Dr. Sol Lizerbram of San Diego assumed the presidency of the Jewish National Fund last month after 37 years of involvement with the organization. He will be inaugurated at the group’s annual conference in Miami Nov. 11.
A national board member of JNF for more than 20 years, he was co-founder of HealthFusion, a web-based, cloud computing software for the medical profession that he sold last year.
Q: In the last 116 years JNF has planted more than one-quarter of a billion trees. But today I understand it’s not just about trees anymore.
Lizerbram: Trees are obviously important to JNF and Israel, but we are much more than trees. We respond to needs that occur in Israel. For instance, several years ago we built an indoor playground in Sderot after we visited there and saw no kids playing outside during the day. We asked why and were told they had only 15 seconds to get to a bomb shelter because of the Katyusha rockets coming from Gaza. So JNF decided to build a fortified indoor playground with bombproof rooms and an indoor arena so that kids could play safely and parents could feel comfortable. It is now visited by over 100,000 children a year.
I understand you also created a project for Israelis with special needs who wish to serve in the military?
All Israeli young adults get a letter for their induction into the Israel Defense Forces and those who aren’t inducted are those with special needs — it could be physical or emotional special needs. Those with disabilities who are left out are very sad because they too want to contribute. So we partnered with [the IDF unit] Special in Uniform to train these young adults to perform some type of function in the army or on an air force base. They go through a training program, get an IDF uniform, a beret, induction card and certificate and are part of the IDF. There is not a dry eye in the audience when they are inducted. They come up in wheel chairs and are assisted in walkers. They have severe disabilities but they are so proud to become part of the IDF.
For those with autism we have therapeutic riding centers in Israel. It has been shown that the therapy for those who are autistic or have cerebral palsy is enhanced by these programs.
There has been a major push to develop Israel’s south. What has JNF been doing in that regard?
Beersheba is the fastest-growing city in Israel due in part to JNF building river walks and theaters so that there are activities for families.
The Negev is 60 percent of the land of Israel but only 8 percent of the population, so JNF has a program to develop the Negev. We are helping young families with housing development funds to build housing in the south, as well as building hospitals and community medical centers. Our plan is to attract 500,000 people to the Negev over 10 years and it is working. We have been at it for over five years.
The issue is that the young families cannot afford to buy housing in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, so we are building affordable housing and companies are opening there because they can attract young talent. … The beauty of JNF is its ability to quickly respond to the needs of the communities.
As president, in what other areas would you like to see JNF put its resources?
One of the areas I think is a great opportunity is the Alexander Muss High School in Jerusalem. It allows students from U.S. high schools to spend a semester there and get full credit. It is like doing a semester abroad and it promotes Zionism and helps to expose these high school students to what Israel is all about. It attracts about 900 students a year and we are looking to expand the campus and rebuild some of the structures. Many Jewish day schools in the U.S. send students there. It is open to students in any high school in the U.S. and the Alexander Muss High School will match the curriculum of your local high school. There is a team that works with high schools to ensure the accreditation.
This been going on for 30 years and JNF bought in about four years ago and improved the physical layout and increased the curriculum. We hope to expand to 1,500 students over the next four years.
JNF previously made loans to its CEO and CFO. Do you plan any changes to the bylaws of JNF to preclude loans in the future?
The bylaws are looked at on a routine basis to see if changes should be made in compliance with state and federal regulations. They will be evaluated by outside attorneys and changes will be made.
Did you have any misgivings about those loans?
None. … It was 100 percent transparent and handled in an ethical matter. All open.
Have the loans been repaid?
They were repaid [in August]. … The matter is closed.