Long-distance Partners

Lieberman-Okinow endowed chair keeps feeding the world as its focus

Field and horizonA simple family dinner six decades ago laid the groundwork for a partnership in feeding the world. Isaac Wahl was a visiting scholar from Tel Aviv University in the CFANS Department of Plant Pathology in the mid-1950s. Through connections with the local Jewish community, Wahl was invited to the Twin Cities home of Harold and Adele Lieberman, who were strong advocates for the then-young state of Israel. Over the years, he traveled often between the universities, and the friendship between his family and the Liebermans grew.

Steve Lieberman was a teenager at his parents' dinner table then and remembers how Wahl shared a vision for preserving grains that have grown wild in Israel to ensure global food security. "He was a good fundraiser," Steve Lieberman recalls. "Over the years, we helped him with some special projects and in the '70s, he told us about how important it would be to have a climate-controlled germplasm bank to preserve the species that were being collected."

Harold Lieberman had passed away by that time. His sons and son-in-law had taken over the family business, Lieberman Companies, which specializes in amusement and vending machines sales and rental and, at that time, distributing records to major retailers. The three—Steve, his brother David and their brother-in-law Harold Okinow—wanted to solidify their connections with both Tel Aviv University and the U of M, from which their mother had graduated. They also saw the importance of Wahl's work to global food needs. They agreed to fund the Harold and Adele Lieberman Germplasm Bank at Tel Aviv University, which opened in 1982 and today houses the samples of wild cereals collected in Israel and used by scientists at CFANS.

Entrepreneurs at heart, the family saw the start of something special and were looking for a way to formalize the relationship between U of M and Tel Aviv University. Along with family contributions, they were able to leverage business relationships, including proceeds from the record "We are The World," sold by the company's record distribution arm, to create an endowed chair in the CFANS plant pathology department.

At that time, funds from the endowed chair mostly were used for small projects and researchers' travel. Again looking to build on success, the family invested money to expand the scope of the chair and hire a permanent faculty member. "We needed a main point of contact at the U," says Dan Lieberman, one of Steve's sons who today leads the family firm with his brother Hal. "Someone who could be the glue that tied this work all together."

That someone was Brian Steffenson, who was hired in 2000 as a faculty member in the plant pathology department and today leads work on finding disease-resistant traits that can be adapted to wheat and perhaps lead to a more food-secure world. "There could not have been a better choice," Steve Lieberman says. "The team right now is as good as it's ever been."

Last spring, Dan Lieberman and his wife, Suzanne, traveled to Israel with Steffenson and other plant pathologists from CFANS. That's part of the family's plan to help wherever they can and to stay involved in the research, Dan and Steve Lieberman say. The extended family now includes Harold and Adele's grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom are involved in the family business and philanthropy.

"The goals of establishing this chair were to solve the world hunger issues and to build understanding between the two countries," Dan Lieberman says. "That's been our driving force, and it will continue to be."

–Becky Beyers