Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, Dr. Steven B. Nasatir is driven to do three things—help rescue Jews, relieve suffering, and offer hope.
Nasatir has served the Chicago Jewish community for 40 years at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. And, in October, he marks his 32nd year as JUF/JF president, only the fourth president in the organization’s 111-year history. He became the first sitting president to be honored with the Julius Rosenwald Memorial Award –the Federation’s highest honor named for the great Jewish philanthropist—at the Jewish Federation’s Annual Meeting on Sept. 20.
In the years Nasatir has been at its helm, the Jewish Federation has become one of the largest not-for-profit social welfare agencies in Illinois, offering resources that bring food, refuge, healthcare, education, and emergency assistance to 300,000 Chicagoans of all faiths and two million Jews around the world.
Here at home, Federation-supported agencies serving both Jews and non-Jews have flourished during Nasatir’s tenure. He has initiated and shepherded an array of Federation programs such as the Day School Guaranty Trust, the TOV Volunteer Network, the Jewish Women’s Foundation, and the JUF Uptown Cafe, the first kosher meal program of its kind. When the economic crisis hit three years ago, Nasatir made certain Federation responded with the launch of J-HELP: A Boost in Tough Times, an initiative to provide support for people hit hardest by the downturn. Under Nasatir, the Federation celebrated its Centennial Year in 2000 and embarked on a Centennial Campaign, which has raised $600 million to date.
Overseas, Nasatir has championed the Jewish state and our Israeli brothers and sisters at every turn. He has visited Israel more than 100 times, including on countless solidarity missions in times of war and peace, assessing first-hand the needs of refugees, children, the poor, and civilians under attack.
Nasatir has met every Israeli Prime Minister in the last three decades, celebrated Chanukah at the White House with the President, befriended world figures such as Natan Sharanksy and Elie Wiesel and convened with relief workers, community leaders, and government officials, in Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, Argentina, and other countries throughout the world. Last year, he and then-JUF Board Chairman David Sherman were the first official representatives of the national Jewish community to visit Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake.
As historic events unfolded—such as the exodus of more than a million Soviet Jews, and the rescue of Jews from Ethiopia and other countries where Jews were in danger—Nasatir and the lay partners with whom he has closely collaborated, always have been the first to commit community resources. Nasatir visited with Refuseniks in the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the 1970s and 80s and was part of the first official Jewish Federation visit to Ethiopia in 1983. Because of these efforts, the Chicago Federation has resettled 30,000 Jews from the FSU in the Chicago area. Nasatir has also rallied the Chicago Jewish community to take the lead on many international issues, including efforts to prevent a nuclear Iran, end genocide in Darfur, and resettle refugees facing ethnic cleansing and persecution in lands ranging from Bosnia to Southeast Asia.
Despite all he’s done around the world, Nasatir is as Chicago as deep dish pizza, the White Sox, and 20 below wind chills. A die-hard Sox fan, Nasatir was educated in the Chicago Public Schools at Peterson Elementary and Von Steuben High School, where he played on the basketball team. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois, his Master’s from Roosevelt University, and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University.
As a child, his family were members at Congregation Shaare Tikvah B’nai Zion in Chicago and since 1973 his family has attended Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation in Northfield.
In his spare time, Nasatir, who lives in Highland Park, has taken up golf and spends time with his wife, five sons, two daughters-in-law, and two granddaughters.
What follows is Dr. Nasatir in his own words during his 40 years of service so far to the Chicago Jewish community…
On the responsibilities our community shares…
“These are challenging and sobering times, but our response is not to shrink from our responsibilities. It is times like these that demonstrate how utterly indispensable the federation model in general and this federation in particular are to the quality of life in our community.”
“We are one with Israel. We are one with America. Our love for our country is boundless, and we pray that we and our fellow Americans will be blessed with strength and peace, and we are one with our Chicago community. We are proud of its diversity and its dedication to the dignity for all its citizens.”
On feeding the hungry…
“This is a federation that turned on a dime to feed the new poor pledging that no Jew would go hungry in Chicago, and we kept that promise.”
On the Federation’s founding fathers…
“What the Federation’s founding father’s did foresee was the best way to organize and respond to whatever the 20th century had in store for us would be best served communally, not individually. They realized it took a community to care for society’s needs, to spark the best in each of us, and to fulfill the blessings and obligations of Jewish peoplehood.”
On representing the diverse Chicago Jewish community…
“…We represent the entire community: Young, old, suburban, Chicago, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. We are the central table. We are consensus-driven. And we are able leverage resources and represent Jewish issues as no one else can.”
On the spectrum of what JUF/JF does…
“We are the people who help drain the swamps and make the desert bloom, who rescued Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry…who pioneered foster care and community-based services over institutionalization for our orphans and our elders, the ones who launched vocational training and respite care for people of all faiths with special needs, and the ones who helped generations of immigrants become American citizens and lift themselves out of poverty.”
On his trip to Sderot, Israel…
“I visited Sderot today in the south near the Gaza border, and three hours into my visit I was caught in a rocket attack. From the time you hear the screaming alarm you have 15 seconds to find shelter. I ran back to the primary school I was visiting and into a classroom…I looked around at…the 30 students, six, seven, eight year olds, with their teachers, and the little ones were sobbing, and it was hard for me not to cry as well, not so much about that particular incident and that particular rocket but in the recognition that these children go through every day. No government, no country, no people would continue to allow rockets to land within their borders injuring and terrifying their children, and neither should Israel.”
On being a part of something big…
“Oh my God, I have gotten back so much. In terms of such great things and to be connected as I was to Soviet Jewry, the great events of Israel, these major high points in Jewish life…these have been important and historical times and to feel that you played a little role in something was really big and powerful and important.”
On what he’ll do the day after accepting the Rosenwald Award:
“For me, the very best thing about today’s event is that tomorrow I will receive another honor—the honor to continue to serve the Jewish people. It’s a great privilege. I’m a very lucky guy.”
Aaron B. Cohen, Linda S. Haase, and Cindy Sher contributed to this article.