One of the leading Jewish philanthropists of the second half of the twentieth century, Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson left an indelible mark on a broad array of Jewish cultural, scholarly, and religious endeavors and institutions. She accomplished much of this work as president the Dorot Foundation, which she established in 1972.
Born Joy Gottesman in 1920, she was educated at New York University, where she received a B.A. in 1942 and an M.A. in Hebrew studies in 1971. She was married to Samuel Ungerleider, Jr., from 1945 until his death in 1972. In 1976, she married Philip Mayerson.
Ungerleider-Mayerson focused on projects and institutions dealing with Jewish education, Jewish museums, biblical archaeology, and Jewish pluralism. She was a curator of the Jewish Museum from 1967 to 1969. During that period she was responsible for bringing to the museum the Masada exhibition, which documented the excavations at that site. In 1972, she was appointed director of the museum and served in that position until 1980. At the time of her appointment, the museum was the subject of severe criticism for neglecting its Judaica collection and concentrating on contemporary and avant-garde art. It also faced serious financial difficulties, and many people felt its future was in doubt. Before Ungerleider-Mayerson’s appointment as director, in fact, the museum had been closed for a year. Ungerleider-Mayerson is widely credited with saving the museum from both its financial and curatorial problems. She convinced a series of prominent philanthropists to support and become involved in the museum’s activities and eventually recruited some of these people to serve as chairs of the museum’s board of directors.
Of equal, if not greater, significance was her role in reorienting the museum’s agenda by giving renewed attention to its Jewish mandate. Under her tutelage, the Jewish Museum began to mount exhibitions with specific Jewish content, both secular and religious. The art critic Arthur C. Danto noted in a Jewish Museum exhibition catalog that the museum’s decision at the time of Ungerleider-Mayerson’s ascendancy to the directorship to “retreat from the frontier of avant-garde culture was perceived by many ... as the willed destruction of a vital institution.” In retrospect, however, Danto observed, it should be considered as “precocious in terms of the cultural particularism that was destined to overtake American and world culture in the post modern era.” Under Ungerleider-Mayerson’s direction, the museum mounted a number of exceptionally important shows, chief among them Danzig: Treasures of a Destroyed Community. The Danzig materials and artifacts had been shipped to the museum in 1939 when the Danzig community was disbanded in the face of Nazi persecution. They had sat in the museum storehouse until, under Ungerleider-Mayerson’s direction, they were cataloged and the show mounted. The exhibit attracted massive crowds both in New York and in the other cities it visited.
Ungerleider-Mayerson wrote two books, Jewish Folk Art from the Biblical Period to Modern Times and, with Nitza Rosovsky, Museums of Israel. In addition to her impact on the world of Jewish museums, Ungerleider-Mayerson, working through the Dorot Foundation, left her mark on the field of Jewish studies in both the United States and Israel. In 1994, a Dorot professorship of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies was established at Emory University in Atlanta. In addition, the foundation set up a Dorot teaching professorship and fellowship program at New York University and a Dorot chief librarian and bibliographer of the Jewish Division at the New York Public Library. There is also an Ungerleider chair of Judaic studies and two professorships in related disciplines at Brown University.
Ungerleider-Mayerson expressed her love of Israel and its history through the Dorot Foundation’s active support of a series of archaeological projects both in Israel and abroad. The organization established a Dorot professor in residence at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and a professorship in the archaeology of the land of Israel at Harvard University. But Ungerleider-Mayerson not only endowed projects in biblical archaeology, she took a personal interest in the field. At the time of her death, she was the chair of the Albright Institute and had personally participated in a number of archaeological digs in Israel. In addition, the Dorot Foundation has long supported the excavations at Tel Migne-Ekron and the American School of Oriental Research.
Because of Ungerleider-Mayerson’s interest in folklore, the Dorot Foundation established the Museum of Bedouin Culture at Kibbutz Lahav. Among the foundation’s most innovative projects is its fellows program, established in 1990, which selects college graduates to spend a year in Israel, where they study Hebrew and attend seminars on a wide range of topics relating to Israeli culture, politics, and society. In addition, each fellow designs a part-time program of Jewish studies and a part-time internship in his or her own field of professional interest. For over a decade, the Dorot Foundation has also provided approximately ten American universities with travel grants, used to help between 180 and 230 students travel and study in Israel every year. As well, the foundation supports a series of Israel-based institutions that cater primarily to American students interested in studying Judaica in an Israeli setting. Among those institutions are Pardes, an institute for advanced textual study for men and women in Jerusalem; Livnot U’Lehibanot, a program for young men and women with limited backgrounds in Judaica; and Elul, an organization that engages in scholarly projects designed to enhance pluralism within the Jewish community. Beit Shmuel, named after Samuel Ungerleider, Jr., and built with funds provided by Ungerleider-Mayerson and other foundations attached to Hebrew Union College, is attached to the Jerusalem campus of the college. It is designed both to strengthen Reform Judaism in Israel and to expose and link secular Israelis to aspects of Jewish tradition. During the last years of her life, Ungerleider-Mayerson, who spent part of each year living in Israel, became a strong backer and active member of Kol HaNeshamah, an innovative, liberal congregation in Jerusalem. She was particularly gratified that the synagogue attracted a broad array of congregants, including both those with an intensive Jewish background and those with none.
She also contributed to a range of American-based Jewish institutions, among them the Conference on Learning and Leadership (CLAL). She was the primary supporter of CLAL’s program for enhancing Jewish pluralism and dialogue among various religious sectors of the Jewish community.
As the representative of the Gottesman family, Ungerleider-Mayerson played a critical role in the design and construction of the Shrine of the Book, the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. In so doing, she was continuing a role begun by her father, D. Samuel Gottesman (1885-1956), who provided the Israeli government with the funds to purchase the scrolls.
Ungerleider-Mayerson was a vice-chair of the Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East at Harvard University. She was also an active benefactor of a program that enabled Arabs and Israelis to study together at the university.
Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson died in 1994. One of the foremost Jewish philanthropists of the second half of the twentieth century, she was a model of the involved and active donor. In her work, she changed the face of Jewish learning, culture, and scholarship in both the United States and in Israel.
Jewish Folk Art from the Biblical Period to Modern Times (1986); Museums of Israel, with Nitza Rosovsky (1989).
How to cite this page
Lipstadt, Deborah. "Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ungerleider-mayerson-joy>.