To call Ora Hirsch Pescovitz an overachiever would be a vast understatement.
She went to medical school at Northwestern University at 17 years old. She practiced and taught pediatric endocrinology. She ran a hospital in Indianapolis. She headed up the University of Michigan Health System. She served as senior vice president at Eli Lilly and Company. And she recently became Oakland University’s seventh president. Surprisingly, she is the second Jewish woman to hold the spot (Sandra Packard got there first), robbing her of one distinction. But she is the first physician in the post.
While the president’s house on campus — a Frank Lloyd Wright-like residence called Sunset Terrace — is readied for her arrival, Pescovitz, 61, is living in a hotel. If that’s not stressful enough, there’s a jam-packed schedule of meetings and speeches. Yet, Pescovitz, who has a halo of black curls and a big smile, seems relaxed rather than harried.
On a recent visit, she brought out photographs of her children — she’s got three (Aliza, an attorney; Ari, an architect; and Naomi, a television anchor) — and her four grandchildren. Her bearish late husband, transplant surgeon Mark Pescovitz, M.D., stands next to her in a wedding photograph, beaming.
Pescovitz brings all her experiences to bear in what she does. She was one of 61 candidates who vied for the position at OU, and one of two finalists. She was the only one who offered a slide show in which she included photos of her family and talked openly about losing Mark in a car accident in 2010. His car was slammed by a truck on an icy stretch of I-94 as he drove back to Indiana after visiting Ora in Ann Arbor.
But the slide show wasn’t what clinched the deal.
“Ora brings an interesting dynamic to Oakland,” says Ric DeVore, chairman of OU’s Board of Trustees (along with Mark Schlussel and Robert Schostak). That she’s a medical doctor factored in — Pescovitz is aware of various revenue streams the university’s 7-year-old medical school might tap into — and she has hospital administration experience, he says.
“That’s almost more important than being a doctor. But what was really attractive to us was her energy level,” DeVore says. “She has an energy and a passion that is undeniable. I said from the inception of the search that we were looking for a leader, not a presider.”
Since she started her new gig in July, Pescovitz has already laid out a vision for her five-year term. That includes boosting diversity in the student body and faculty on the Rochester campus. According to OU’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 8.5 percent of the student population is African-American, 3.5 percent is Latino, and 1 percent is Jewish. That means there are roughly 200 Jewish students.
One of the first orders of the day was creating the position of chief diversity officer who will oversee the university’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“I’m very interested in seeing us enhance tolerance,” Pescovitz says. “I’d like to see us become more global.” Making world citizens of students means exposing them to new experiences, among them being with people of different economic, racial and religious backgrounds.
OU has taken strides in the past decade in diversifying its academic programming. Ten years ago, the university launched Judaic and Islamic studies programs, which now are under the umbrella of the Center for Religious Understanding, led by Religious Studies Professor Alan Epstein.
Nine years ago, OU introduced a study abroad program in Israel that is underwritten by Nina and Bernie Kent, an OU alumnus who serves as chairman of the Jewish Studies Community Committee at the university. Each year, 10-15 undergraduates — most of them non-Jewish — travel in Israel and participate in an archaeological dig for three weeks. It is the only program of its kind in Michigan, Pescovitz says, and for many students, it’s their first time out of the U.S. (See a story on the program, page 25.)
“We wanted to do something to connect OU to Israel,” says Kent, who serves on the executive committee of the United Jewish Foundation. “I thought it was very valuable for people at OU to understand what Israel is really like.”
When she first arrived on the OU campus, Pescovitz, a rabbi’s daughter who studied at Hebrew University, wondered where the Hillel was. It turned out there is a Hillel presence, but it is one without walls.
“I’d like to see Jewish students develop a Jewish culture here,” she says.
Pescovitz has promised all the religious groups that they’ll have a physical space at some point.
That cheers Dovid Roetter of Oak Park, an observant Jewish student who has been active in Jewish life on campus.
“If we even had a desk in an office with other religious organizations, we can tell students to drop by. It’s important to have a space, no matter how small, that we can call our own. Jewish students don’t know we exist and we don’t have a way to tell them,” he says.
“I think Ora will help us in ways a non-Jewish president can’t,” Roetter continues. “She understands what it’s like being a minority. It gives her insight into what other groups are feeling and the challenges they face.”
Living Jewish Values
Pescovitz is proud to call herself a “RK,” or rabbi’s kid. She was reared in a home filled with clergy and civil rights activists, including her father. Rabbi Richard Hirsch, considered the architect of Reform Zionism, was a confidante of Martin Luther King Jr. who marched in Selma and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. He founded the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C.
The Hirsch home was a place where the issues of the day — poverty, racial equality, social justice — were hashed out at the dinner table.
Richard and Bella Hirsch, a nurse who had emigrated from Russia, made aliyah in 1973. Pescovitz followed, living in Jerusalem and studying at Hebrew University for a year, with plans to go to medical school. Her acceptance came from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine before she heard from an Israeli school, so back to the States she went.
Today, her parents divide their time between homes in Jerusalem and Florida. Her mother’s family is in Israel, so Pescovitz is a frequent visitor.
She says her Jewish values are what make her who she is, and they inform her sense of social justice and moral framework.
“It infused my childhood as a Jewish American and as a Jew,” Pescovitz says.
Pescovitz’s brother, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, is senior rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City and former executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists in America. Two other brothers are prominent physicians.
How did their parents raise four very driven children? Their mom, Hirsch says.
“My mother was the parent who raised us 24 hours a day. Back then, my father was out doing the conventional thing. Plus, he had positions that took him traveling. He is very influential in our lives. At the same time, we credit our mom with infusing us with basic qualities of what eventually was important to succeed: tenacity, discipline, respect of all people and ambition. She was dogged in pushing us not to be the second best,” he says.
As for his sister, Bella told her to become a doctor and then, if she wanted, she could pursue a different career.
“That’s an example of her insistence that we aspire to the highest possible achievement,” Hirsch says.
After Ora’s husband died, his sister picked herself up and did what she always does — focus her mind on the present.
“Ora is a very, very strong person,” Hirsch says. “She felt and exhibited that basic Jewish urge to take the time to mourn and get back into the world. She is in pain, but she didn’t let that pain tear her apart. And she found comfort in work. What was strengthened in her more was the desire to give back.
“She is the kind of person you don’t meet too often. She will be so good for the university and for the region, and she’ll be a credit and source of pride for the Jewish community.”
Bernie Kent hopes so.
“Ora is, I think, going to be a tremendous asset to the Jewish community in Southeast Michigan,” he says. “She never really lived in this area but knows so many people, so many large potential donors, so many community leaders. It can only be a tremendous benefit to Oakland University.”
Pescovitz says that once she is settled, she’ll search for a synagogue to join.
Julie Edgar Contributing Writer
Sidebar Story – To Be A Jew at OU