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BBI’s Linda Gross sees big upside in merger with UJ

March 22, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Brandeis Bardin Board Chairperson Linda Gross, left, led negotiations with the University of Judaism. Here she stands with UJ President Bob Wexler and BBI Executive Director Gary Brennglass at an event honoring Peter Lowy. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

Brandeis Bardin Board Chairperson Linda Gross, left, led negotiations with the University of Judaism. Here she stands with UJ President Bob Wexler and BBI Executive Director Gary Brennglass at an event honoring Peter Lowy. Photo by Peter Halmagyi

When Linda Volpert Gross took on chairing the board at Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), it seemed that she would have a simple tenure. The institute had just hired Rabbi Isaac Jeret as president, someone they hoped could lead BBI into a bright new future.

But ten months into his tenure, Jeret left, and the institute found itself -- after multiple changes at the helm -- once again searching for vision and direction.

In the end, Gross says, she believes it was the leadership vacuum that allowed Brandeis to merge with the University of Judaism and create the American Jewish University, with the BBI campus in Simi Valley and the Familian campus at the top of Mulholland.

It is a decision she is confident will guarantee the longevity of Brandeis' core mission and values.

Gross, 43, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Her family attended synagogue at Valley Beth Shalom (where she's still a member), she spent afternoons at Los Angeles Hebrew High School and summers at Camp Ramah. She admits that it was probably the fact that she was a latecomer to BBI -- that it wasn't her emotional home -- that allowed her to have the distance necessary to oversee the relinquishing of its independence.

She is a keen business person. Gross earned an MBA from Harvard and worked at the McKinsey and Company management consulting firm before she became marketing director at Citysearch.com. After she had kids, she started working part time, and in 1997 became a full-time mom. Her husband, Larry Gross, was president of Knowledge Adventure software, and he recently started an alternative fuel and ethanol firm. They live with their three children -- ages 9, 12 and 14 -- in the verdant hills of Encino in a spacious and warm home.

The daughter of community activists Dick and Marcia Volpert, Linda had never been on a board before when, in the mid 1990s, a friend asked her to consider getting involved in Brandeis. After one visit to the campus, she was in.

As chairman, Gross has shrunk the board from 72 to 25 people, creating a separate board of trustees for longtime supporters. She launched a strategic assessment that set the foundation for the merger and led to other improvements in the programming.

Veteran Brandeis supporter Dick Gunther says Gross' navigation of the merger process has been courageous, honest and thorough, blending her business sense with the needs of a nonprofit. Even the small handful of board members who were ambivalent about the merger agree that Gross has been an able leader.

Gross will be on the executive committee of the board of the American Jewish University, and while she is eager to get back to her family life and away from sleepless nights and hours on the phone spent bringing the merger to fruition, she is also ready to stick to her commitment and set an example for her family.

"My children learned that when you say yes you hang in there until it's done, and you do the best you can and sometimes it's not easy," she said. "I don't think it's a bad lesson for my children to learn. They are being raised in a loving, wonderful home in the lap of luxury with everything good in the world, and if this is a little tough on them, in the big picture that's okay."

Then she adds with a shrug and smile, "In the small picture, it means I have a meeting this afternoon to talk about communications, and I am missing my son's basketball playoffs."

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