The young Sol Lizerbram used to spend Friday nights at his bubby’s (grandmother’s) house. Just before candle lighting, he and his siblings would drop a few coins in the blue-and-white metal Jewish National Fund (JNF) pushke to help build and plant the Zionist homeland.
More than 60 years later, Lizerbram, now 69 and a zayde (grandfather), has a similar tradition with his own grandchildren. They bake challa together and then drop a few coins in the JNF Blue Box before they light candles and enjoy a festive meal together.
On October 1, Lizerbram will oversee more than just a few JNF coins. The San Diegan will take over as national president of JNF and will preside over its billion-dollar, 10-year fundraising plan, which is now entering its fifth year. He told The Jerusalem Post he plans to raise as much as half-a-billion dollars in the next four years. JNF has raised $450 million toward its goal.
“I know he is up to the task,” said his wife Lauren Lizerbram. “This type of opportunity doesn’t come along very often for too many people. We are beyond thrilled. I am very supportive, because I also love JNF.”
Lizerbram will be JNF’s first president from the West Coast. Current JNF President Jeffrey E. Levine, who is from New York, said he expects “a well-deserved energy boost” to JNF’s West Coast regional boards in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, because of Lizerbram’s appointment.
“This will be great for the West Coast,” Levine said.
Lizerbram says his appointment shows how “global and open-minded” JNF is.
Lizerbram first got involved in JNF in 1978 when he was approached by the late M. Larry Lawrence. A young Pennsylvania transplant, fresh out of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, it wasn’t long before warm and fuzzy feelings about his bubby’s blue-and-white boxes led Lizerbram and his new wife to check out JNF. He quickly became a local board member, then chair of the San Diego Board.
Twenty years ago, Lizerbram joined the national board. Lauren is currently completing her term as chair of the San Diego Board.
Her husband says she will serve as one of his senior advisers, and she responds that she has been advising him for 46 years.
“We literally fell in love with the organization,” said Lizerbram, who says he supports other causes but most of his philanthropy and time goes to JNF.
Many have equated Lizerbram’s career path and modus operandi to JNF’s evolution – “Sol’s reality is JNF’s reality,” said JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson.
The organization, under the leadership of Robinson, its youngest CEO, transformed from a historic, low-tech nonprofit to an ambitious, innovative, visionary organization with a massive, diverse community of young and old Israel supporters. Robinson’s management style turned the organization on its head, demanding greater transparency and creativity. Ultimately, Robinson used renewal to restore JNF and refocus it on its core mission: love and support of Israel.
Lizerbram first trained as a pharmacist and physician. But when he saw the need for software that would assist doctors in improving the health of the US population, he abandoned his private people-based practice and co-founded an innovative medtech company, HealthFusion. The company develops webbased, cloud computing software for physicians, hospitals and medical billing services, and was in the cloud before most people knew what the cloud was.
It is still considered on the cutting edge. But unlike many modern electronic health record companies that were founded by software developers to make a buck, HealthFusion was founded by doctors, who think like doctors, and can help doctors do what they want to do: provide the best possible patient care.
“We think about how we practiced medicine, we look at the requirements of the marketplace, and we listen to our users,” Lizerbram told the medical magazine Health IT. “Then we work hard to give our users what they need.”
Listening will be an important skill for SEPTEMBER 15 – 21, 2 0 26 THE INTERNATIONAL J ERUSAL EM POST | S EPTEMBER 15 – 21, 2017 17 | THE INTERNATIONAL J ERUSAL EM POST 27 someone in Lizerbram’s lay role. One of his first initiatives as JNF board president will be to travel around the US to meet with donors and volunteers, “feel their pulses, and then make action happen based on those conversations,” Robinson told the Post.
Lizerbram said he doesn’t envision changing much that was started under his predecessors. However, he assumes he will be overseeing more projects in Israel as additional funds are brought in and, along with his board, they will review new opportunities and then watch them go from dream to reality. He said he also plans to keep already established programs running strong.
He is passionate about growing Israel’s periphery. Lizerbram expressed pride over the transformative Beersheba River Park and amphitheater, the 22,000-square-foot sheltered indoor playground where Sderot children play without fear of rocket attack, and the C. Hugh Friedman Music Center, named for a late attorney he was close with in San Diego.
“We replaced the sounds of rockets with the sound of music,” said Lizerbram.
Most recently, JNF acquired the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, a pluralistic study-abroad school for high-school students. Robinson said JNF had a seven-year plan for increasing enrollment to capacity from 750 to 1,150 students. They hit that goal three years early and are now considering building a second campus.
Robinson said purchasing the school was “a big leap” for JNF. But having a high school in Israel is helping JNF ensure more decades of connections between Jews in the Diaspora and the people of Israel.
“The students get a solid academic program, but also learn to live, love, and be part of Israel – something that will last the next 60 or 70 years of their lives,” said Robinson.
He said JNF doesn’t think in increments of a few years ahead, but in decades. The board is keeping its eyes open for more partnership opportunities, such as potentially buying and running a summer camp for elementary and middle-school students. He envisions that kids would come from all around the world because it is the best Jewish summer camp. But if it happens to be in Israel, and their best friends become Israelis, this will have much greater impact on the Jewish connection to Israel than an Israeli emissary who teaches Israeli dancing at an American camp for a few weeks each summer.
“I have never been exposed to another organization like JNF,” said Lizerbram. “Your money goes to specific projects and you can watch these ventures get built and grow. If there is a specific one you want to be involved with, you take ownership over it. This is much better than giving money to a general fund and letting administrators disperse it.”
Robinson said that while modern philanthropic trends are celebrating micro-giving and startup Judaism, if the Jewish world learns anything from the Start-up Nation, it should be that the best start-ups look to merge or be acquired by larger companies.
“That’s the way the world works,” said Robinson. “JNF has hundreds of thousands of donors participating in something greater than themselves.
We are playing a part in unifying the Jewish world.”
And sustaining it.
A recent report by the American Jewish Committee found that Israel appears much less important in positively affecting Jewish identity, except for those like Birthright participants who have traveled to Israel, or Orthodox young adults, for whom Israel has powerful positive resonance.
But JNF has found a secret sauce. Young people between the ages of 22 and 40 are the fastest growing part of JNF’s donor base, with 20JNFuture chapters across the United States.
Lizerbram’s own daughter, now a young mother, was so taken by a playground her family helped build in southern Israel’s Neveh Michael in the 1990s that she wrote all her college entrance essays about the experience.
“She could see that the kids in the moshav, prior to the playground, would play in abandoned cars or what have you. It had a big impact on her,” Lizerbram recollected.
Levine told the Post his association with JNF is “one of the proudest experiences I have had in my life. I am glad to see my legacy go into the worthy hands of my good friend, Sol Lizerbram.”
For his part, Lizerbram said he just hopes that those who learn about his passion for JNF will be inspired to get involved themselves and even make the step to go to Israel with JNF and get a taste for all that the organization is doing.
“There is no lack of programming we offer and provide,” said Lizerbram.
“Even if you have been to Israel several times, seeing Israel through JNF is a different Israel.” This article was written in cooperation with JNF-USA.