From his immigrant grandmothers, Michael H. Zaransky learned he was part of a people that extended far beyond the North Side neighborhood where he grew up.
From his Holocaust survivor in-laws, he learned that the world has not always been the safe and welcoming place for Jews that he experienced.
From his parents, he learned that involvement in the community was an important part of life.
And from a group of men he travelled with to Israel, he learned it was his time, their time, to step up as leaders and role models in Chicago's Jewish community.
Ten years later, the 58-year-old Zaransky-who lives in Northbrook with his wife, Barbara-chairs the 2013 Annual Campaign of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, one of the largest yearly fund-raising efforts in the nation. The money raised supports a wide-ranging network of 70 agencies and programs that each year provides food, shelter, health care, education, counseling, and other human services to 300,000 Chicagoans of all faiths, and more than two million Jews in Israel and countries around the world.
For Zaransky, who is co-CEO of Northbrook-based Prime Property Investors, the challenge of leading an effort striving to raise roughly $80 million is both a responsibility and a passion.
"I feel inspired when I volunteer at JUF and am involved with our community," he said, "because I feel we are very much a part of the mission of our people. We're not just doing something as individuals. We're doing something as a people."
Those concepts-peoplehood and community-are central to Zaransky's worldview.
"So much of our personal success as Jews is due to when we happen to have been born in history," he said. "We live in a country where there is complete and total religious freedom. But for thousands of years, that was not the case. And still, in other parts of the world, that is not the case. We're fortunate to be here.
"I think because of those circumstances, we have a responsibility for tzedakah (giving charity and seeking justice) and to our people."
Zaransky took charge of JUF's campaign in the wake of an economic downturn that continues to cause considerable hurt to those most in need of services, and also to many of those who traditionally provide the dollars that support those services.
"In the mission we are engaged in, which is providing for those less fortunate than ourselves, and building a strong and vital community, it is tough," he said.
"Compared to 2008, JUF's affiliated agencies are providing two times the amount of food and groceries to Jews who simply need to eat. We're providing nearly four times more emergency cash assistance. We've even had to increase our scholarships to Jewish families in need of sending their kids to Jewish summer camps by 261%.
"I'm proud that we have been able to rise to that challenge and meet it."
That was done, he said, in significant part through a special initiative, J-HELP, that JUF's largest donors funded, over and above their gifts to the Annual Campaign, in order to assure that services continued for those hit hardest by the economy's tailspin.
That highlighted one of JUF's core strengths. Zaransky said-the idea of collective giving, that people joining together can do more than they can do on their own.
"Because JUF has been serving this community for 113 years, there is an organized system in place to identify needs in Chicago, Israel, and around the world, and to provide the services that address them most effectively," he said. "And we do that in a highly, highly efficient manner."
One dimension of that efficiency is JUF's ability to leverage donors' contributions. JUF distributes significantly more than the campaign raises each year, in part because its extensive social-service network attracts support from foundations, grant makers, government agencies and others.
"So there's a lot of bang for the buck in the donation dollar," he said. "For someone interested in making the most impact, there is no better way than through the collective giving of the Federation system."
Zaransky's role in JUF's 2013 campaign is just his latest commitment to both the Jewish and the broader community. He has chaired the Jewish Federation Facilities Corp. and JUF's Campaign Trades, Industries & Professions Division. He is a past president of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, and a member of the Executives Club of Chicago, the National Multifamily Housing Council, and the Urban Land Institute.
In 2009, he received the Jewish Theological Seminary's Community Leadership Shin Award. He is a graduate of the Wexner Heritage Foundation program for Jewish communal leaders. And he has authored two books on commercial real estate investment.
Within Zaransky's need to help those in need, Israel plays a special role.
"The experiences of my immigrant grandparents and survivor in-laws focused me on the importance of Israel as a safety net for the Jewish people, as the homeland where any Jew who is at risk anywhere in the world has the right to return.
"I grew up in a world where there was always a State of Israel. But my in-laws and my parents and my grandparents did not. And I see the impact that had on their lives and their peers' lives as a result of there being nowhere to go."
About 10 years ago, Israel took on an added dimension in Zaransky's life view. His connection to the Jewish state, and to JUF, became much deeper when, in 2003, he joined JUF's second Nachshon leadership mission. He's been back to Israel every year since.
"I was exposed to Israel and the work JUF does in Israel. Those experiences helped me understand how we really are part of something that is just so large, and so important."
That trip also introduced Zaransky to a group of men who would become very involved with JUF and the Jewish community. Strong friendships ensued, and Zaransky said many of the men - some of whom went on to hold the highest leadership posts in JUF - became his role models for engagement and commitment.
They still are.
Zaransky noted that the end of the 2013 campaign won't mean his work is done. All of the recent campaign chairs, including the ones on that mission with him, are still very active in JUF.
"We are all part of a larger community," he said. "And that continues."
Joel Schatz is director of News & Information for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.