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The joy of exploring, the art of giving

Philanthropic leaders Bob and Renée Drake reflect on a decades-long friendship with the Institute, and deep connections with Weizmann scientists

People behind the science

Date: May 8, 2022
Renée and Bob Drake

Renée and Bob Drake

Bob and Renée Drake’s devotion to science is matched only by their passion for art. But there’s no competition here. In fact, their dual passions share important common threads.

The Drakes, who live in Wassenaar, the Netherlands—outside of Amsterdam and not far from The Hague—are collectors of contemporary art, but with a special twist. Investing some 40 hours a week on identifying an eclectic collection of contemporary art, the Drakes look for the artists behind the creations. Once they have bought a piece, they like to follow the artist, and sometimes display several works in chronological order. Their collection can be viewed in their private space in the back garden of their home, and they regularly lend works to exhibitions around the world. The trajectory of artistic growth and development is equally exciting to them, they say, as the pieces themselves. So are the bonds they create with the artists.

Artwork on the Drake property in the Netherlands

“We love contemporary art not only because of how it looks when it meets the eye, but in many cases the beauty and meaning is only truly understandable once we engage in conversation with the artist, and then often it’s an epiphany,” says Bob Drake. “Science is very similar. It requires digging for the truth, and both in the scientist’s own research and in our conversations with Weizmann scientists over time, the brilliance and insight becomes evident.”

Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Renée infused art into their lives—a passion passed down to her from her mother, who took her on whirlwind trips to museums at every opportunity they had to travel to Europe during the apartheid era. It was Bob who brought the Weizmann Institute into their shared world, after the first seeds of the relationship with the Institute were laid by his grandmother and mother decades before.

Together, Bob and Renée champion both endeavors, centered around a mutual passion for exploring mystery, revealing new truths, and building lifelong relationships with “some of the most creative people on Earth,” says Renée.

Immeasurable impact

The Drakes are parents to four children residing in four countries, and longtime philanthropists whose connection with the Institute is punctuated by a series of deep and lasting relationships with scientists they have supported and come to know throughout the years. And their involvement has not gone unnoticed. Erica Drake, Bob’s late mother, received an honorary doctorate from the Institute in 2000. Today, Bob is a Life Member and the Vice Chair of the International Board, and Chairman of the European Committee of the Weizmann Institute of Science (ECWIS). He was awarded a PhD honoris causa in 2008. Renée will receive an honorary doctorate in 2023.

“Bob and Renée’s contribution to the Weizmann Institute is unique: They give, they lead, they invest their time and their minds and their resources in helping make this institution as great as it can possibly be,” says Weizmann Institute President Prof. Alon Chen. “Their impact is immeasurable.”

Bob is also chairing the 2022 Global Gathering of the Weizmann Institute in Switzerland in May, which will celebrate Weizmann science and lay out the Institute’s vision for the future. The four-day event—twice delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic—will also highlight the historic role of European friends in advancing Weizmann science, and in particular the dramatic expansion of the European Committee network in recent years. The latter is, in no small part, a reflection of the Drakes’ dedicated leader­ship, including in directing philanthropic gifts from European friends to the Institute across many areas of science.

“I always talk about being bitten by the Weizmann bug,” says Bob. “I’ve tried to get as many people as I can infected with the same excitement. Once you’re bitten, it’s with you for life—and it’s a wonderful thing.”

A bond across time and borders

In 1939, a young Erica (long before she was a Drake) traveled with her parents from their home in the Netherlands to South America on a vacation cruise. Two days into their return voyage, World War II broke out and their British ship turned around, forcing all non-British passengers to disembark in Rio de Janeiro, before it sailed back to England.

The turn of events saved their lives, but the family found itself in a new country, having to start over completely. They soon learned that the Nazis had taken over their house in Wassenaar and used it as a local headquarters throughout the war. Focused on the future, the family expanded their grain production and distribution business (which they had begun in the Netherlands), a profitable enterprise with worldwide reach.

They made their way to Buenos Aires, and in the tight-knit Jewish circle of the Argentinian capital, Erica, her brother, and her parents befriended another Jewish family, the Mirelmans, who had brought their successful textile business over from Switzerland years earlier. The Mirelmans helped numerous Jewish refugees from Europe integrate into Argentina and rebuild their lives and livelihoods, Erica’s family among them. The head of the clan, José Mirelman, was an avid Zionist who spent the years leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel purchasing and shipping arms for the Irgun, the Zionist paramilitary organization that operated in British Mandate Palestine.

In 1949, José moved with his wife and four children to Israel, and continued to keep in touch with Erica, who eventually married Henry Drake and settled in New York, where Bob was born and raised. Years later,  José’s son David became a professor at the Weizmann Institute.

“My father would travel back to Argentina frequently, to raise funds among Argentinian Jews for various causes in Israel,” recalls Prof. David Mirelman, now a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biomolecular Sciences. “Once I became a student and then a scientist at Weizmann, my father became an unofficial ambassador for the Institute in Argentina.”

Bob’s grandmother, Erna Mayer Wolf, and later his mother, Erica, were among those first loyal Argentinian supporters the elder Mirelman recruited; many of them gave generously and anonymously without ever having stepped foot on the Weizmann campus.

When Henry Drake became terminally ill with cancer in the 1980s, he was hospitalized at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Among the physicians and researchers who assisted with his case was a young Yair Reisner, who had received his PhD from Weizmann and was then doing postdoctoral research at Sloan Kettering. Reisner was beginning what would become a world-class career in bone marrow transplantation immunology; his studies paved the way for bone marrow transplantation without a matched donor—a breakthrough that has saved countless lives.

