At 78, the very active Dr. Phil Switzer, father of three and grandfather of eight, bikes 8 km. to his Vancouver radiology clinic daily, skis on the weekends and still devotes much of his free time to promoting and supporting the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Switzer grew up in Montreal and was raised in a Zionist environment. He fondly recalls his grandmother dropping coins into the JNF “blue box” before Shabbat.
“Israel was high on our agenda, before the Six Day War in my family and the community,” he says. Switzer graduated from McGill University Medical School and, for a time, considered making aliyah. Though he has remained in Canada, Switzer has spent a great deal of time in Israel, including a stint working as a kibbutz doctor, a gig in a surgical clinic in Kiryat Shmona and a year-long sabbatical spent in Jerusalem with his family, during which he served as a visiting professor of radiology at Hadassah Medical Center.
Though he did not make aliyah, Switzer was determined to find a way to support Israel in a practical and positive way. He became involved in the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University and has served both as the president of the local Vancouver chapter, and vice president of the national organization. Phil is a member of the International Board of Governors of Hebrew University.
His positive feelings toward Hebrew University date from the year he spent in Israel, where he met numerous administrators and professors from the school, as well as students from Vancouver who were studying in the university’s Rothberg International School. These encounters made a deep impression on Switzer, who says that the Rothberg School acts as an incubator for students from around the world that creates lifelong associations and lifelong bonds between students. The friendships forged between Switzer and the university professors he met during that year have endured.
Switzer enjoys raising money for Hebrew University and views himself as someone who connects communities. “It brings pleasure to me that I know that I am raising money for a good cause.” He adds, “But it’s not only raising money. I felt good about the fact that I raised a connection between the community in Vancouver and Israel as manifest by Hebrew University.”
For many years, the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University held a fall lecture series that brought Hebrew University professors to the city to deliver lectures to hundreds of people, exposing them to the advances being made at the school. Switzer explains that these types of activities go beyond fundraising.
“It’s letting people in Vancouver know about all the great things they are doing in Israel. It’s not just saying, ‘I want money from you.’” Switzer explains that direct financial requests are frequently not effective. On the other hand, showing people the unique activities of the institution and asking them if they want to support that work yields far better results.
While people of greater means, suggests Switzer, contribute to organizations by writing checks for large amounts, others make their mark by involving the entire community. “I’m a worker bee,” he says. “I’m involved with the community – how do I involve our community and Israel via Hebrew University? How do we get that connection going?”
In Switzer’s view, patience is one of the essential qualities required of fundraisers. “You have to spend a lot of time with your donors,” he notes. Many supporters frequently turn down requests to serve as honorees, says Switzer. “You sit down, you talk to them, and you have to get into their heads and ask them – ‘What is something you want to achieve with your life? How do you want to translate that into doing something for Israel and Hebrew University?”
The model of finding a subject that appeals to the honoree happened to Switzer himself. In 2008, he was diagnosed with a benign tumor in his spinal cord. Switzer underwent extensive surgery, which left him with limited movement. After seven weeks, Switzer was able to walk out of the hospital, and today, though he has limited sensation from the waist down, he remains active, both at work and in his leisure activities.
Two years later, in 2010, Switzer was asked to serve as the honoree at the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University’s annual fundraising dinner. Like most of the other would-be honorees he had approached, Switzer initially declined but agreed to accept the honor when the fundraising goals were targeted for spinal research, which was of particular interest to him.
“After the surgery,” recalls Switzer, “I was in a wheelchair, and it didn’t look like I would walk. Now I am walking, and if I can raise money for spinal research, I’m in.” People are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause, explains Switzer, and the fundraiser’s mission is to match the proper cause to the right donor.
One of that dinner’s honorary chairpeople was Rick Hansen, the prominent Canadian paraplegic athlete and activist, who has raised more than $200 million for spinal cord injury-related programs. Hansen has been to Israel several times since that event with Switzer, receiving an honorary degree from Hebrew University, and has since joined several projects together with Hebrew University in the area of spinal research.
Switzer has gotten a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction in helping Hebrew University, and he says it is his way of giving back to the community. “My wife is involved with local organizations, such as the Jewish Federation, so we have enjoyed our community involvement. Vancouver has a great Jewish community, and it’s good to be involved,” he says.
Supremely self-effacing, he adds, “I am a simple guy who goes about his work. My work with Hebrew University fell into my lap, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it. I’ve put a lot into it, but the biggest recipient is me. If you put a lot of effort into something, you get it back in return.”
Switzer’s three children all live in the Vancouver area and are active in the Jewish community, and he takes great pride in them, as well as in his grandchildren, who attend Vancouver’s Talmud Torah community day school. He cautions that the next generation of Diaspora Jews may not be as Zionist as his has been. “We looked at Israel as needing our money and needing us as individuals,” he notes. “The next generation sees Israel as a well-off country.
They look at it more as a place to invest. Israel has changed dramatically and is viewed dramatically differently by the next generation.”
As a radiologist in constant contact with community members, Phil Switzer can promote the university and its accomplishments to a broad audience. “When I retire,” he jokes, “my fundraising ability will go down to zero.” Switzer’s dedication to Hebrew University, coupled with his stubborn and determined nature, makes that a most unlikely possibility.