bonnie Buhler in their community."

The Buhler's personal story, like that of the early pioneers in Israel, is one of personal determination and perseverance.

John Buhler, who grew up in Morden, came form an impoverished Mennonite family who immigrated to Canada from Russia. Buhler who repeated the 9th grade 3 times before quitting, told his younger brother that he was going to have "100 employees someday." He was considered a "dreamer" for saying this, but it would turn out to be true. He procured his first job as a telegraph operator at Canadian Pacific Railway, and started out in business with a small automobile dealership. He sold enough cars to purchase his father-in-law's ailing agricultural equipment company, and with his other business acquisitions over the years amalgamated them all to form Buhler Industries.

The audience chuckled as he said in his speech, that by that time he has learned to borrow money-as much money as possible. "You don't need to worry about debt; the bankers do that for you! The bigger the debt, the more senior bankers you have worrying on your behalf."

It wasn't until 2000 that Mr Buhler realized his boyhood dream of making tractors-when he bought the last remaining tractor manufacturing facility in Canada, renaming it Buhler Enterprises. Although he had not had any plans to sell Buhler Industries, he couldn't pass up an offer by Russian businessmen to sell it for $190 million dollars. Once that happened, John and Bonnie set out on a new career of philanthropy.

In the Negev Gala program book, the Buhler's shared the words of Amanda Bradley 's "Lord let me be a dreamer", which has been a personal prayer of John Buhler's ever since Bonnie wrote it on a card for him some thirty years ago:

Lord, let me be a dreamer. Let me be a doer

Let me strive and steadily acheive.

Let me be a learner, let me be a teacher

Let me give graciously and receive

Let me be your follower, let me be your friend

Let me hear your voice and hear your call

Let me know the special plans you have for me

And let me, with your help, fulfill them all.

The Negev Gala evening featured an excellent performance by masterful Israeli Percussionist Chen Zimbalista who conducted and performed with members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Zimbalista was also joined on stage for several numbers by Israeli singer Chen Levi; who by the way has a gorgeous voice.

Audience members showed their enthusiasm for the performance by clapping and using a variety of JNF token percusion instruments, like tambourines and shakers that were distributed near the end of the performance.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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