Transformational Giving

Rabbi Jack Bemporad and Angelica Berrie

In November 2004, Angelica Berrie, Chair of the CIU’s Board of Directors, was honored with the historic First Annual Philanthropy Award from Pave the Way Foundation, an organization committed to promoting peace by embracing the similarities common to the world’s religions.

Angelica Berrie has made gift giving a priority throughout her career. Berrie has led the gift industry as Vice Chairman of the Board of Director’s for RUSS Berrie and Company, where she championed a vision and life philosophy called “The Art of Giving.” She believes the act of giving brings people closer together and brings magic to the human spirit. “The experience of gift giving is as much about the way it connects us emotionally as the gift itself,” she says.

Berrie has exhibited her commitment to gift giving in both her professional and personal life. Berrie serves as Chair of the Board for Gilda’s Club Worldwide, the support group for men, women and children living with cancer. Her work with Gilda’s Club has provided family members and friends of cancer patients with financial and life-changing emotional and social support.

Berrie has also helped create The Berrie Center, the only comprehensive diabetes research and treatment center in the New York tri-state area. Her generous gift helps to fund Columbia University’s efforts to find a cure for diabetes and advance treatment in patients of all ages.

Berrie continues the art of giving through the Russ Berrie Award for Making A Difference, which provides cash grants to people who dedicate their lives to helping others and in honor of their examples of humanity and kindness. Last year the top award of $50,000 was presented to the families of three Camden County firefighters who died trying to save three children in a house fire.

As Chair of the Board at the CIU, Berrie is dedicated to the promotion of interreligious dialogue and understanding. In the following interview, Angelica shares her vision of philanthropy and the “Art of Giving”:

CIU: Who are your heroes? What inspired you to make philanthropy such an important part of your life?

Angelica Berrie: My late husband, Russ Berrie, shared his philanthropic dreams with me and exposed me to the emotionally rewarding experience of giving. He wanted the Russell Berrie Foundation, which I became President of after he died, to make a difference, to make his philanthropy count, to seed innovative ideas. He called the initiatives we embarked on philanthropic “investments.” Russ was a great humanist who cared about people. That’s what philanthropy is really about, a love for humanity.

CIU: What is the vision behind your philanthropy? What inspires the choice of the causes you support?

Angelica Berrie: The Russell Berrie Foundation is different because Russ Berriewas not like any other philanthropist. He brought his entrepreneurial spirit to everything we did in the Foundation, from his selection of people and causes, setting expectations for the organizations we support and partnering with them in a strategic and focused way. The Foundation is really an expression of Russ’ ideas and passions. It reflects his personal struggle with diabetes, his concern for Jewish continuity, his passion for selling and his appreciation for “everyday heroes,” people who do great things without any thought of reward. He created the Making a Difference Prize to recognize these “unsung heroes.”

CIU: Why is interfaith dialogue and understanding an important priority for you?

Angelica Berrie: Russ’ interest in a pluralistic world where people of all faiths could co-exist peacefully and be respectful of each other’s religious traditions was reflected in how we lived our own life. Russ was Jewish and I was raised Catholic. We celebrated Shabbat every week and participated actively in synagogue. Also, we supported a retirement home for nuns just because Russ developed a special friendship with the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We were fortunate enough to live in a very special community that is inclusive and welcoming. We managed to make a world that allowed us to be comfortable with each other’s religious traditions. Our own experience made us want to explore ways to build those bridges so our children could live in a world where different religious traditions share the same space, dialogue with each other and foster understanding. Rabbi Bemporad’s statement, “to be religious is to be inter-religious” resonated with us for personal and philosophical reasons.

CIU: How would you describe the art of giving? How can others – regardless of their financial means – make giving a part of their lives?

Angelica Berrie: Giving is not just writing a check. It is giving of your self, your ideas, your passion, your time and energy, your creativity. We give not only what we have but what we are. It is a relationship between those who have the means to touch people’s lives and the causes that inspire their generosity. It requires an emotional investment and yields deep psychic rewards. We are transformed by acts of lovingkindness. Everyday, we have opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life, whether with a kind word or a small act of kindness. Yet, how often do we move through life full of our own concerns and impervious to other people’s suffering, thereby losing that opportunity to add meaning and satisfaction to our lives?

CIU: What are your future philanthropic goals? What do you still hope to accomplish in the future?

Angelica Berrie: There are so many worthy causes out there and our Foundation is on the path of learning about transformational giving. Our founder, Russ Berrie, wanted to seed exciting ideas. It is our mission to find the ideas that express his interests and support those causes till they begin to flower and ultimately fulfill our highest expectations.

In the area of interreligious understanding, we have to keep the door between Catholics and Jews open. One of the great tasks of this century will be to find new ways to respect religious differences while forging peaceful bonds based on our common humanity. Our goal at the CIU is to bring people of all faiths together to promote candid dialogue, mutual respect and genuine interreligious understanding. Through advocacy and education initiatives, we are bringing religious leaders and lay people together to find common ground and common opportunities to make a difference.