Mr. President: Sol Lizerbram Steps Into The JNF Spotlightby Brie Stimson September 23, 2017
The night felt like a reunion of old friends. Dr. Sol Lizerbram was being recognized as the next national president of Jewish National Fund (JNF), but the camaraderie and the casual atmosphere was more akin to a high school gym than the Hilton by the Bay.
Maybe it was the quintessentially Southern California vibe that so seamlessly colors everything we celebrate. Maybe it was the palm trees swaying in the breeze as partygoers sipped champagne and chardonnay while looking across the calm waters toward Coronado. Maybe it was JNF leadership giving Lizerbram’s wife, Lauren, an actual prom queen-style tiara as a first lady accessory. Maybe it was Lizerbram’s grandchildren happily running around on the grass.
The West Coast vibe is new for JNF – Lizerbram will be the first national JNF president in history from this side of the Mississippi.
I spoke to Lizerbram about his new role a week before the event at his beautiful home tucked away in the hills above the Del Mar racetrack.
“Well, it’s very exciting,” he told me sitting casually in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt in his luxurious, high-ceilinged living room. With Lauren sitting and taking notes across from him, the couple has nothing approaching pretension about them. Lizerbram certainly could get away with a little self-importance, but his friendliness and casual way would more likely make one mistake him for the guy who fixes your brakes or enlists in the Army. Perhaps that’s what makes him (and his first lady) so perfect to lead JNF’s billion-dollar effort to help those less fortunate and others in need.
The fund has grown a lot in the last 116 years from its roots (pardon the pun) in tree planting. Today JNF has many international projects, including the indoor recreation center that is also a bomb shelter in Sderot, Israel; Special in Uniform, a program that helps disabled Israeli teens serve in the Israeli Defense Force; and a project to help people move into the Negev area of Israel.
“What I’d like to do is continue the goals that were set by Russell [F.] Robinson, our CEO, and Ronald [S.] Lauder, our chairman, to continue our Billion-Dollar Road Map, which we started a few years ago,” Lizerbram told me. “We’re almost half way there, so it’s a very exciting time for … JNF.”
Lizerbram said he’s seen a lot of changes at JNF in his 35 years with the organization – all of them positive. “Obviously 11 years ago there was tree planting, which it still is, and forestry is a very important part, but it’s expanded enormously to much bigger projects,” Lizerbram explained.
He said while cities in central Israel like Tel Aviv are heavily populated and extremely expensive, the Negev in the south comprises 60 percent of the land but only eight percent of the population. “[Tel Aviv has] prices compared to Manhattan, and it’s very difficult for families to buy a house and bring up a family,” Lizerbram explained, “So we’ve been very active in housing development and creating an environment in the desert that would attract families.” The plan includes building playgrounds, medical facilities, amphitheaters, etc. so that businesses will move down there and they can interest employees.
JNF’s Housing Development Fund helps families buy houses in the Negev and the Galilee. “Now the dream is really coming to fruition where a lot of the families are moving down there, and they are buying houses and raising their family.” He said businesses and agriculture are already moved there too.
JNF also has several projects that help the physically and mentally challenged, including Special in Uniform. “It’s a really incredible program,” he said. Following high school graduation all Israelis are brought into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), except those with mental or physical disabilities. “They get a letter essentially informing them that they will not be able to participate [in the IDF],” he told me.
JNF’s Special in Uniform finds a way to integrate those with challenges into the IDF, giving them jobs that another soldier would have to do, which relieves them to focus on other areas. “They could give them a job [of procurement] or working in the kitchen,” Lizerbram explained. “They train them and they have an official graduation, they get an official ID, they’re part of the IDF. There’s a uniform, there’s a ceremony once they’re inducted … and for them and their family … to witness them being part of the IDF is like a dream for them, and they’re so proud to be involved.”
Lizerbram said Special in Uniform, a program the JNF wasn’t doing until several years ago, has been part of their development as an organization. JNF’s scope has also expanded to include Alexander Muss High School in Israel for study abroad students and also preserving historic sites. “It’s a very wide portfolio,” he said of the JNF’s operations. “We have hundreds of projects going on at the same time.”
Lizerbram sees being the first president of any major Jewish organization to live on the West Coast as a sign of JNF’s leadership. “There’s some, believe it or not, some organizations that actually have in their charter that you have to live within a certain number of miles from New York to be president, so this just shows the progressiveness [of JNF],” he told me. He said he hopes his being from California will help further the growth of the organization and create a heavier focus on our side of the country. “We have a good presence here, but I’m hoping that because the president is based out of the West Coast that there will be even a greater growth in JNF.”
The new president said his job will be to first work with the professional staff locally and nationally and research and evaluate new opportunities for JNF. After being evaluated by Lizerbram and the professional staff, prospective projects are then brought to the national board. “So it’s a very hands on type of role that I’ll be playing,” he explained.
He said he doesn’t think that being from the West Coast will necessarily bring a different perspective to the role, but rather expand it. “I think that there’s a general blueprint of what JNF is going to do, and I’ll be participating in that,” he explained. “So I think being from the West Coast won’t necessarily change the direction of this big plan that JNF has in place.”
Lizerbram told me he was first introduced to JNF through Larry Lawrence, of the Lawrence Family JCC. Lawrence, who also owned the Hotel Del Coronado at the time, “asked if I would get involved in this great organization called … Jewish National Fund,” Lizerbram told me. “I knew about it. Everybody knew about the Blue Boxes and my bubbe had a Blue Box in her house and Fridays we’d put a few coins in.” Lizerbram said he and Lauren didn’t know much about JNF, but they thought it was a great mission so they got involved on a local basis. Eventually that led to a national board position, “then over the years that culminated with being asked to be president.”
Subgroups within JNF like JNFuture (22-40-year-olds) and the women’s campaign also have their own projects. “They’re the future leaders,” Lizerbram said of JNFuture. “We teach them leadership skills, and it’s really exciting.” The group has their own board of directors and they come up with their own projects while working in concert with JNF. They are the fastest growing affinity group, according to Lizerbram.
The women’s campaign, which also funds their own projects, contributes 20 percent of the annual budget. “The women are strong,” Lauren says.
Sol and Lauren are especially looking forward to next May when they and others in the community will form the first San Diego community mission to go to Israel for the 70th anniversary.
The president’s tenure is two years with a two-year option, so traditionally the president sits for four years. “So that’s what were looking forward to,” Lizerbram told me. “There’s a lot of projects and building going on and they take time.”