Most of us know who to credit or blame for our talent with numbers, our myopia, our curly hair. Most of us have biological parents we know or knew or could learn about.
Nelle began life as a foundling. As an infant, she was left at a Harlem orphanage with no identifying information. To this day, she’s unable to gain knowledge of her parents. While this background might have embittered some, it motivated Nelle. She works out religiously, has built several businesses, and is a devoted parent and community activist.
At 5 months, Nelle was adopted by “perfect” parents—kind, supportive reform Jewish liberals. Her mother was “brilliant and creative. My father says I chose her.” Nonetheless, as a child, “I had a fear of being taken away. I still have abandonment issues.” These issues resurfaced 4 years ago when her husband of 30 years walked out. “I was stunned and humiliated.”
But nothing stops Nelle. “I’m also resilient,” she says. “And independent. And capable.”
That’s an understatement. In Sarasota, Nelle was president for 3 years of the Jewish Federation. She serves on many philanthropic boards. These include the Jewish Agency for Israel for which she travels, at her expense, to Israel about 5 times a year. The Jewish Agency “saves Jewish lives wherever they are at risk.”
In 2007, Nelle was among a small group of donors to visit the Gandar region of Ethiopia where illiterate black Jews lived in mud huts and used ox-driven plows. Almost 100,000 of them emigrated to Israel, “the only historical movement of a large number of blacks from persecution to freedom.” Nelle was present at the airport in Addis Ababa when 90 Ethiopian Jews boarded their flight. She welcomed them on the tarmac as they landed at Ben Gurion Airport. “It was incredible to see Ethiopian Jews, who always believed they would somehow get to Israel, arrive. As they stepped from the plane, many knelt and kissed the ground. That moment gave me the resolve to help ensure the continuity of the Jewish people and to make sure Israel has a safe and secure future.”
Uncertain as she is of her biological inheritance, Nelle takes her health into her own hands. She runs and lifts weights daily and is a second-degree black belt in Tai Kwon Do. She wears her hair cropped short to facilitate exercise (and set off great cheekbones). Nelle moved from Boston to Sarasota 14 years ago. She’s devoted to son Henry, a college junior.
In 2011, Nelle spoke at the opening of a high tech high school in Kiryat Yam, Israel. Her “friend, role model and mentor,” Betty Schoenbaum, a tireless Sarasota philanthropist in her late 90s, raised $18 million to fund the school. Nelle says, “Betty’s vision is for an Ethiopian to win the Olympics carrying an Israeli flag.”
According to Style Magazine of the SRQ Herald Tribune, Nelle has “a history of being a formidable entrepreneur in the high tech sector.” Along with partners, she built and sold Software House, a facility-access control security systems company. She co-founded, ran and sold Planet Resume.com, an Internet recruitment/advertising service for the IT marketplace. She co-founded and still runs BizTank which invests in and consults with emerging technology companies.
Rather than lament her ancestral mystery, Nelle appreciates the gift of her life.
“However bad my day may be, I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel I owe the world gratitude for my good fortune, opportunities and second chances. I’m a private person but have learned that sharing myself with others encourages their participation. No matter how difficult our lives may sometimes be, giving of ourselves is a gift back to us.”
Thanks, Nelle, for the gifts you give us all.