Grateful alumna gives back to Brandeis
By Emily Evans
Inspired by Brandeis’ compassion when her mother died during her freshman year, Amy Levy Bergner ’86 has turned this tragedy into a powerful, pay-it-forward experience for current students: She started a scholarship for those who’ve lost their own parents.
Amy and her younger brother grew up in Long Island. Her parents, Arlene and Morty Levy, were “madly in love with each other,” she recalled in a phone interview from her home in New York.
Arlene passed away during her daughter’s first year at Brandeis. She had lived with leukemia for a decade, but never intended to tell her children; she wanted them to experience a childhood untouched by illness and fear.
“My mother was very wise, very kind, very generous and very loving. She cared passionately about our family,” said Amy. “She had the strength to put my brother and me first. It was more important to her that we lived healthy, normal lives rather than focus our time together on her illness.”
Arlene only told her daughter about the cancer during Amy’s Thanksgiving break from Brandeis in 1982. Amy spent the following six months traveling between Long Island, the hospital in New York City and campus. Although it was difficult for Amy to keep up with her classes, she did so because of her mother’s insistence that education was paramount.
Arlene passed away the day before Mother’s Day in 1983, during finals week of Amy’s freshman year. Amy did not complete her coursework or take most of her final exams.
Amy has always remembered how supportive the Brandeis community was when she returned to campus for her sophomore year, a memory that still moves her deeply today. Understandably, she struggled as she dealt with the loss of her mother.
“It took a very long time for me to find my way, but Brandeis was patient. At Brandeis, I was nurtured in a really special way. The University worked with me to make up everything I had missed.”
Even with the extensive support from faculty, staff and her friends, Amy’s grief was overpowering. She contemplated leaving Brandeis, which she associated with memories of her mother, and planned to transfer to Cornell for her junior year.
In the fall, before enrolling at Cornell, Amy and her father visited Brandeis to drop off her brother, Stuart, who was starting his freshman year. Before they left the Waltham campus, Amy’s father scheduled an appointment for her to meet with the president.
“I sat in President Evelyn Handler’s office and she convinced me to stay,” said Amy. “She told me, ‘Brandeis is your home. We can make it work for you.’ Even though I didn’t have a housing assignment or classes, the president was set on figuring things out for me.”
Although at the time she did not see the full significance of this meeting, Amy now acknowledges how impactful and profound that moment was.
“I found an unbelievable community when I was at Brandeis,” said Amy. “I made strong friendships that changed the course of my life.”
Amy met her husband, Jonathan, at the wedding of one of her closest college friends, Barbra Barth Feldman ’86, one month after graduation. Together, Amy and Jonathan have two children, Aliza and Max, who are named in memory of their maternal grandparents.
Amy continues to be grateful for the Brandeis community’s support; she and her husband created the Arlene E. and Morton T. Levy Scholarship to support deserving undergraduate students who have lost a parent.
“I know in a very visceral way how hard it is to grow up without a parent,” she said. “The idea that we could do something to make that burden any easier on a child – and on his or her remaining parent – was so meaningful to us. I remember having to go with my father to interview for different loans and grants to help pay for school. The stress on him of cobbling together the money needed for tuition, while trying to just get through each day after losing the love of his life, was very intense and difficult.”
Amy’s father passed away eight years after his wife. Establishing a scholarship in memory of both of her parents was a moving experience for Amy: “It was one of those moments when everything just clicked into place. It was just so right and such a fitting tribute to my parents. Very few things have ever felt more right.”
Giving back to her alma mater in a way that honors both of her parents offers Amy a sense of joy. “The idea that my story might encourage someone else to support Brandeis is very powerful and is in large part why we have agreed to share our experience,” Amy says.