Barbara A. Mandel, volunteer, philanthropist, social justice advocate and wife of 70 years to businessman and philanthropist Morton L. Mandel, died at her Palm Beach. Fla., home on Nov. 21, 2019. She was 93.
Described as a “force of nature,” she worked tirelessly and effectively for causes that interested her.
She made her last trip to Israel in October to attend her husband’s memorial service in Jerusalem and to attend a board meeting at Hebrew University. She returned from Israel on Nov. 12, greatly weakened. Her son, Thom Mandel, said she traveled against doctor’s orders.
Mort Mandel died Oct. 16 at their home in Palm Beach.
Born in Cleveland, Dec. 13, 1925, she graduated from Shaker Heights High School and was confirmed at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Cleveland. Her father died when she was very young and her mother, Lilian, remarried Leonard Abrams, who adopted Barbara.
She met her husband-to-be on a blind date set up by a friend, although Thom Mandel said his father told him, “He knew who she was but had never met her.”
The two married at Wade Park Manor on Feb. 27, 1949. They raised their family first in Cleveland Heights, relocated to Palm Beach, then returned to Shaker Heights, when their oldest daughter, Amy, was ready to go to high school.
“She was a force of nature,” Thom Mandel said. “She had this thing going on inside her that no matter what she did, she had to be the best.”
He said his maternal grandmother told him that when his mother was in second grade, “The teacher wasn’t in the room. The place was chaos. My mom took control and had everybody in their seats and quiet by the time somebody got there to look after the room. This would have been, I don’t know, 1930, 1932.”
Barbara Mandel attended Radcliffe College of Harvard University and Flora Stone Mather College of Case Western University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree. In addition, she received honorary degrees from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
She served as vice chair of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, and in Cleveland, served as president of the Cleveland section of the National Council of Jewish Women and chair of leadership development for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland. She was later elected president of the National Council of Jewish Women.
Her commitment to education was demonstrated by her service as trustee, executive committee member and the co-chairman of a major fundraising campaign at Brandeis University.
The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation and Barbara Mandel made a $22.5 million gift to Brandeis in 2007 to build the Mandel Center for Humanities.
“Barbara Mandel was a remarkable woman – a dedicated philanthropist and humanist, who gave of her time and resources to improve the lives of others,” Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz said in a statement. “We were most fortunate to have her as a fully engaged and long-term trustee. All members of the Brandeis community benefited enormously from her wisdom and experience gained over a lifetime of volunteer work with Jewish, Israeli and educational nonprofit organizations. She will be greatly missed.”
At NCJW, she presided over 200 sections with a membership of 100,000. She procured grants to support the NCJW advocacy and community service programs, testifying before the U.S. Congress on issues concerning women, particularly on fair practices for women in the insurance industry; and conferring with then-President Ronald Reagan and his administration on issues relating to Israel, the Middle East and Soviet Jewry.
“In the midst of all of our current troubles, it helps to know that we have overcome dangers in our past as serious as any we face today,” she once remarked at a national convention, according to the release. “We are an optimistic people, a people capable of tapping unknown sources of energy and commitment to meet new dangers that may appear. If we see further today, and can do more today, it is because we stand on the shoulders of the giants of our history. They remind us of the greatness of our past, and they give us new strength to meet our future. In the face of all the challenges around us, the greatest sin is our inaction. We have the strength to meet our task and we have proven repeatedly that we have the will…”
Peggy Wasserstrom, who like Barbara Mandel, served as president of the Cleveland section of NCJW, remembered learning from her.
“Barbara, through Mort, taught us all how to administer and how to run a community service organization,” Wasserstrom said. “Anything I learned about administration or running a community service organization, I learned from Barbara. And she ran a tight ship and she made us very professional.”
Wasserstrom also spoke of Mandel’s dedication to the cause.
“She had severe back problems. And some of our meetings took place in her bedroom while she was in bed flat on her back. It was all very businesslike, but … she was a very fine teacher,” Wasserstrom said.
“She was an embodiment of NCJW values and a staunch supporter of leadership development in the Cleveland section,” said Elaine Geller, NCJW/Cleveland president. “Barbara was a light in the Cleveland community. She will leave an incredible mark in so many lives and her legacy will continue through many organizations – including our own – doing transformative work because of her vision, support and generosity.”
Her commitment to the arts was exemplified by her many years of service and then as chair of the board of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
Caroline Baumann, director of the museum, which received $10 million from the Morton and Barbara Mandel Family Foundation in 2014, recalled a moment that showed Barbara Mandel’s character.
“Cooper Hewitt was really part of her DNA,” Baumann said of Mandel, who served on its board. “One of the events during the renovation announcing our progress, we had a very feisty audience and she took off her shoe and beat the podium to get people’s attention. For me, that is 100% Barbara. You know, focused attention and really getting people to rally to meet the needs at a particular moment with emotion and conviction.”
Barbara Mandel was an avid knitter. When she learned her favorite knit shop in New York City was going out of business, she bought the store, changed the name to Stitches and moved the operation to Midtown Manhattan. It was through her interest in design and her connection to the late Harvey Krueger, who served on Cooper Hewitt’s board, that she began her affiliation with the museum.
Thom Mandel said she knit the pieces for the window display in the approximately 15 years that she owned the store, which was at Lexington Avenue and 58th Street or 59th Street, around the corner from his parent's New York apartment.
“It was great,” he said. “She wasn’t offering the sweaters to us anymore, and she found a professional way to pursue her hobby.”
Abroad, she served as honorary chairman of Hebrew University, as deputy chairman of the executive committee, and as co-chairman of its international fundraising campaign. She also served as the president of the American Friends of Hebrew University.
Civic and philanthropic activities were an important aspect of her life. She helped fund several substantial foundations for charitable purposes, including the Morton and Barbara Mandel Family Foundation and Morton and Barbara Mandel Supporting Foundation. The focus of her philanthropy included leadership education programs, higher education, human services and the arts.
During her lifetime, she received the annual Hannah G. Solomon Award from the National Council of Jewish Women and was elected to Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame. She was also a life trustee of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.
“Barbara remained an active and respected volunteer well into her 90s,” said Jehuda Reinharz, president and CEO of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation and president emeritus of Brandeis University. “Her insights and wisdom continue to inspire a new generation of volunteers and leaders. Her wisdom is just one of her myriad legacies.”
“Barbara Mandel was a compassionate, dedicated individual who believed in the vitality of cultural arts and the importance of the state of Israel to the Jewish community,” said Michael Hoffman, president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, in a statement. “She loved and cared deeply about the prosperity of the Palm Beaches and boldly led with her philanthropy. She and Mort, her husband of 70 years who passed away just weeks ago, changed the course of our local and global communities and ensured a bright future for generations to come.”
She is survived by her daughters, Amy Mandel and Stacy (Keith) Palagye, and her son Thomas (Lisa) Mandel; her grandchildren, Alicia Mandel, Daniela Mandel, Wilson Petricig, Jack Petricig, Daniel Mandel, Sherilyn (Phil) Ciccarelli, Lilian Rose Palagye, Olivia Lyn Palagye; and her great-granddaughters, Amora Mandel Carson and Chloe Ciccarelli.
Burial was private. A memorial service will be held at a date and time to be announced.