Meet the veterinarian at Jerusalem's new aquarium

Dr. Elizabeth Kaufman has worked at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo for the past 25 years.

The new coral-growing exhibit (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
The new coral-growing exhibit
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
There is nothing ordinary about Liz Kaufman, the veterinarian at the new Jerusalem Aquarium. An Orthodox Jewish woman, she has worked at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo for the past 25 years and recently took up the role of veterinarian at the aquarium. I met Liz in her office in the very active behind-the scenes area of the 7,000 square meter 21st-century aquarium. Throughout the hour-long interview, she was interrupted at least twice by some of her team working in the quarantine area.
My Hebrew is good enough to have understood the urgency of at least one panicked interrupter, who explained that one of the fish had jumped out of its quarantine tank into the tank of another. Without much fuss or panic Liz asked a few diagnostic questions and then issued clear instructions in her perfect American-accented Hebrew. With the problem resolved, we continued our interview.
I was intrigued to know more about the impressive woman sitting behind the desk in her modest Jewish Orthodox attire and head covering. I asked her to tell me about her family. Liz was born in New York to 1st and 2nd generation American Jewish parents. Her mother, 84-year-old Catherine Morrison writes a gardening blog and serves on several New York Parks boards. Her father Seth Morrison passed away last year on his boat in Ashkelon. The obituary in the New York Times read: “He died as he lived, a sailor who went down to the sea in ships, and passed away on his boat at the Ashkelon Marina.”
Her brother is the writer Micah Morrison, who was a Pulitzer prize nominee who won acclaim for his work at the Wall Street Journal, when he helped to expose the White Water scandal involving former US President Bill Clinton.
“My mother came from a conservative Jewish family in Brooklyn and my father from a Reform background in Manhattan,” she told me. “At an early stage of our upbringing they decided to move to Port Washington, Long Island, because it offered the best educational opportunities for us kids. Religion was not really a priority.”
I asked her when she had first become interested in working with animals. “I was brought up by two wonderful parents who indulged their children. By the time I was six years old I knew the word ‘veterinarian’ and how to pronounce it. I was also used to a house full of pets, including two dogs, two cats, birds, a rabbit and anything that I found that was wounded.”
Her mother, an early feminist, was a graduate of Bennington College in Vermont. Liz recalls how one day her parents threw a party. One of the male guests walked up to her and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“A veterinarian.” She replied confidently.
“Oh, sweetie, that’s something that little boys do; that’s not something that little girls do.” The man replied.
“It was then that I told him to ‘eff off’! I didn’t even know what the word meant but I’d heard the grownups using it. It did not go over well with my mother who was standing behind me proudly listening to the conversation. She promptly sent me up to my room!” Liz admits to being stubborn. The mere fact that an adult was telling her that she would not be able to do something made her even more determined. Shortly afterwards she went to her Mom to ask her whether there was any truth in what the man had said.
“No, sweetheart.” Her mom answered. “You can do whatever you want and I promise I will help you do it!”
Her mom kept her promise. She helped her research which subjects to study at school and even helped her to get a volunteer job with the local vet when she was in high school. During the summer vacation she volunteered at the Bronx Zoo. One of her early jobs was with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where she worked on a yacht for a team of researchers who were studying coral reefs. Her career progressed and she soon found herself assigned to a scientific project in St. Louis, where she was responsible for $750,000 worth of natural coral harvested from the Caribbean Sea. She learned how to identify coral and then how to run a living coral exhibit.
In this regard Liz’s career has come full circle. After 25 years as a veterinarian at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, she has returned to aquatic medicine at the newly opened aquarium, the largest of its kind in the Middle East and the only aquarium in Israel. Her boss is an Israeli woman, Dr. Nili Avni-Magen, a world-renowned specialist in Zoo Health Management and Head Veterinarian and Chief Zoologist at the zoo. She was once Liz’s student at the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine, part of the Hebrew University, where Liz taught for a number of years.
