Gwen & Alvin Gilens
Through the joint activities of her UCLA sorority and his fraternity, Gwen Cramer learned just enough about Al Gilens to know she wanted to learn more. One day in 1953, she invited him on a hayride.
“I don’t remember anything about that hayride,” said Gwen. “But I remember that I didn’t hear from him for awhile afterward.”
She concluded that Al just wasn’t interested. Really, he had much more interest in this woman with whom he seemed to have so much in common — and who had shown a flattering interest in him — than he was ready for.
“I think I decided on the hayride that this was the person I wanted to live with for the rest of my life,” Al said. “My feeling was that I was never going to date another person after I asked her out.”
His prediction would come true, but even before their delayed second date, Al and Gwen were often brought together by parallel leadership roles in Hillel. Each led committees that raised funds for the Greater Los Angeles Jewish community while building connections among donors. Their admiration for each other grew.
Not long after Al asked Gwen on their second date, he invited her to meet his parents at a dinner celebrating his 21st birthday. The invitation itself was a commitment, Gwen said. “That’s when I knew for sure he was the right guy.”
In fall of 1954, Al, who was born in Albany, N.Y., gave L.A. native Gwen his fraternity pin. They announced their engagement in December and were wed at the newly opened Beverly Hilton Hotel in September 1955.
The couple’s three children — Martin, Todd, and Sharona — were born in L.A., where Gwen, who is now 87, launched an indoor landscaping business and Al, who is now 88, became an insurance broker. Wherever their careers took them, Al and Gwen remained dedicated to causes related to their Jewish faith, and that volunteering led to career opportunities for both.
The United Jewish Appeal asked Al to become its western regional director, a position he held until the Philadelphia Jewish Federation hired him as its director of development in 1977, leading the family to the Gladwyne home among the trees where the couple still lives. In 1982, Al became executive director of the National United Jewish Appeal’s overseas programs, commuting from Pennsylvania to New York and flying around the world. After a few years, he wanted to spend more time at home with Gwen and became regional director for the American Friends of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
A few years after they had settled locally, Gwen became the East Coast representative for the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, now known as the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus, which held summer camps for Jewish college students. She then directed a fund-raising campaign for the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel before becoming the first director of development for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.
Gwen spent some of her nonwork time learning about her new, Eastern environment and the plants that grow here. She enrolled at Temple University to learn more, earning a degree in landscape design in the mid-1980s. Gwen began designing residential landscapes even before graduating, and her business grew by word of mouth. Until retiring a decade ago, she used both landscaping and hardscaping to reflect her clients’ style, creating spaces for them to relax, swim, or play.
Al is still working in his third career — photography, which became his sole profession in the 1990s. He is most noted for his interpretive images of concentration camps and other Holocaust sites. His work from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp was exhibited at the 50th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in April 1995 and also compiled into a book that shares the exhibit’s name: Discovery and Despair (The Dimensions of Dora). To photograph and write his second book, Reconciling Lives, Al spent a year with a group of young volunteers as they worked at sites around the world for Action Reconciliation — Service for Peace, an organization founded in Germany whose volunteers participate in educational, historical, political, and social projects in 13 countries damaged by the Nazi regime.
Exhibits of Al’s photographs have traveled around the world, from London to L.A., Berlin to Bryn Mawr.
Al does much of his writing on solo trips to Longwood Gardens. He also loves extended bike rides — including some group rides that stretch 500 miles over a week. Gwen enjoys reading and cooking — especially for a Catholic charity that delivers meals to people who need them.
But after nearly 66 years of marriage, Al and Gwen still delight in each other’s company. They watch the Phillies win or lose. They attend Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concerts, and they travel.
They’ve been to South Africa, Tanzania, Iceland, and, for most of the past 20 years, have spent several winter weeks in Maui. Just seeing family takes them to many places: Martin is chair of UCLA’s Department of Public Policy, and he and wife, Janet, a speech pathologist, live in L.A.; Todd is an artist and landscape designer who lives with his partner, Heather, in Richmond, Calif.; and Sharona, the export manager for Jean Josselin Champagne, lives in France with her partner, Cyril. Grandson Joshua is a medical resident working at hospitals and a clinic in Denver. Granddaughter Naomi and her husband, Adi, both attorneys specializing in first amendment law, live in San Francisco with baby Jonah, Al and Gwen’s first great-grandchild.
Gwen has also met Al at the end of almost every long bike ride he’s taken, picking him up in Minneapolis, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; and in other spots that mark the start of more traveling adventure together.
“I love that Al is willing and able to change — I think that’s very rare. And I love his adventurous spirit,” she said. “I love it so much that I have tried to take a clue from him.”
“I love the way she partners, and how it’s always about our partnership,” said Al. “Just this morning, before my bike ride, I was thinking about avocado toast, but I wasn’t going to have time to stop and get some. When I got home, she had made it for me.”
Gwen said it’s not hard to support someone who also supports you. This goes back to advice her mother gave just before their wedding: “She said it’s 60/40, with both of you expecting to give 60% and get 40%, and we are both doing that.”
Al agrees. “We overflow with happiness, because that’s 120%.”