For a year, a spectacular gala was being planned to celebrate science for the benefit of humanity in Paris. Then, something horrific happened.
Marshall Levin, CEO of the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science, was on a flight to Paris. He had no idea what to expect when he landed to attend a gala at the National Opera House in celebration of a forty year partnership between the Pasteur Institute and Weizmann.
On the morning of January 7, 2015, two men with assault rifles invaded the office of the French publication Charlie Hebdo, firing a round of bullets to kill 12 people, including a police officer, and injuring 11 more. The Île-de-France region was attacked several additional times, with five more people dying and 11 more wounded.
“By the time we landed,” Marshall said, “the hostage situation had been resolved and the terrorists had been killed. It was a terrible, tragic time of fear but the situation was resolved. I was told immediately upon arrival that there was talk of a spontaneous rally for protecting the freedoms of expression so valued by France, right near the hotel where I was staying.”
The French committee of Weizmann had been working for nearly a year to make sure every detail of the evening was perfect. The planning had gone beautifully. The 850-seat dinner event was to be attended by many luminaries, including the Prime Minister of France and Paris Opera Ballet director Benjamin Millepied along with his wife, actress Natalie Portman.
Marshall’s role is to connect people with philanthropic opportunities to benefit humanity through the pure science research that takes place at Weizmann (click here to learn more, including this groundbreaking work on fighting cancer). But what would become of the careful planning and evening of reflection in the aftermath of such a tragic and fearful event?
“From Friday until the time of the event on Monday night, it went from a time of threat and pessimism about what the future held,” Marshall said, “and it became almost magical to see over two million people convene and gather. Forty countries were represented, and this is not something that was planned. Our event was a year or more in planning. This spontaneous support happened in a 24 hour period. The outpouring of hope and optimism and protecting and cherishing freedoms was amazingly powerful.”
Just 24 hours after the rally, the celebratory event of 40 years of collaborative research that had generated countless collaborations around the world took place at the National Opera House.
“Here we are in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century,” Marshall said. “Science research transcends politics and religion. It truly benefits every person on the planet. This concept of being able to span across borders, cultures, time and generations is very powerful personally and professionally for me.”
Prof. Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute, was also present. In a recent publication to introduce the seven new scientists hired this year by Weizmann, Prof. Zajfman’s introductory note underscores the culture of curiosity that makes Weizmann so unique:
As is well known, the market for top scientific talent is global and highly competitive. The best way we can compete at the highest level is not only by providing a fully equipped lab with all the tools and support needed to go beyond the limits of current knowledge, but also by offering our scientists the freedom to explore any new area of science that intrigues them.
“The central partnership between science and philanthropy touches everybody so deeply,” Marshall said. “I am reminded each day, but especially at events like this, how privileged and lucky I am to be able to attend and participate in these incredibly uplifting and inspiring life events.”
I am reminded all the time by Marshall how lucky the rest of us are to benefit from the science research being conducted by Weizmann. I am happy that he agreed to let me share this story, which illustrates the power of science to transcend and drive progress in this world that we share.
Photo (from right): President of the Weizmann Institute Prof. Daniel Zajfman, actress Natalie Portman, Director of Dance for the Paris Opera Ballet Benjamin Millepied, and other guests.