A Generation of Firsts

An alumna honors her parents’ past 
to improve students’ futures

By by Elicia Brown

Judith Schwartz is a small woman who wears a large smile and a long physician’s lab coat, as she digs out two water bottles from her office fridge while chatting, skillfully hitting upon common experiences. And no wonder: Schwartz is accustomed to making small talk with the patients who frequent her gynecological practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

During an hour-long interview to discuss the Barnard scholarship fund she created, Schwartz hesitates and looks uncomfortable. “How corny is this going to sound?” she asks, then laughs. “I feel like I’ve lived the American dream.”

In 1996, Schwartz and her husband, Michael Brizel, executive vice-president and general counsel at Saks Incorporated, decided that they wanted to provide Barnard students with the opportunity to fulfill that same dream. Schwartz, the first person in her family to attend college and a first-generation American, also wanted to honor her parents. And so, they launched the Elizabeth and Fred Schwartz Scholarship Fund. According to its criteria preference, the student recipients all hail from immigrant families and are first-generation Americans. 

“My mother, known in our family as bobbe, was born in Hungary in 1925, as was my father, poppe, in 1922,” Schwartz told an attentive audience of more than 200 alumnae, students, parents, and administrators on Feb. 28, when she gave the keynote donors speech for the annual Torchbearers event, which celebrates student support programs. “They grew up in small towns, with loving families and strong Jewish community lives, lives forever altered by World War II.” 

In her address, Schwartz spoke of how her parents arrived in the States with no assets and almost no surviving relatives after devastating losses in the Holocaust. Here, they rebuilt their lives, establishing themselves in Fairfield, Connecticut, home to many professionals, and commuted to New York City. 

Growing up, Schwartz often saw herself as an outsider. Her parents, older than those of her peers, and of another culture, didn’t understand why she wanted to wear bell-bottoms or her fascination with The Beatles. Her home had a European air, with lavish multi-course meals on Friday nights and red velvet wallpaper in the bathrooms. 

“How to navigate these new waters, and yet remain part of my parents’ community?” Schwartz asked the audience. “I remember reading fellow Barnard alum Jhumpa Lahiri’s book The Namesake years later and relating to the main character’s assimilation dilemmas, although mine were less obvious.”

At Barnard, Schwartz blossomed, gaining confidence, finding female role models and a sense of belonging. She enjoyed the support of faculty, even when she decided to attempt an unusual project: study the maternal behavior in male rats. “I can’t tell you how or why I came up with that idea to be perfectly blunt,” says Schwartz, laughing. 

The Elizabeth and Fred Schwartz Scholarship Fund has helped nine students make their way through college. The current recipient, Lianne Ramos ’14, is a Middle East studies major, who plans to pursue a diplomatic career. As the daughter of immigrants from the Philippines, Ramos says she feels a self-imposed pressure to tackle academic studies with rigor, knowing the sacrifices her parents made. 

Beyond the fund, Barnard continues to occupy a central place in Schwartz’s busy life, which includes two daughters, her gynecological practice, and teaching at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She mentors Barnard students interested in medicine, and for the past decade has served on the board of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. As a Barnard student, she says: “I got the feeling I could be anything.”

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