Where Judaism and Rockefellerism Join: Meet the Rockefeller-Growalds

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit www.jta.org.

NEW YORK, April 13 (JTA)–Wearing a plain navy suit and loafers, radiating a ruddy, unmade-up glow and enunciating each word with formality, she seems every bit a Rockefeller–with a twist.

“We do do Shabbat on Fridays,” Eileen Rockefeller Growald says. “We do do shehechianus after the first tomatoes of the season,” she adds, referring to the Jewish blessing over something new.

The daughter of David Rockefeller long has rejected the strictures of religion. But in her marriage to Paul Growald, she has “expanded to Judaism,” as she likes to say.

“I feel very blessed to have married Paul, and in a sense to have married into the richness of this culture,” she told several members of Jewish family foundations who gathered recently in Baltimore for the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network.

In one of their first public talks about their marriage, the couple imparted some of the intergenerational customs of America’s most philanthropic families. They also discussed how they teach the values of philanthropy and responsibility to their children.

In an interview with JTA, the couple also shared their thoughts on a marriage that blends two distinct backgrounds.

Growald, 57, and Rockefeller Growald, 53, met in 1980 through a mutual interest in environmental conservation, and they have drawn on respect for the environment in raising their two boys–one a high school junior and another a freshman at Princeton University.

In their Vermont home, where they grow their own vegetables, they once spent two weeks living as if it were the 1840s. After one son carved out the yoke of a log to carry butter, he found softer wood in the log’s center.

“I realize the deeper you go, the more heart you will find,” the son told his mother, who realized that the lesson in hard work had paid off.

In raising her children, Rockefeller Growald tried to soften her family’s saying, engraved in New York City’s Rockefeller Center: “Every opportunity an obligation, every right a responsibility, every passion a duty.”

Yet she passed on her family’s philosophy of dividing your income in equal thirds, saving one, spending one and giving one away.

The effort to fend off a sense of entitlement seems to have worked. Their college son once told them that he was the only one of his college friends who paid his own phone bill, his parents said.

The extended Rockefeller family, which numbers about 125 people, meets twice a year, and they have strategies for connecting the generations.

One such approach is intergenerational dialogue, when a family member may express him or herself without fear of judgement. Another ritual, called passages, allows one family member to introduce another who has experienced a significant event, like a birthday.

In their immediate family, the Growalds have drawn on Jewish rituals.

“I’ve really loved the ritual of Friday night Shabbat with our boys,” Growald Rockefeller says.

“We haven’t done havdalah as consistently,” she adds, but when they do, they borrow a tradition of Growald’s brother, dousing the candle in a dish of vodka and setting the liquor on fire.

The family turns off the lights to watch the flame “dance in the dark,” Rockefeller Growald says.

The family members then race to say “Bye bye Shabbat” first.

“It’s playful, and I like closure,” Rockefeller Growald says. “It puts a very nice sense of closure to the Sabbath.”

The couple believes faith has been critical for sustaining their marriage.

“Religion as a spiritual value in raising our children was a binding force in our marriage, and it continues to be,” Rockefeller Growald says.

The family belongs to Ohavi Zedek Synagogue, the oldest and largest shul in Vermont.

Its rabbi, Joshua Chasan, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, says the family has belonged to the shul for about 10 years. Growald is on the synagogue’s board.

“They’ve had two children in our religious school, and two wonderful Bar Mitzvahs,” Chasan says. “Both kids are real mensches.”

Growald’s background wasn’t like his wife’s: His parents escaped Germany in 1934 and eventually settled in Kalamazoo, Mich.

“I grew up in a place where there were very few Jews,” Growald says. One of the first questions he was commonly asked as a boy was which church he attended.

“I at times referred to the Jewish church,” he adds.

One part Rockefeller and one part Jew, the couple understands the feeling of being prejudged.

“We shared that value, that experience of being different,” Rockefeller Growald says.

Each family seemed to accept the couple.

Rockefeller Growald says she was raised believing that spirituality was found in nature. Her father cared only that her husband believed in God.

“My mother said, ‘You’ll never be a Jew,’ ” Rockefeller Growald says, which she took to mean that she would resist organized religion as her mother did.

The only concern for Growald’s parents was the idea that the Rockefeller influence would lead to spoiled grandchildren.

“That fear was allayed when they saw how we were bringing them up,” Growald says.

The couple continues the Rockefeller tradition of charity.

“Making a contribution to the world is ultimately the most satisfying way to live one’s life. It’s not making or spending money or gaining power,” Growald says.

Growald is on the board of the Rockefeller Family Fund, which doesn’t donate to religious causes.

Rockefeller Growald is the founding chair of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers, which advises philanthropies throughout the world.

Asked if her Jewish experience plays a role in her work, she says that she draws on the value of service, which “is common to both Judaism and Rockefellerism.”

Rachel Pomerance

Rachel Pomerance a JTA staff writer based in New York, covers international affairs, college campuses, the United Nations, Israel-Diaspora relations and intergroup relations. She has written for several publications including Reuters, the Atlanta Jewish Times, the Atlanta Business Chronicle and TIME magazine. She has also worked on political campaigns and as a grassroots organizer for a political lobby.