Brandeis fund-raisers facing own shortages in local membership

As Brandeis University Library prepares to acquire its millionth book, a San Francisco group that helped make it possible for Brandeis to gather those million volumes in only 48 years is having problems of its own.

While it still raises at least $10,000 a year with which to add books to Brandeis' bookshelves, the San Francisco Chapter of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee has seen its membership drop precipitously, and now finds itself without even a titular president.

Created by Mae Swig, the San Francisco chapter is still viable and successful. About 300 subscribers help the group meet its fund-raising goals year after year.

But just 10 years ago, the chapter had about 400 active members. Now it has only 15, and all of them are at least 60 years old, according to Jackie Lelyveld, one of the central administrators of the San Francisco chapter. Lelyveld is herself in her 70s.

Some of the women who participate personally in the organization today joined when the Brandeis National Women's Committee was founded in 1948, Lelyveld said. Current members feel the chapter needs new, younger members — and it hasn't been getting any.

The chapter won't even be installing a new set of officers this year. No one ran for president.

"It's not like the Republican party, I tell you," Lelyveld said.

Thus at age 92, Helene Feingold, a past vice president of the national committee, reluctantly finds herself organizing the San Francisco chapter. Though neither woman has an official title, Feingold and Lelyveld do most of the work running the group.

The 107 chapters of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee nationwide have paid for every single book in Brandeis' four libraries. They are the reason why Brandeis has amassed a library that is the envy of universities 100 years older.

"Putting the millionth book on the shelf puts [Brandeis] at a different level," Lelyveld said.

Perhaps the reason they're not attracting the younger members is that the status of women has changed, Feingold said.

The group used to rely upon the efforts of young or middle-aged housewives who found themselves with free time once they'd packed their kids off to school. Such women joined the organization not only to help out, but also to participate in the chapter's arts-and-culture study groups — seminars whose syllabi often matched those of actual classes held at Brandeis.

Nowadays, however, most young women work or attend school.

"They don't have the leisure to join an organization," Feingold said. "They can support it, but they can't be active."

Lelyveld takes a less charitable view toward the lagging membership. Seattle's chapter doesn't have this problem, she points out. The chapter in Los Angeles — a city at least as far as San Francisco is from Brandeis' Waltham, Mass., campus — has recent Brandeis graduates actively raising funds. San Francisco does not.

The San Francisco chapter depends entirely on women who never attended Brandeis.

Nevertheless, "I'm delighted to do it," Lelyveld said of working to aid a school that is not her alma mater. "So many times I read in the newspaper about important people [graduating from] Brandeis, and it makes me very pleased."

Beulah Schiller, who edits the chapter's bulletin, has never even visited the school. For her, Brandeis is a contribution from all Jewish people to America's university system.

"The Jewish people have been guests at universities all over the country. This is our gift to the country," she said.

So Lelyveld, Feingold and the other remaining few keep the chapter going, waiting for a few members of an upstart generation to come along.

"I'm hoping if we can keep it going we can light up a spark somewhere," Lelyveld said.