Angelica Berrie, a New Jersey-based businesswoman and philanthropist, was honored recently by the Nadav Foundation with its annual Jewish Peoplehood Award for “promoting dialogue between Jews of different backgrounds.” Founded in 2003 by Leonid Nevzlin, the foundation is a major force behind the effort to revive and rebuild Bet Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, in Tel Aviv.
Berrie, 54, is CEO of Kate’s Paperie, with five stores in Manhattan and Greenwich, Conn., and president of the Russell Berrie Foundation, one of whose goals is to foster leadership in the Jewish community. She is also president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, an educational institute in Jerusalem.
We caught up with Berrie, a sophisticated and thoughtful leader in business and Jewish life, over tea at a Midtown hotel on a chilly afternoon last week.
Q: How did you come to this award?
A. Leonid and I share a strong interest in pluralism and what he calls “peoplehood” and I call “identity.” As Israel becomes more secular, we need to develop that sense of Jewish identity.
One of the projects we’ve launched at the Hartman Institute is teaching the Jewish tradition in new ways in secular schools, training the schools’ own teachers to bring joy to the subject. We’ve partnered with the Ministry of Education in providing material and letting these groups create ways to explore and appreciate their heritage at a time when some have forgotten how to be Jewish.
You’ve come a long way from growing up in the Philippines and attending an all-girls Catholic school to becoming a leader in the Jewish community. Tell us about your journey.
I met Russ through business, and we married in 1992, and lived in Englewood, N.J. He was a leader of the local Jewish community, but he was a relaxed Jew and never obliged me to convert. He had young kids, and we celebrated Shabbat every Friday evening and I could say the prayers in Hebrew. Then one day I took a class at the local JCC, where Rabbi Donniel Hartman was the scholar in residence. When I came home I said, “I’m not converting, but if I ever did, he’d be my rabbi.”
You began to take Judaism more seriously. How did you become so proficient in Jewish studies?
Over time I became ready to take on a Jewish life, and planned to convert on Russ’ 70th birthday. But he died in 2002, when he was 69, and I regret he didn’t live to see it happen. But I didn’t just convert for him, it was something I was passionate about. Two years after Russ died, I hired a CEO to run the company, and I spent a summer in Israel, studying six hours every day at the Hartman Institute, one on one with their finest teachers. It was an intense experience, full immersion. [And it was Rabbi Hartman who officiated at Berrie’s 2004 conversion.]
What do you enjoy about Israel?
I go there every summer to study at Hartman and to feel connected to the land, the people. I feel at home there. One time I went with several girlfriends; we called ourselves the Oy Oy Girls instead of the Ya Ya Girls and it was like our own Birthright Israel experience. We slept out in the desert, climbed Masada, hiked in Wadi Kelt. I’ve seen the bird migration, gone rappelling. There’s no summer that I don’t discover something new.
I’ve even started a travel business, Global Nomad, with my brother, and my Asian friends come back passionate about Israel.
How do you gauge success in the Berrie Fellows Leadership program you sponsor through the UJA of Northern New Jersey?
We are seeing that the graduates of the first two classes have taken leadership positions, in organizations, federation and synagogues. We see them as change agents. When they ask “what do you expect of us?” we say it’s not about becoming UJA funders. They should be changing the status quo, getting people to become involved in Judaism and the community, not just through a checkbook. And not just working in our own community, but to do good works in the wider community.
The phrase “tikkun olam” has become vanilla, but we want to see our leaders helping with food banks, the United Way, etc. Why confine ourselves?