Local | Volunteer Salute

Volunteer to professional and back: Jewish causes engage Tucsonan

Elaine Lisberg
Elaine Lisberg

Elaine Lisberg doesn’t like to live in the past or dwell over what she’s accomplished. “To me, life’s all about moving forward.”

A lifelong devotee of Jewish causes and educational nonprofits, Lisberg has transitioned from active volunteer to trained professional, then to professional volunteer and now officially considers herself “just a volunteer.”

“Just” doesn’t do credit to the litany of causes Lisberg has chaired, co-chaired, initiated or participated in over her time in Tucson. Her present list of volunteer activities includes the Brandeis National Committee (where she formerly served as president), the Brandeis Tucson chapter, the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival and the Jewish History Museum. She is a member of Brandeis University’s board of fellows (an honorary society that recognizes alumni and friends who have made significant contributions of time or resources to Brandeis) and a former member of the board of trustees. She and her husband, Harold, have lived in the Catalina Foothills for more than 20 years. Lisberg has held positions in nonprofit educational foundations, management and consulting.

Some are surprised to learn that you don’t have to be an alumnus of Brandeis University to join a chapter of the philanthropic support group; Lisberg herself is actually a graduate of the University of Illinois and studied at both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Oslo, Norway. The Brandeis Tucson chapter fundraises for Brandeis University’s library system, student scholarships and academic research, in addition to a variety of local social action initiatives.

One particular initiative of the Brandeis Tucson chapter Lisberg is proud of is their online book business. The chapter collects donations of gently used books, which are then sold online to buyers worldwide. “We’ve had over 10,000 books online,” she notes, “and the sales are growing steadily. I love that we are recycling the books rather than sending them to the landfill; that we’re generating revenue for a scholarship for a Tucson area student to attend Brandeis University, and all the while we’re providing an engaging activity that both men and women can participate in. It’s been a terrific project in terms of returns.”

Jewish values and family ties guided Lisberg from a young age toward Brandeis University, as her parents were longtime friends of the university’s first president, Abram Sachar. The enduring family connection led her to her first book sale, which instantly attracted her to stay involved for the long term. Lisberg served as the vice president of a synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., Congregation Solel, and continued her Jewish involvement in Tucson by joining Temple Emanu-El.

Someone as dedicated, talented and involved as Lisberg became a sought-after member for a number of Jewish or­gani­­zations. During her Chicago years, she helped establish the North Shore Jewish Children’s Bureau (now Jewish Children’s & Family Ser­­vices). She continued her Jewish Federation activities in Tucson, where she served on the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) as the social action chair. Her appreciation for Jewish volunteering only deepened when her sister immigrated to Israel in 1967 with her children. Lisberg has visited Israel more than 15 times and observes that Israel is “like a growing metropolis.”

Lisberg is part of the dynamic team that has grown the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival. A volunteer since 1993, she’s seen the event expand to an average of 20 films shown over 10 days of popcorn-filled fun. She personally oversaw the transition from the screenings at the University of Arizona to the Tucson Jewish Community Center during her chairmanship from 1994-96. She now participates in fundraising and marketing activities and the screening committee, which meets Tuesdays to watch between 70-80 films annually for the final selections.

The Jewish History Museum rounds out the list of institutions that benefit from Lisberg’s prolific volunteer service. Working alongside interim Executive Director Bryan Davis, she serves on the management committee and the strategic planning committee.

One particular point of local pride for Lisberg is serving as a trustee for the Message of Hope Fund administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, which provides educational programming to combat discrimination. The funds were originally raised by Lisberg and a group of four dedicated women for an Anne Frank exhibit at the Tucson J in 1995, which drew 65,000 visitors.

Reflecting on the intersection of volunteering with her professional life, Lisberg comments, “I’ve found that my volunteer skills were more important in my professional life than my professional skills ever were to my volunteer life.

“Volunteering makes you a good listener because you’re so focused on people to discover what works for them, what motivates them. When you volunteer you accept people and in turn help them perform.”

Sarah Chen is a freelance writer living in northwest Tucson with her husband, son and daughter. She also serves as associate director of the Northwest Division of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.