By the late 1980s, at Prof. Mirelman’s encouragement, Erica made her first trip to Israel, and to the Weizmann campus, where she met Institute Professor Haim Harari, who was then President. She made her first major gift soon after, in 1989, in the form of an endowment created jointly with Bob and Renée, and named for Bob’s late father: the Henry H. Drake Professorial Chair of Immunology. Again, the Mirelman influence came into play: David recommended Prof. Reisner, then a full professor in the Department of Immunology, as the first incumbent.

The Drake and Reisner families then began a decades-long friendship that lasts to this day. Prof. Reisner is now Professor Emeritus at Weizmann and is leading a lab at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

“The Drake family is not only special in their remarkable generosity, but also in their unique modesty—reluctant to mention their numerous contributions to Israel in general and to the Weizmann Institute in particular,” says Prof. Reisner. “A good example was their donation for a new auditorium serving the Davidson Institute. They declined to use their name, and after extensive discussion they agreed to use the Hebrew translation of their name: Habarvaz, which means ‘duck’ and always generates curiosity and a laugh—perfect for the young students who come through the Davidson Institute. On a personal note, my wife Eilat and I are gratified that the interaction of the Drake family with our entire family reaches beyond their support of my research. They are wonderful people and our numerous meetings in Israel and abroad, for more than two decades, have continuously enriched our personal life.”

Poetic justice

Erica Drake lived out her life in New York, and like most European Jewish refugees, never considered returning to her childhood home. But unlike most, she and her relatives created and maintained a connection with the family who subsequently bought and lived in their house after the Nazis left. Bob settled in Europe to help run the Drake family business, and after he married Renée, the couple saw their future in the Netherlands. They approached the home’s owner and made an offer.

Today, the Drake residence is a vibrant hub of activity, a stunning architectural creation in its own right, including a studio and residence for artists in the house next door, following their recent establishment of an international artists’ residency. The property is continuously abuzz with fundraising and community events on behalf of the arts, sciences, the Jewish community, and Israel. They also established a children’s theater project called Habarvaz Theater, which now comprises four branches throughout Israel.

“I believe that our busy lives, and being engaged with the world as we are, right here in Erica’s childhood house, is a form of poetic justice for her and her family,” says Renée.

The Drakes agree that their connection to Weizmann is a very personal one, driven by relationships with Institute management and scientists, a deep appreciation for basic research, and a strong belief in the role of a global community that both supports and champions Israeli and Weizmann science. When Erica established an endowed fund for Prof. Mirelman’s research in infectious disease, microbiology, and parasitology in 1999, it was a gesture that reflected the Drakes’ decades-long personal ties to the Mirelman family.

Their establishment of the Habarvaz Auditorium at the Davidson Institute of Science Education, and the EKARD Research School of Biological Science at the Feinberg Graduate School, “reflect our commitment to education,” says Bob. “Everything we give to—whether it’s art or science or anything else—always has a focus on education, and nourishing the next generation.” The couple’s most recent gift, which established the EKARD Institute for Cancer Diagnosis Research at the Moross Integrated Cancer Center, represents another way they have memorialized Henry Drake, while investing in future generations of scientists.

The common denominator

Another personal connection was created at sea—on a Science at Sea cruise hosted by the American Committee in 2004. It was then that they heard from Prof. Reshef Tenne about his research on nanotechnology, and became excited about its potential applications. (Indeed, the research has led to the development of new lubricants that are used for the automobile and other industries.) Prof. Tenne, who is now Professor Emeritus, remembers Bob pulling him aside and offering to endow a new chair.

“It was one of the most beautiful spots—next to a Roman amphitheater on the Turkish Aegean coast and with an orchestra playing classical music in the background,” he recalls. “The honor was immense and the setting made the moment unforgettable.”

The Drake Family Professorial Chair in Nanotechnology is now held by Prof. Ernesto Joselevich—and with that choice came yet another twist that accentuated home and family. Natives of Buenos Aires, Prof. Joselevich’s family was also part of the nucleus of Argentinian Jews who provided a backbone of support for pre-state Israel. In fact, the materials scientist recently discovered evidence in the Yad Chaim Weizmann Archives that his great grandfather, Jacobo Joselevich, a prominent figure in the Jewish Argentinian community, personally corresponded with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the Institute’s founder and Israel’s first President, generating support for Dr. Weizmann’s Jewish nation-building among Argentinian Jews.

“The connection to the Drake family through my chair not only enhances my ability to do science, but it is fulfilling to me on a personal level, because it creates a full circle to my roots and is a constant reminder of the importance of the Diaspora network in ensuring the future of Israeli science,” says Prof. Joselevich.

Meanwhile, the Drakes’ first chair has moved to Prof. Steffen Jung, following Prof. Reisner’s retirement. Prof. Jung’s research focuses on innate immune cells, so-called macrophages, which are key players in development and health, and serve as key defenders against pathogenic invaders.

“The Weizmann Institute is famous for its curiosity-driven basic research, and it is indeed often serendipity that results in significant scientific breakthroughs,” says Prof. Jung. “This is a risky but often fruitful approach, and it critically relies on continuous philanthropic support like that which the Drakes provide.”

Bob’s steadfast leadership in Europe has been the source of major Weizmann “friend-raising,” as he calls it—a play on the word fundraising—which he sees as of primary importance.

“For more than 10 years, I’ve been working as a close partner with Bob in Europe. One of the most impressive things about his leadership has been his ability to find a common denominator across the diverse and many European countries and cultures,” says Zohar Menshes, Executive Vice President of the European Committee. “This talent, which is related to his unique diplomatic skills and team-based approach to working, has led to a cohesive, consensual vision for Europe on behalf of the Weizmann Institute, and in thoughtful coordination with our worldwide network.