Behind a Huge Jewish Studies Gift From a Mysterious "Greta Garbo Donor"

Many of the donors who have funded Jewish Studies programs at American universities read like a who's who of American philanthropists.

Ronald O. Perleman gave $4.7 million to establish Princeton's Ronald O. Perelman Institute for Jewish Studies. The Ruderman Family Foundation, named after Morton Ruderman, co-founder of the healthcare tech firm Meditech, funds the Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern University. And the Taube Family Foundation, the philanthropic vehicle of Giving Pledge signatory Ted Taube, established the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at his alma mater Stanford with a $2.5 million gift.

Well, we can now add to this list a woman who "lived a somewhat secluded life" and was most likely not a member of any local synagogues.

Her name is Goldye Marian Spain and she passed away in 2014.

Houston's Rice University recently announced it received a gift of more than $4.1 million from the estate of the late Samuel W. and Goldye Marian Spain to the university’s Program in Jewish Studies and the Shepherd School of Music. (Samuel was Goldye's husband.)

A majority of the funding—$3.6 million to be exact—will assist the Program in Jewish Studies' efforts to create a faculty chair and a postdoctoral fellow, and fund a wide range of outreach programs that will explore the entire field of Jewish studies.

As for the other portion of the grant, the Shepherd School will receive more than $500,000 to support teaching and production and to offer a hands-on experience in opera performance, including coaching in voice and stagecraft, as well as scholarships.

All of which brings us back to Ms. Spain.

Every now and then we here at IP like to ascribe psychographic profiles to certain kinds of donors or foundations. Why do we do it? Because it's fun.

Examples include the The Prodigal Philanthropist, which describes the successful businessman who moved away at a young age only to generously support his hometown in his later years. Then there's the Herman Melville of Arts Funding, which describes a foundation named after an artist that found success long after her death and subsequently supports unheralded artists.

And so we'd like to double back to Ms. Spain and audaciously lump her with a most intriguing donor profile: the Greta Garbo Donor. Much like Garbo, who retired from the screen at the age of 35, these type of donors shun the limelight. They unassumingly go about their business with minimal fanfare. No naming rights hullabaloo. No big ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Heck, not even a low-pressure sit-down with IP! 

In the case of Ms. Spain, she lived a "somewhat secluded life," said Matthias Henze of Rice's professor in Program in Jewish Studies. "She was Jewish, but to the best of my knowledge, she was not a member of any of the synagogues. My understanding is that she had a high regard for Rice University. I think the idea of educating Rice students in Judaism was very appealing to her."

Add it all up and the gift is by far the largest ever received by the Program in Jewish Studies."The gift is a complete game-changer," Henze said.