Armchair Conversation with Angelica Berrie at The Hive

Interview with Angelica Berrie

“Philanthropy is the gift of who you are, not the size of your check, or the recognition you receive. It does not have to be bold or dramatic. Philanthropy reflects who you are as a person. This is a message that I love to share as it has enriched my life and given me a sense of fulfillment and purpose.” Angelica Berrie, President of The Russell Berrie Foundation and new Leichtag Foundation Board Director, shared these insights and others during a Q&A at Leichtag Commons the evening of June 11th. Jeffrey Solomon, a Leichtag board colleague and longtime President of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, facilitated the discussion, which touched on Angelica’s approaches to giving, leadership and lifelong learning. Following are some highlights.

Growing up in the Philippines, Angelica said that she had no clue what philanthropy was until she met her husband Russ Berrie, a New Jersey entrepreneur who made his fortune selling teddy bears and trolls. Moving from the Philippines to New Jersey was a culture shock as Angelica recalled going from passing the collection basket at Sunday mass to pledging huge amounts publicly at fundraisers.

The Russell Berrie Foundation already had clear ground rules and focus areas when Angelica became involved, including diabetes research, Jewish causes, community needs in New Jersey and Israel, and entrepreneurialism.

Russ felt strongly that, given his hard work and success, a career in sales was every bit as worthy of respect and prestigious as a career in law or medicine. One of Russ’s ambitions was to live long enough to have Italian and Jewish mothers refer proudly to their sons as “my son the salesman.” To this end, the Foundation provided funding to create the Russ Berrie Institute for Professional Sales at New Jersey’s William Paterson University. This is the only academic sales degree program of its kind in the world and most of the students are the first in their families to attend college.

A diabetic, Russ was dedicated to supporting diabetes’s related research and education. For many years, the Foundation has funded the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University. As part of the Center’s work the Foundation is helping to fund cellular therapy research that one day may lead to a cure for diabetes.

Angelica and Russ were an interreligious couple. He was Jewish, though non-observant, and she was Catholic. While Angelica didn’t convert to Judaism until after Russ’s death, she had participated in Jewish communal life in New Jersey and supported causes in Israel for many years. For her conversion, Angelica studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, learning from notable scholars such as David Hartman and Donniel Hartman. The experience taught her about the power of immersive learning experiences, which she has applied to her philanthropy. She also discovered that, for her, to be a Jew meant embarking on a journey of lifelong learning.

When asked to describe one of her favorite grant-funded programs, Angelica described the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue in Rome, which she created in 2007 at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome to fund priests pursuing graduate degrees in interreligious studies. Among the 100 fellows from 33 countries who have gone through the programs (studying with a rabbi, among other things) is a Nigerian who decided on the priesthood after a priest in the next village was beheaded. Angelica personally accompanies the fellows on an annual ten-day trip to Israel and is proud of interfaith understanding the program has fostered.

The Berrie Fellows program, launched in 2004, demonstrates the Foundation’s notion that leadership is truly a gift you leave behind. Angelica remarked that the program is a successful investment in raising the individual and collective capacity of lay leaders in the northern New Jersey Jewish community. Participants engage in an intensive 18-month fellowship that incorporates leadership skill development and immersive Jewish learning. Berrie Fellows now chair many of the community’s boards of Jewish organizations and synagogues.

In 2011 Angelica coauthored, A Passion for Giving, intending to inspire other philanthropists. She stresses the importance of learning from and with others and credits a number of resources in helping her to find her philanthropic way. Through a series of interviews, the book provides real-life examples of the fundamental issues related to starting a philanthropic enterprise – from determining purpose to assessing impact, to grappling with multigenerational giving.

When asked why she joined the Leichtag Foundation Board, Angelica responded that she has long been impressed with the Foundation’s overall work and growth as well as its commitment to continuous learning and relationship building. She also noted the Foundation’s dedication to providing both professional and volunteer leadership opportunities for women.