Feels Like Home

by Pat Launer January 30, 2012


By Pat Launer

In the Beginning…

After World War II, it was extremely difficult for Jewish students to enroll in American colleges. Most schools, including Harvard, had exclusionary admission policies and/or strict Jewish quotas. For decades, there had been discussions in the Jewish community about establishing a denominational college like all the other religious sects (Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran), but there were always so many other, more pressing issues for American Jews.

Then, in 1946, a privately owned New England medical and veterinary campus — Middlesex University, in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Mass. — became available. And the dream of a century became a reality. The new university was named for Louis Dembitz Brandeis, the first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, an influential judge, ardent Zionist and promoter of social causes.

Brandeis University opened its doors as a nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored co-ed liberal arts institution, with 107 students enrolling in the fall of 1948, the same auspicious year as the establishment of the State of Israel.

A group of five philanthropic men started the university, and a group of eight enthusiastic women began the school’s fundraising arm, the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee.

“Brandeis’ meteoric rise to academic excellence was without parallel in the history of American education,” says Gayle Wise, a fellow of Brandeis University and former national president of the Brandeis National Committee (the Women’s Committee became gender-neutral in 2008).

Wise rattles off the names of “brilliant minds” that were honed at Brandeis, including journalists Thomas Friedman (The New York Times) and Bob Simon (“60 Minutes”); actors Tyne Daly, Debra Messing, Josh Mostel and Loretta Devine; writers Ha Jin and Mitch Albom; political activists Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis; and political scientist Sanford Lakoff (UCSD professor emeritus). The list of esteemed faculty members includes Leonard Bernstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, social theorist Herbert Marcuse, attorney Anita Hill and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.

“It all began with a few thousand books in a stable,” Wise says, recounting the history of the Brandeis National Committee. “That was the genesis of the three magnificent libraries that now grace the campus, housing a Shakespeare Folio as well as the largest collection of Judaica outside Israel.”

From its humble beginnings, Brandeis today ranks among the top 15 national research universities (Forbes.com), and places 31st among Tier 1 universities nationwide (U.S. News and World Report, 2012). The 3,300 undergraduates benefit from an impressive student/faculty ratio of 9:1.

With its broadly diverse population, large proportion of students on scholarship and high scholastic ratings, Brandeis, boasts Wise, “represents everything the Jewish community has offered to the American community at large.”


An Influential Committee

The Brandeis National Committee has played no small part in the evolution of the school.

“The life of the university and the National Committee are wonderful parallel paths,” says Phyllis Perkal, former national vice president of membership, member of the National Executive Committee and co-president of the Western region.

The founding president of the university, Abram L. Sachar, wanted the school to begin with a notable library, Perkal says. This was a job for the new Brandeis Women’s Committee, who began with book collections and proceeded to fundraising.

The committee has grown to 30,000 members and 55 chapters nationwide (there are two in San Diego: San Dieguito and Rancho Bernardo). Over the years, the group has raised more than $115 million for the university and placed more than a million books on library shelves.

“Our members also have a love of learning,” Perkal asserts, noting the many continuing education opportunities for committee members, generated by Brandeis University and the chapters themselves.

The San Dieguito chapter, for example, has 336 members and close to 30 study groups and programs. The local committee is also active in the community, helping to support Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Book Fair and the Jewish Film Festival.

“To this day,” Perkal says, “the committee reflects the traditions of scholarship, community service and commitment to social justice. We remain totally dedicated to medical research and the libraries.”


“Sustaining the Mind”

This year, the Brandeis National Committee’s philanthropic focus is a $3 million, 3-year initiative called “Sustaining the Mind: Scientific Research and Scholarships,” which is aimed at research on neurodegenerative diseases and establishing an endowed scholarship fund for students in the sciences.

Brandeis researchers in more than 50 laboratories are dedicated to the study of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Parkinson’s disease. The worldwide incidence of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), currently exceeds 35 million and is predicted to double every 20 years.

The Brandeis campaign’s motto is: “Much has been accomplished; more needs to be done.”

“The cause we’re supporting is very, very dear to my heart, because my late husband died of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Pauline Green, who sits on the Regional Board of the Brandeis National Committee, is past president of the Rancho Bernardo chapter, and is co-chairing the San Dieguito chapter’s current fundraising endeavor. “With the aging population and increasing incidence, neurodegenerative diseases affect us all.”


Meet the Authors

As a high-profile part of its effort to raise funds for “Sustaining the Mind” research and scholarships, the San Dieguito chapter of the Brandeis National Committee is presenting its popular and successful program, “In Depth With Authors.”

This year’s guests include three best-selling scribes from San Diego: mystery writer T. Jefferson Parker, historical novelist Laurel Corona, and Christopher Reich, creator of spy/suspense thrillers. (Disclosure: This author will be serving as moderator.)

Parker, a Southern California native, has always written about his own environment. He won Edgar Awards for Best Mystery for “Silent Joe” and “California Girl.” His first novel, “Laguna Heat,” became an HBO TV movie. “The Jaguar,” the third installment of his Border Quartet about the Mexican drug wars, was released in January.

Laurel Corona, Ph.D., a tenured professor of humanities at San Diego City College, is the author of 17 young adult novels. Her historical fiction, centering on strong women, has taken her to pre-Revolutionary France, 18th century Italy, ancient Greece and early 20th century America. In 2009, at the San Diego Book Awards event, “The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice” was named Theodor S. Geisel Book of the Year. Corona’s nonfiction work, “Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance,” garnered a Christopher Award, a prize given to books that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.”

You might call Christopher Reich an international American: born in Japan, educated in the U.S., employed in Switzerland. He’s the author of eight acclaimed espionage thrillers, including “The Patriot’s Club,” which won the International Thriller Writers Award for best novel. “Rules of Betrayal” is the latest in his best-selling series that features Doctors Without Borders physician Jonathan Ransom and his undercover-agent wife.

Program co-chairs Pauline Green and Ruth Epner promise a provocative afternoon.

“I guarantee there will be interesting topics,” Green says. “You’ll gain insight into the writers’ process. You can ask them questions and have them sign their books. You’ll have a great lunch — and an opportunity to become involved with Brandeis University and support this wonderful research initiative.”

Green speaks for all these impassioned, dedicated women of the National Committee when she says of Brandeis, “It’s like going home. The students feel like our children — and they’re our future.”


The “In Depth with Authors” luncheon, presented by the San Dieguito chapter of the Brandeis National Committee, takes place Feb. 29 at Fairbanks Ranch Country Club, 15150 San Dieguito Road,  San Diego. For reservations, contact Pauline Green: (619) 993-4656 or greenp@att.net.


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