A Lady Named Pearl

By Michael Yoeli and Susan Etra | Issue Date: November 2011

“Manna from heaven—we received a very large gift from a lady named Pearl.” That announcement at a recent board meeting was how we learned for the first time that our good friend Pearl Meyer, who had died on Jan. 21, 2011 at the age of 78, had left a bequest of $800,000 to B’nai Jeshurun.

Pearl MeyerWe want to tell you a bit about Pearl, not only because of her extraordinary generosity to BJ, but also because she was an extra- ordinary woman, whose life deserves acknowledgment and celebration. On Friday evenings, after returning from synagogue and before sitting down to the Shabbat meal, we recite the hymn Eshet Hayil—a Woman of Valor. This beautiful poem describes a woman of valor as one who is energetic, righteous, and capable. Nothing less can be said of Pearl.

We first met Pearl 15 years ago when we purchased a house upstate. She made quite a first impression: a hefty, white-haired dynamo who could host a dinner, lead a community meeting, or beat you in a game of golf with equal panache and skill. She was smart, robust, and engaging, with a passion for food and travel, and the ability to cut someone down to size with a biting one-liner, which was delivered with a twinkle in the eye that said, Don’t worry, I still love you.

But she was also a modest person who rarely spoke of her accom- plishments, and only years later did we come to fully appreciate the other Pearl, the pioneer, the expert adviser, the philanthropist. Pearl was born in New York City and raised on 2nd Avenue. She was a cum laude graduate of NYU and completed several years of studies at Stern Graduate School of Business Administration, where she was the only woman enrolled. While there she fell in love with a fellow student, Ira Meyer, whom she always referred to as “the love of my life,” and they were inseparable for their 46 years of marriage until his passing in 2000. Pearl started her career modestly as a statistical specialist in the executive compensation department of a corporation. Over time she built an executive compensation consulting practice, pioneering a new field in the process. In 1989, she founded Pearl Meyer & Partners, which became one of the nation’s pre-eminent independent executive compensation consultancy firms.

In a corporate world dominated by men, Pearl stood out, often being the only woman in the boardroom. For more than 30 years, she served as a trusted adviser to the boards and senior management teams of hundreds of companies in almost every industry. Throughout, she strove to be a role model for women in business. As exemplified by her open-door policy, she accepted the responsibility of nurturing and mentoring other talented young women, and she was honored for this work by Legal Moment, Mercy College, and the United Jewish Appeal.

Pearl was incredibly generous but also very modest about her philanthropy. It was not an accident that during the months of illness prior to her passing, she never even hinted that she planned to give BJ a gift. Only after her death, when people stepped forward to speak about her, did we learn of the full breadth of her generosity and the scope of her involvement in charitable organizations for both Jewish and non-Jewish causes. Still, one has to marvel at her gift to BJ. She was not a member of our congregation for very long. It was only three years ago that she asked us to recommend a shul she could attend on the High Holy Days, and she came with us to BJ services only a few times for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yet she was clearly moved by the music and the spirit of the community. As was her way, she decided to get involved, attending a new members event, studying to become a Bat Torah, and even joining a havurah. Something about the experience clearly moved her. Only a short time before her death she achieved her goal of becoming a Bat Torah. She gathered her friends and family around her and slowly read in Hebrew from a Torah that had been brought to her home.

Eshet hayil mi yimtza
Verahok mi’pninim mikhra

A woman of valor, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.

Michael Yoeli, Susan Etra and their three children have been members of BJ for 16 years. Susan is a past member of the Board of Trustees, and Michael currently serves on the Board.