A vintage photo of seven woman standing in a doorway under a "Welcome Women of Brandeis" sign
A circa-1950 portrait of the “founding mothers.”

‘Ten Thousand Volumes to Start’: A Poetic Look at the BNC’s Beginnings

In the mid-1940s, a group of Jewish businessmen teamed up to build a new university, welcoming students regardless of faith or race. One of those men was Boston attorney and philanthropist George Alpert, who raised much-needed funds for Brandeis through his celebrated oratorical skills.

In his work on behalf of Brandeis, Alpert — who became the university’s first board chair and remained on the board until his death in 1988 — was surrounded by equally energetic boosters, including eight women who took on the task of raising money for library books, the lifeblood of a university in the mid-20th century. To do so, they founded the Brandeis National Women’s Committee, now known as the Brandeis National Committee.

Gertrude Alpert, George’s wife, was one of these women. She came up with the idea of raising funds to buy books for Brandeis, then recruited her friend Edith Michaels, previously the head of the Boston branch of Hadassah, to work her contacts and her magic in spearheading the effort.

George, of course, knew these eight intrepid women. He also liked to write poetry that featured his sly humor. So when he wanted to express his admiration for Gertrude, Michaels and the six other Brandeis National Women’s Committee founding mothers — Hannah Abrams, Augusta Katz, Frances Ritvo, Jennie Silverman, Dorothy Spector and Tillie Thorner — to no one’s surprise he chose to do it in a poem.

“Edith and Her Charming Ladies” is a warm, funny look at the women who filled Brandeis Library’s shelves with books and other print materials in just a few short months. Alpert read his ode at a testimonial dinner held in Michaels’ honor in November 1948.

The ladies of Boston and neighboring towns,
With an impulse that came from the heart,
Decided to furnish essential books
To fill the library’s shelves and nooks
With ten thousand volumes to start.

Scattered throughout the 11-stanza poem are little-known details about the women. For instance, Katz was an accomplished architect who designed some of the first buildings on the Brandeis campus. Silverman was the mother-in-law of author Norman Mailer.

Augusta Katz was designing a house,
In which field she had much knowledge,
But when Edith finished talking
Augusta was building a college!

Get Jennie Silverman for secret’ry
Many women said.
She’s the mother-in-law of the author of
“The Naked and the Dead.”

During the last half of 1948, this small group of hard-charging women raised enough funds to purchase 10,000 books for the library, exceeding their original goal.

The money rolled in so thick and fast,
The board was astounded, and Sachar was stunned,
For Edith and her charming ladies,
Her Claras and Esthers and Ettas and Sadies,
Had created a Library Fund.

And over the decades, the committee would grow to become the present-day BNC, one of the largest library-friends groups in the world, with more than 21,000 members worldwide.

— Kathy Alpert

Kathy Alpert, granddaughter of George and Gertrude Alpert, is a writer, designer, collector and family archivist; her email address is ksa@postmarkpress.com. She is currently at work on a book about her uncle, the late spiritual leader Ram Dass.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of smiling women in red dress
Madalyn Friedberg

Message From the BNC President

As my term as Brandeis National Committee president draws to a close, I want to tell you how proud I am of all we’ve accomplished together.

Over the past four years, I have been inspired by hundreds of BNC members as well as Brandeis alumni, students, faculty and staff, and I have visited 34 of our 37 chapters. Though each chapter has its own flavor, we all share the same goal: to support Brandeis University.

Together, we established the Sustaining the Mind Fund; the BNC Scholarship Fund; and the Magnify the Mind campaign, which purchased a two-photon resonance microscope for Brandeis researchers and students. Earlier this year, we launched the Honoring Our History campaign, to fund the digitization of important collections in the Brandeis Library’s archives.

The Brandeis National Committee is a very special, mighty group of dedicated volunteers — many of us are “foster alumni” — who for 72 years have worked to support Brandeis. We put the first book, and the millionth, on the library’s shelves, and our Tribute Wall recognizes the many BNC members who have supported these efforts.

It has been an honor to serve as your president, and I am so eager to see what we can accomplish next.

In gratitude,

Madalyn Friedberg

* * * * * *

Thank you, Madalyn: The Brandeis National Committee expresses its sincerest gratitude to Madalyn Friedberg for her many contributions as BNC president. In particular, her $100,000 challenge gift during Giving Tuesday 2019 helped inspire a historic outpouring of support for Brandeis. More than 2,500 members of the Brandeis community contributed $865,558, setting a new single-day fundraising record for the university.

Scholars on the Move

In January, Brandeis faculty members traveled to meet and speak with BNC members through the popular University on Wheels program. The Phoenix, San Fernando Valley, Conejo Valley and Los Angeles Chapters hosted talks by William Flesch, professor of English, and Daniel Breen, senior lecturer in legal studies.

A shot of an audience seated in rows, looking with interest at something