On Sept. 22, 1951, Carolina junior Saralyn Bonowitz attended a dinner party at the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house after the first football game of the season. That day, Carolina beat N.C. State — and Saralyn met ZBT brother Gene Oberdorfer, who shared her class year and Southern Jewish heritage. The rest, as they say, was history.
In 2012, as Gene and Saralyn Oberdorfer celebrated 59 years of marriage, they committed to contribute a planned gift to the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies. This gift will provide a versatile source of funding for the growing program and give Carolina students opportunities unavailable to the Oberdorfers in the 1950s. (See related story.)
Jonathan Hess, director of the Center, says this fund will provide crucial support to Jewish studies at Carolina.
“The Oberdorfers’ generous planned gift will have a major impact on Carolina students for generations to come,” said Hess, the Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture. “As an unrestricted gift to Jewish studies, the Oberdorfer endowment will give us tremendous flexibility in addressing the Center’s most pressing needs on a year-to-year basis — whether this means funding student research and travel, enabling faculty to develop new courses or supporting graduate students working in the field of Jewish studies.”
Gene was also inspired by his parents’ commitment to Jewish causes. During World War II, the family hosted meals in their Atlanta home for many Jewish soldiers. His father Donald, a Jewish community leader in Atlanta, traveled the U.S. after the war raising money as chairman of the Joint Defense Appeal for the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. His mother Dorothy was president of the Southeast Region for National Council of Jewish Women and was active in the American Red Cross.
Gene and Saralyn were motivated to give not only by the examples of their friends and family but also by their unique experiences as out-of-state Jewish students at Carolina. Gene, born and raised in Atlanta, chose Carolina in 1949 for its location in the South and business school faculty and curriculum. Saralyn, originally from California, transferred to Carolina in 1951 after two years at Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., for the outstanding programs and faculty in the English department.
Little to no community existed for Jewish women. “Since UNC enrolled most female students in their junior year, with the exception of a few majors, there were not very many girls on campus and very few were Jewish,” Saralyn said. “I was something of a rarity.”
However, Gene and Saralyn took advantage of the opportunities available. Both served on the cabinet of the Hillel Society, the Jewish student activity center, and Saralyn became its president during their senior year. Though there was no academic program for Jewish studies, Gene and Saralyn took an Old Testament course with Bernard Boyd, first professor and chair of the brand-new department of religious studies.
In 1953, Gene graduated with a major in business administration and a concentration in insurance, and Saralyn with a major in English and minor in education. Then, as Gene said, “[Saralyn] did a good thing for me: we got married.”
Gene enjoyed a long career at his family’s firm, Oberdorfer Insurance Agency in Atlanta, and eventually became its owner and CEO. Saralyn worked as an elementary school teacher and professional model. Both have served on the boards of multiple civic organizations in Georgia and at Carolina. They also raised three children, Michael, Julie and Robin (business administration ’81).
Now, looking back on long careers of service and giving to education and the Jewish community, the Oberdorfers consider this gift to be a fitting continuation of their legacy.
“This is a way for non-Jewish people to gain knowledge in Jewish studies,” Gene said. “I think it’s a great thing, because years ago there wasn’t this kind of program. We hope we’ll get a chance to continue with Jewish studies and see that program grow.”
[Story by Brittany Darst ’14]