Forging the path in Israel education and advocacy

This year at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago's 112th Annual Meeting, two outstanding young Jewish professionals received the 23rd annual Samuel A. Goldsmith award, which is given to individuals under age 40 who have served with distinction. One of the winners of this award was none other than the director of the Israel Education Center (IEC), Emily Briskman.

Emily distinguishes herself in everything she does. It is because of her ingenuity, dedication, and vision that thousands of lives are changed through the work of the Israel Education Center. She has not only led the Federation's efforts in Israel education and advocacy, she has truly forged a path in which the IEC has become the standard bearer in this field throughout the nation.

What follows is the story of Emily's journey down this path as presented in her speech when given the award. Her journey and the path that she has taken exemplify the work we do at JUF's Israel Education Center, and we are so proud of her success.



I accept this award today with a great sense of honor and deep appreciation.  First let me say Mazel Tov to Robyn Gottlieb, Sarna Lee Goldenberg, Joshua Herz and David Sherman for their awards.  I am humbled to be counted amongst you.

Those who know me best, know I would much rather stand behind a student offering proud encouragement than stand in the spotlight, but I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words.

Most of my colleagues at JUF do not realize that I am a legacy employee of our Federation.  My great aunt, Lois Payne, began working with the United Jewish Appeal in the1950's and then served as the Director of our Federation's Women's Division in the 60s and 70s.  She was a bold, caring, and honest individual and I come to work every day with her in mind. When I moved here from Florida in 2004 to begin my job with Hillel, my first visit to our old headquarters at 1 S. Franklin was very special.  To walk the halls of the place my aunt loved dearly filled me with a sense of homeI knew I belonged here. 

As a Hillel professional and now as part of the Department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement, I often talk about Jewish journeys.  Over the years, I have been privileged to be a part of so many students' journeysthere is nothing quite like watching someone embrace their Jewish identity and Israel because of something you did.  Those light bulb moments which I believe will lead to a lifelong commitment to our community, our people, and Israel are what I work towards every day. 

What I didn't know when I first started eight years ago was the deep impact that other people's journeys would have on my own sense of Jewish identity.  From the everyday to the extraordinary, I must have one of the best jobs in the Jewish professional world.  I have had the privilege of traveling to Israel with 160 students on Birthright and participated in their transformation from "just Jewish" to feeling a sense of pride in the Jewish people, 57 high school Write On for Israel Fellows choosing (yes choosing) to become Israel advocates on their future college campuses, and non-Jewish professors and students discovering the magic of our homeland for the first time.  I have been to Washington D.C. with over 75 students to advocate on Israel's behalf, and drove a van with 8 students to New Orleans to continue the rebuilding efforts three years after Katrina in the spirit of tikkun olam.  I have driven the length and width of our state to remote campuses, campuses with no Jews, and big tens alike to encourage students to engage with Israel.  I have worked alongside students to combat anti-Israel sentiments on campus-something that touches the core of my being both personally and professionally-but an area in which this Federation leads the fight.  We just have to look at our Julius Rosenwald Award Winner,David Sherman, whose work with the Israel Action Network has impacted Israel advocacy across the country.  All of my experiences, with thousands of young Jews and non-Jews alike, have profoundly informed my own Jewish identity. 

Our Federation is deeply committed to the next generation and Israel.  I have learned so much from the dedicated lay leaders and professionals who work tirelessly to ensure continuity amongst the generations.  The Foundations and individual donors who support our work inspire us to raise the bar every day.  I am committed to fulfilling our collective vision for the future of our people. 

Receiving this award has given me a chance to reflect on the last eight years.  I have held 4 positions all in what could be categorized as start-up projects—from a young multi-campus Hillel to Hillel's first office at the largest Catholic school in the country to the first Israel advocacy and outreach project targeted at non-Jewish college students and professors, to the creation of the Israel Education Center which houses 7 different initiatives for high school and college students and our new Department of Campus Affairs and Student Engagement.  All of these are evidence of this Federation's willingness to take risks and provide resources to find and engage young people where they are and ensure they have the tools necessary to develop their identity, sense of peoplehood and love of Israel.  Aunt Lois would have loved to have seen these ideas in action, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved in them.

I also had a chance to reflect on the people I have had the honor of calling colleagues and friends.  The ones whose offices I sit in and passionately discuss how our programs and projects are going to propel us towards the goal of embodying Am Yisraelthe People of Israel.  There are just a few I would like to mention:

Lisa Klein-thank you for this nomination.  You have been my champion and mentor since my days with Hillel and I would not be here today if it weren't for you.  Your encouragement, ability to teach, and true love of the Jewish people have made me a better professional.  Thank you.

John Lowenstein- Your years of service to this Federation as a lay leader and now as a professional are nothing short of inspiring.  In just this past year you have taken on this new Department with such energy, passion, know-how and spirit.  It is a privilege to work with you.

Carl Schrag-There are few people who are natural born teachers and you are certainly one of them.  I am awed by your dedication and energy.  It is an honor to both learn from you and work alongside you.

My Israel Education Center team: Laura Cusack, Brian Horwitz, Efrat David and Marci Fiedlerthank you for your hard work.  I couldn't ask for a better, more dedicated group of people to work with.

My Hillel colleagues: You inspire me every day with your creativity, love of Judaism, and commitment to the next generation.

I would also like to take moment to acknowledge my family.  Mom, Dad, Anna and Graham—thank you for always being there to listen to me, encourage me, and push me to do my best.  You are my foundation.  And finally, thank you to my Aunt Lois, for forging the path so many of us took to be here today.

Thank you. 

Reflections from your editor, Cindy Sher, on people living their Jewish lives each day. ... Read More

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