Once they were strangers

When Lynette and Derek Brown first arrived in Los Angeles from their native South Africa 33 years ago, they had no friends in the city, no family and no jobs.

The year was 1980 and the United States was in the grip of a recession. Unemployment was high, interest rates had soared, and the Browns had two young children. But these challenges didn’t deter the Modern Orthodox couple from seeking a new home here. 

Disgusted with the South African system of apartheid and wary of the resulting political instability, the Browns wanted their children to grow up in a calmer, more inclusive society. They believed America was that place, even if moving here meant taking significant risks.

 “We said, ‘Somehow we’re going to make our way through this,’ ” explained Derek, now 64. “We always had this confidence that we would succeed.”

And succeed they did. Not just as parents and professionals — they ultimately raised three children here, and Derek went on to a career in the pharmaceutical industry — but also as members of the Jewish community. 

Over the past three decades, the Encino couple has played an important role in supporting — both financially and with their time — organizations that help Jews in the Los Angeles area and abroad. They’ve been major donors to and fundraisers for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and dedicated countless hours to volunteering on various boards and committees. They’ve led mission trips to Israel and other countries, including Morocco, and participated in efforts to strengthen U.S. support for Israel through political action groups. 

 “I don’t know two people that care more about the community and about Israel,” said Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of Federation. “They’re among the top leaders of our Jewish community.”

The Browns say their energetic dedication to Jewish causes arises both from a deep commitment to their faith and from their family histories.

For Lynette, 59, who was raised in a close-knit Jewish community in Zimbabwe and, later, in South Africa, support for Israel was paramount in her family. Lynette’s father, Abe, a gunner in the South African Air Force, moved with her mother, Helene, to Israel in 1948 to take part in the Israeli War of Independence as a gunner in the Israeli Air Force. Lynette and her four siblings were born after the war, but they grew up hearing stories about how their father risked his life to help establish a Jewish homeland. 

“He was very proud of it,” Lynette said. “It’s really made me more adamant that Israel should survive.”

Derek’s convictions, meanwhile, arose more from his mother Peggy’s activities. She helped form a local branch in Johannesburg of the Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society, a charitable group for Jews in need, and worked her way up to become chairperson of the entire organization. Derek remembers her visiting and befriending elderly people in the community, and how his house would be stacked with boxes of clothing for donation to the poor.

“Empathy for people worse off than us was part of life in our family,” Derek said. “We didn’t have a lot of money and weren’t in a position to give huge amounts of cash, but what my mother couldn’t do in terms of writing checks she did by working long hours [to help others].”

Derek and Lynette met in their early 20s while on vacation in Swaziland. When they married in 1976, they had already decided they didn’t want to stay in South Africa.

“We didn’t want our kids to grow up in apartheid,” Lynette said. “We didn’t want our kids to think they were better than anybody else. We wanted them to believe that everyone was equal.”

The couple chose Southern California because the climate is similar to South Africa’s. Through a friend of Derek’s brother, they found a rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, living close to other South African families.

It was a difficult transition at first, but the couple found help adapting to their new country by immersing themselves in the Jewish community. They joined what was then called the South African Jewish American Community, a division of Federation, and later participated in a young leaders development group through the organization. 

Lynette wasn’t too interested in joining the leadership group to begin with, Derek said. That is, until he came home from the first meeting and informed his wife that several young women there had been making eyes at him.

“She joined the group the next week,” Derek said, laughing. 

The couple’s volunteer commitments have grown exponentially over the years and provided them a way to connect more deeply with their adopted home and its Jewish community, they said. Although the Browns do support Jewish organizations financially, Lynette said she feels that giving time is extremely valuable. 

“For me, it’s the personal satisfaction, to be giving something of myself,” Lynette said. “It’s very easy for people to give money, but giving of yourself is just a very fulfilling thing.”

These days, the Browns are key leaders within Federation, active members of their synagogues — the Chabad of Encino and the Calabasas Shul — and politically involved in supporting Israel through groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for which they are members of the AIPAC Valley executive committee. 

Their activities at Federation have included leading 400 people on a mission to Israel in 2011, and running the Federation Valley Alliance’s 2010-2011 fundraising campaigns. Carol Koransky, Federation executive vice president, said the fundraising efforts brought in a total of $17 million. The funds allowed Federation to provide emergency cash grants to many people impacted by the economic downturn, paying for food, rent and basic home repairs for those who lost their jobs, she said.

“It was a period of time when people who never had an expectation that they would need to come to the community for help suddenly found themselves in an emergency situation,” Koransky said. The Browns “made it possible for us to have the resources to [help them].”

Today, the couple sit on the board and executive committees of Federation and its Valley Alliance. They also co-chair Federation’s Caring for Jews in Need initiative, which allows them to assess funding requests from service agencies and lead visits to groups that help the poor, seniors and people with special needs. The pair said they are constantly amazed by the dedication of people helping the community. 

“We have been overwhelmed by the people we’ve met and the programs that they create from the grass roots, in their homes. And the services that they deliver are just unbelievable,” Derek said.  “People go to sleep at night not knowing what it takes to help the community. It’s the amazing work of individuals that makes it happen.”

Seeing these organizations at work is inspiring, but also heartbreaking when it comes time for the committee to make funding decisions, the Browns said. That’s because, despite Federation’s best efforts, there is never enough money to support every organization to the extent they would like. Derek said he would like to see more Jews get involved in helping and donating to the community.

For the Browns, raising their three children to share their values of community service has also been a priority. Today, their elder daughter, Joli, 35, is heavily involved in Los Angeles Jewish organizations, serving on Federation’s Young Leadership Cabinet and the Community Engagement committee, and is involved with AIPAC. Carly, 34, their younger daughter, is a senior campaign executive with the Jewish National Fund. Their son, Daniel, 30, has been a donor to Federation since his teens and is currently studying for a master’s degree in nutrition, after which he hopes to counsel overweight children and their parents in nutrition and healthy lifestyles. 

Three decades after embarking on their transglobal adventure, the Browns said they are overjoyed with how life has turned out for themselves and their children, and with the community they have found — and contributed to — here.

“We love the United States,” Derek said. “Looking back, I think it’s the best move we ever made.”