Brandeis Alumni, Family and Friends
A Circle of Friendship
Members of the Class of 1986 recently came together to honor friend and classmate Barbra Barth Feldman ’86, a unifying force in their lives.
Debbi (Winograd) Shedlin ’86 and Barbra Barth Feldman ’86 met on their first day as students at Brandeis in 1982. They both lived in Ridgewood – then labeled the worst residence hall because it was “furthest from everyone and everything.” This less-than-stellar housing assignment contributed to their immediate bond.
With a magnetic Barbra at the center, the friend group expanded quickly. Girls piled into Barbra’s car with the burgundy leather interior for adventures into Boston. She functioned as the mom of the group, says Debbi, a great connector and organizer, who was always “a little more mature than the rest of us.”
“Barbra brought everyone together,” adds Amy (Levy) Bergner, who met her husband, Jonathan, through Barbra (they were childhood friends).
When Amy’s mother died at the end of her first year at Brandeis, Barbra was there, “oozing compassion,” she says. “At that point in my life, I cherished her care. She was the hub and we were the spokes.”
For 35 years, Barbra was that person for so many people. “Through illness, divorce, family troubles, you name it, she possessed an extraordinary level of compassion and generosity,” says Amy.
A tribute that conveys warmth and light
On a Zoom call a week before an on-campus gathering space was to be dedicated in Barbra’s memory, Amy and Debbi, who have served as the co-chairs for the effort, alternate between laughs and tears, remembering their friend who died in 2019, less than six weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
“It was lightning-fast and scary and devastating,” recalls Amy, “and we were lost on what to do because there’s nothing to do.”
Then their classmate Stephen Weiss ’86 came up with an idea to build a firepit at Brandeis in her memory – a warm place that brings people together – and made the first contribution to make it happen.
While a fire pit was not feasible, the ultimate design turned out better than the friends could have hoped, and they agree it’s been healing to have something tangible to do in the wake of their loss.
Completed earlier this fall, the outdoor space features a circular cement stone, surrounded by curved benches that create an open yet intimate atmosphere for gathering. The centerpiece has no sharp edges – “we wanted the space to feel welcoming like her” – and has elements of blue in it – “Brandeis blue, yes, but also the color of the ocean, which Barbra loved” and “Evan Hansen Blue,” a nod to Barbra’s son Andrew, who starred in the titular role on Broadway. At night, Barbra’s name is illuminated in glowing lights. The electrician who installed the lighting in the stone, so inspired by the story of friendship, donated his services to the project.
“There are a lot of people who feel as passionately about Barbra as we do. What’s been the tribute is that everyone came together with so much love to create something that’s worthy of bearing her name,” says Amy.
“Barbra’s thoughtfulness and generosity are echoed in the gifts of time and money, and the attention to detail that so many people gave,” adds Danielle Klainberg ’86.
Honoring relationships — old and new
Nearly 100 friends and family members raised close to $200,000 to build the Barbra Barth Feldman ’86 Circle, located ironically, meaningfully, in the center of Ridgewood quad – the place where Barbra met some of her first and closest Brandeis friends.
Many of them returned to campus October 7 for a special event to dedicate the space.
“Words cannot describe how moved I was to see the Barbra Barth Feldman Circle, which truly epitomizes the core essence of Barbra’s warm, vibrant, and welcoming nature.” — Francine (Zarrett) Sloan ’86
At the dedication event, Corey Notis ’84, P’12, who was Barbra’s RA in Ridgewood during her first year at Brandeis, offered poignant remarks about their lifelong friendship – his anecdotes were equal parts somber, silly, and sweet – and his wife, Bonnie, added levity, reciting Barbra’s signature catchphrases from the audience. Barbra’s former sociology professor, Gordie Fellman, also spoke at the dedication, aptly quoting the famous French sociologist Emile Dirkheim in his remarks: “‘When someone dies, the group to which he belongs feels itself lessened and, to react against this loss, it assembles. Collective sentiments are renewed which then lead men to seek one another and to assemble together.’ So here we are, assembled together to acknowledge our loss. And to remember Barbra who enriched so many of our lives.” (Fellman died October 19, at the age of 88, less than two weeks after offering his remarks.)
In addition to being an extraordinary “best friend” to many, Barbra was a devoted mother to her son Andrew and daughter Samantha, as well as a beloved daughter, sister, and aunt. Andrew, who could not attend the event in person, recorded a special video message to his “Brandeis aunts and uncles”: “Something that [my mom] was better at than anyone in the world was bringing people together... And she very specifically loved doing that with her friends that she met here at Brandeis, the people that I grew up knowing as my aunts and uncles. They are family to me, and that all started here. And so the fact that there’s a whole space made to bring people together here at Brandeis, in her name here, I can’t think of a more fitting tribute.”
After the speaking portion concluded, attendees gathered in a circle, linked arms, and swayed in unison to James Taylor’s “You Got a Friend.” It was a fitting end to a beautiful and emotional event. Many members from the Class of 1986 stayed on campus through the weekend to celebrate their 35th Reunion.
“Like Barb did, the space welcomes and invites everyone to enjoy time together,” says Danielle.
“I am forever grateful to the committee and every person involved with this project, who has helped to honor our dear friend, and transform our vision into reality,” says Francine.
“The space is a great tribute to Barbra, to Brandeis, and to our friendships – the lifelong friendships that Brandeis helped us to create,” says Debbi. “We want it to feel like a fun, happy place to hang out, to meet up with friends, to help foster relationships like the ones that were so meaningful to us. We want to give back that feeling for generations to come.” Attendees at the event were delighted to hear that students have already begun using the space for just that.
“Thank you for letting us have the opportunity to fittingly honor Barbra and her memory in a way that’s substantial and long-lasting and filled with all the love and care that she gave everyone else,” adds Debbi.
About the Author
Alexandra Stephens is the assistant vice president of advancement communications at Brandeis University. Since joining the Brandeis community in 2010, she has held numerous roles across student affairs, alumni engagement and communications, and has connected with hundreds of alumni and friends to help share their inspiring stories. Outside of work, she is a LinkedIn coach, yogi, home chef and mom of two.