Profile of a Pair

Bob and Renee Drake; Prof. Yair Reisner and Prof. Reshef Tenne

People behind the science

Date: September 28, 2014
Weizmann Magazine Vol. 6
Bob and Renee Drake

Bob and Renee Drake

Excellent science is almost always backed by generous philanthropy - hence the title of this section, a Profile of a Pair, which describes a friendship between a scientist and a donor who has supported him or her.

This time, the story is about philanthropists Bob and Renee Drake and their support of two professorial chairs, held by incumbents Prof. Yair Reisner and Prof. Reshef Tenne.

The Drakes, who live in the Netherlands, are frequent visitors to campus, are deeply engaged in the Institute, and have donated generously to a wide variety of areas at the Weizmann Institute, including education, infrastructure, and research in addition to their two chairs. Bob, who is American and Dutch and is originally from New York, is Chairman of the European Committee of the Weizmann Institute of Science (ECWIS) and a vice chairman of the Institute’s Executive Board, and has helped direct numerous gifts from other supporters to the Institute. Renee was born and raised in South Africa. The couple has four children.


From Argentina to Rehovot

The family’s connection to the Weizmann Institute originated in Argentina. As a child, Bob’s mother, Erica, traveled with her parents from their home in Holland to Argentina by ship on vacation; the year was 1939. Two days into their return, World War II broke out and the British ship turned around, dropping off in Rio de Janeiro all non-British passengers, including his mother and her family, and sailed back to England. The incident surely saved their lives, says Bob, and his mother remained in Argentina for the following decade, before moving to New York. (The rest of the family remained in Buenos Aires.)

The family’s home in Holland was occupied by the Nazis, then rented out and finally sold in 1959. Years later, Bob and Renee purchased the home, where they live today.

During the 1950s, the family became friendly with a man named José Mirelman, an ardent Zionist who had emigrated before the war to Argentina from Switzerland and made aliya with his wife and children. He returned frequently to raise money for investments in Israel among Argentine Jews. José’s son, David Mirelman, became a student and then a professor at the Weizmann Institute - today he is Prof. Emeritus in the Department of Biological Chemistry - and over time, he became an informal fundraiser for the Institute on his periodic visits back to Argentina. Bob’s grandmother, Erna Mayer Wolf, and later his mother, were among those loyal Argentinian supporters, many of whom had never visited the Weizmann Institute.

The Drakes have supported Prof. Mirelman’s work generously through an endowment fund established in 1999. “My grandmother never saw the Weizmann Institute, but my mother finally said, ‘I want to see this place’ and so she did,” recalls Drake. When Bob’s father, Henry, was terminally ill and was hospitalized at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the family turned for advice to Prof. Reisner - who was at Sloan Kettering for a sabbatical at the time - and the scientist, a world leader in transplantation immunology and stem cells, spent time at his hospital bedside during Henry’s final days. Soon after, in 1989, Erica Drake, together with Bob and Renee, decided to support a professorial chair for Prof. Reisner named for her deceased husband, the Henry H. Drake Professorial Chair of Immunology, after Prof. Reisner was suggested to him by Prof. Mirelman. “Choosing Yair was a no-brainer,” recalls Bob. “His area of research was relevant to our family and we have become close friends with him and his family over the years.”

“We are always excited to hear about developments in Yair’s research, and his work on stem cells is so important and potentially relevant to so many areas of science. We feel strongly that he’s having a widespread impact on science,” says Renee.

Both Erica Drake and Bob received PhDs honoris causa from the Institute: Erica in 2000, and Bob in 2008. “Bob and Renee are very curious people and are eager to learn about developments in my work,” says Prof. Reisner. The families also share a passion for art - Renee and Bob’s daughter Carolyn Drake is a freelance contemporary art curator and Prof. Reisner’s son Adam is a well-known artist in Israel and the U.S. Bob and Renee are avid art collectors.


From stem cells to nanotubes


About 10 years ago, the Drakes met Prof. Tenne of the Department of Materials and Interfaces on an Institute-sponsored cruise to Greece and Turkey that brought together scientists and supporters. Erica, Bob and Renee hit it off with Prof. Tenne, an expert in nanomaterials. “Reshef made a speech on board and my mother and I glanced at each other and said, ‘Let’s talk.’” The family made a quick decision during the trip to sponsor a chair with him as the first incumbent, the Drake Family Professorial Chair in Nanotechnology. “I felt humbled and lucky because to me it was a sign that my research touches people - and that the Drakes understood that although my work is fundamental in its nature, it has so many applications,” says Prof. Tenne. Among other gifts to the Institute, the Drakes were instrumental in the establishment of the Ekard School of Biological Science at the Feinberg Graduate School in 2010. The intent was to help nourish the next generation of Israeli scientists, which meant a great deal to Renee in particular, who was a school teacher. The couple says they are drawn by the interdisciplinary nature of the Institute and what feels like a “small and very smart family” of scientists, many of whom they have come to know well over the years. Today, as Chairman of the European Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, Bob is helping nurture a new, young generation of friends throughout the continent by opening new committees and breathing new life into existing ones.

Beyond the Weizmann Institute, the Drakes are deeply engaged in a children’s theater project they established called Teatron HaBarvaz that encompasses four branches throughout Israel: in Sha’ar HaNegev, Beer Sheva, Shlomi, and East Jerusalem (the latter integrates Jewish and Arab children). The couple involves their children in their giving - and in their personal relationships with Profs. Reisner, Tenne, and Mirelman.


Prof. Yair Reisner is funded by Friends of Michael Baker, Canada Ș Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, Roberto and Renata Ruhman, Brazil. Prof. Reisner is the incumbent of the Henry H. Drake Professorial Chair of Immunology.

L to R: Prof. Yair Reisner and Bob Drake

L to R: Prof. Yair Reisner and Bob Drake