Claire Winick grew up in what she describes as “a strong Jewish household.” Her maternal grandfather, Mayer Lurie, was a rabbi and cantor in a North Philadelphia synagogue. The family was kosher. They observed holidays with large gatherings.
Winick never questioned her religion, she said.
“It was just this feeling of Judaism throughout my life,” the Cheltenham resident added.
The girl carried those traditions forward when she became a woman with her own household. For her two children, daughter Eden and son Richard, there was synagogue membership, a kosher diet and extended family meals every Passover.
Winick remains a member at the Conservative Congregation Adath Jeshurun today. She’s been there for more than 50 years.
But for this committed Jewish woman, simply maintaining a Jewish household was not enough. For the last 38 years, Winick has devoted her time to strengthening Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
The school was introduced in 1969 to help build up the Negev region, a desert that comprises more than 60% of Israel’s territory. The Jewish state’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that the future of the country was in the region. Ben-Gurion University specializes in neuroscience, cybersecurity and other fields of study.
Americans for Ben-Gurion University is a U.S.-based nonprofit that raises money for the university. Winick has served as its Philadelphia-based director of development since 1985.
She estimates that she’s raised between $150 and $175 million for the school. She also helped start new Americans for Ben-Gurion University chapters in Washington, D.C., South Jersey and Atlantic County, New Jersey. Ben-Gurion University has increased its student body from about 5,000 students to more than 20,000 during her time as director of development.
Winick has been to Israel 18 times.
“I call myself a Negevist,” she said.
Winick has no plans to stop doing this work. She loves it. She also knows how to do it.
Her job is to get more people involved. One person is not just one person, according to Winick. He or she has family, friends and a wide circle. Winick is planning the organization’s annual fundraiser for Nov. 5 at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.
“The more people involved, the more funds you raise,” she said.
Winick also believes that the university helps build “a movement around a vision for 21st-century Zionism.”
“We’re pointing out what’s right about Israel,” she explained. “We’re focusing on institutions like BGU that are producing research not only for the betterment of Israel but for the world.”
It’s a grand mission. It’s also not one that Winick discovered overnight. She started her Jewish organizational work as a young mother. A neighbor introduced her to Women’s American ORT, the organization was created around the turn of the 19th century to help Jewish kids who faced discrimination in Russia.
It offered vocational training and built schools. Later, it started building schools in Israel after the Jewish state was founded.
Winick believed in this mission. And as she began to help the organization, she figured out what she was good at: starting new chapters. The Cheltenham resident planned fundraising events to help open 10 new chapters of Women’s American ORT.
“I felt like I was doing something for the Jewish community,” she said.
But she wanted to do more. She rose to the rank of president of the Philadelphia region. Then she became a member of the organization’s national board of directors. After a decade, Winick learned about an open position as director of the women’s division of Israel Bonds in Philadelphia. She worked there for seven years before joining American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the organization’s name at the time.
“I love this work. I’m really blessed with good health and high energy,” she said. “The people I work with in this community are so important to me and such amazing people that it adds such a dimension to my life.”
Winick’s daughter, Eden Aaronson, has followed her example. Aaronson works as the director of programs at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service chapter in Mercer County, New Jersey.
But perhaps more importantly, Aaronson and her brother, Richard Winick, maintained Jewish households and synagogue memberships with their families.
“It’s vital and it’s urgent that our young people feel Jewish and act Jewishly,” Winick said. “It’s urgent because of what we’re facing including the horrible antisemitism that’s all over.”
Winick’s three grandchildren are in their 20s and still “finding their way,” she said. The grandmother is worried about the world they’re growing up in.
“I think often about how they’ll find a partner and how they’ll live their lives,” she said. “Life is not easy for young people these days.”