Chris and Sara Ehrlich were non-practicing Jews when they came to California from the east coast in the early 2000s. When they sent their daughter, Charlotte, to a Catholic private school, she came home one day and told them that her friends were getting confirmed – and asked – could she get confirmed, too? They wanted her to know their roots, so they enrolled her in the Youth and Family Education program at Congregation Emanu-El. As Sara said, “Charlotte, it’s time that you learned who and what you are.”
It was fortuitous timing. Just weeks later her two year old brother, Campbell, passed away unexpectedly. The family found the temple to be an indispensable guide through that unspeakable trauma. “When our son died, we realized how fleeting life is,” says Chris. “It made us think of our legacy and how we wanted to make an impact.” It was a difficult way to find religion, but since then, the Ehrlichs have recommitted to Judaism and built strong ties to our congregation.
Chris grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, where his family essentially hid the fact they were Jewish, celebrating Christmas and Easter in lieu of the High Holidays. His father, a pediatric orthopedist, helped young kids walk. Chris remembers people approaching his dad when they went out to dinner, thanking him for helping their children. “I was impressed. And my dad told me: don’t go into medicine! It’s a terrible lifestyle tradeoff!”
Despite the warnings, Chris became a biotech strategy consultant, helping firms in Boston develop their business. The end users of the drugs they produced were doctors – some of whom were friends of his father – and Chris felt comfortable gathering feedback from them to improve his clients’ products. He was a successful consultant, but the biotech industry primarily exists on the east and west coast, and over time, Chris grew tired of the cold in Boston. He found himself dreaming of a new life in California. He put some feelers out and, on Memorial Day of 2000, got an interview for a dream job at Interwest, a venture capital firm. “I had a great life on the east coast, but I never looked back.”
Over a 30 year career in biotech, Chris and Sara got more and more involved in philanthropy. Passionate about oncology, they continue to support efforts that impose a business discipline around academic research to ensure life-saving products have a chance of reaching the market. Chris remarks that one of his proudest moments as an investor was helping bring a drug to market that his father, who had cancer, was able to take to extend his life span. They also give to the Rivers School in Weston, MA, to support internships for kids who want to explore summer jobs in biotech. Furthermore, they contribute to the cancer accelerator at Dartmouth college and the Healthcare program at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, both of which Chris and Sara attended.
“I think it’s really cool to see a gift actually help people,” Chris says. “To see students develop an interest in biotech and want to go off and contribute. To see a cancer drug reach the market and impact lives. And, in Emanu-El’s case, to build our community so it’s there in perpetuity.”
The Ehrlich family see their gift to Emanu-El as a lifelong investment. “You’re at your synagogue forever,” Chris says. As an institution that celebrates birth, observes death, and gathers people together constantly, he sees no other institution with as much longevity as his temple. “Make an investment at 30, and you’ll be around to see it when you’re 70.”
They see their gift to Emanu-El Next as just one piece among the many “co-owners” of the synagogue. “This is like an equity investment. We like the experiences we have and it makes us feel great, and we get to be part of it. Contributing to make the institution what it deserves to be is a privilege.”
Of note, Sara and Chris are grateful to Rabbi Ryan Bauer for recruiting the family to go on a trip to Israel years ago, where they had a cathartic, life changing time and made friends with whom they still keep in touch and, in fact, travel internationally every year. They also appreciates the effort Emanu-El, particularly Julie Weinberg, have made to host events in support of Emanu-El Next. They thank our congregation for bringing the family back to Judaism. Says Chris, “Emanu-El got me through losing my son, my mother and my father. I’m eternally grateful. They make me and my family proud to be Jewish.”
Perhaps even more interesting, their kids have embraced Judaism in a way they would never have dreamed. When their son, Harrison, came back from Maccabi Camp, he told the family he wanted to wear a necklace with the Jewish star to represent his religion proudly. When his daughter, Charlotte, was bat-mitzvahed at our temple, she wanted to come back to teach in the YFE program, where she found a community of teachers, kids and their families. “As someone who went to a Catholic school where I felt like an outsider, Emanu-El was the first place I would call home,” Charlotte says. “I love it. I know some people say they don’t want to go to church, but I’m always excited to go to temple for the high holidays.”
“Emanu-El Next will make our synagogue even more interesting and relevant to people today,” Chris says. “But it’s not just about making a nice place that people want to go to. When people get in the door, it gives them the opportunity to discover the substantive meaning of Judaism on their own.”
(From left to right): Sara, Charlotte, Chris and Harrison Ehrlich.
To participate, please contact Julie Weinberg, Director of Development, at: [email protected] or 415 750 7557.
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This article appeared in an October edition of The Emanu-El Chronicle.