Liz went on to explain, “The is not simply a place for the public to view aquatic life from the Red, the Dead, the Med and the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). It’s also an incredible learning laboratory. We are part of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. What is pretty unique about the Israel Aquarium is that we are not near the ocean. We make our own seawater and we are very focused on being a ‘green’ facility. The water quality therefore has to be checked every day. At this very moment,” she continued, “we are in the midst of a cycle of moving fish from a quarantined area into the exhibition areas. The entire process of stocking and stabilizing the aquarium can take up to 5 years.”
Part of my private tour behind the scenes included an opportunity to meet some of her colleagues and see some of the 20 impressive quarantine tanks that, at any given time, may collectively contain between 600 to 1,000 fish.
Liz emphasized the importance of the volunteers at the Aquarium. “We rely on volunteers including divers, aquarists, and food preparation staff, not to mention those who work in other parts of the aquarium. All of these people are trained on site and work as a team,” she explained.
 Liz lives in Har Nof, in a mixed but predominantly Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. She is the mother of four children, all of whom are married. She is also a grandmother. I asked her what her Orthodox neighbors thought of her and her career choice.
“We live on the edge of Har Nof quite close to the fields and forests. Every kid in the neighborhood knows who I am. I get kids knocking on my door bringing me things that they’ve found, calls from parents asking me for help with their pets and stray animals. At one time I ended up taking home a leopard cub from the zoo for nursing in my apartment. On another occasion I brought home a tiger cub. Both times I had groups of kids coming over to see what I was doing. They were naturally fascinated and it proved to be a great education for them. They were very interested and very respectful.”
Liz’s husband, Joseph Kaufman, has an equally fascinating story. “He came from a staunchly Reform Jewish family,” Liz told me. “He also studied to become a writer at Bennington College, where he became friends with my brother which is how we met. Bennington was known for its very distinguished faculty. He studied writing with acclaimed author Bernard Malamud. At one point he joined the Peace Corps and spent two and a half years in Africa. He made friends with a priest by the name of Father John Kirby, who encouraged him to explore his own Jewish faith. He subsequently became more and more observant and ended up learning in a yeshiva. When we first met, I was in vet school and there was no Jewish community in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was then that he decided that he wanted to live in Israel and so I followed him, and I, too, began to explore Judaism. I was pretty determined to finish vet school and so we returned to Boston, where there was a Jewish community and a veterinary school from where I graduated. Not long afterwards, in 1988, we made aliyah.”
Soon after arriving in Israel Liz got in touch with the late Dr. Gabi Eshkar, Deputy Director and Chief Veterinarian at the Biblical Zoo, who was tragically killed in a car accident in 2004. He took her on as a consultant and encouraged her to share her specialized knowledge in exotic pet medicine. Later on she became a part-time member of the zoo’s veterinary team.
Liz told me that after an almost 25-year career at the zoo, she now expects to be working primarily at the aquarium. Officially her work day starts at 8 a.m. and finishes at 1 p.m., 5 days a week. However, more often than not she is there at 7 a.m. and does not leave until 5 p.m. Despite this grueling schedule, she takes it all in her stride and describes what she does as “so much fun.” She jokingly refers to herself as the Savta (Grandma) at the zoo, yet she is hardly your typical Jewish grandmother and only recently stopped her diving activities. In addition to her vast depth of veterinary knowledge and experience, she is also an inspiring communicator and educator with a New York sense of humor, tempered with a large dollop of self-effacing humility.
 Some weeks after our interview, I had the good fortune to run into Liz and one of her granddaughters at a local Jerusalem mall. There I saw yet another side of her, that of devoted grandparent. She and Becca were out running errands and having fun together. The encounter left me even more impressed with the multi-dimensional and rather extraordinary person that is Dr.
Elizabeth Kaufman.
The Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium is now open to the public. There are guided tours in English. For further information and to book tickets, refer to their website: