Federation honors volunteer and professional leaders, highlights community-wide inclusion project

Annual Meeting Inclusion image
Rachel Palmer (left), and her mother, Sharona, who were featured in the Federation Annual Meeting morning business meeting presentation about inclusion for adults with disabilities. (Photo by Robert F. Kusel)

See photos from the event

Four rising volunteer and professional leaders were honored for their exemplary service to the Jewish community during the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago's 117th Annual Meeting, held Sept. 18 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Prior to the presentation, made during the morning business meeting, those in attendance unanimously elected the 2017-18 JUF/Federation Board, and outgoing directors were honored for their service. (Read about the afternoon luncheon program featuring keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Gordis. )

Davis, Gidwitz and Glasser Young Leadership Award

Oxman and Stein

(From left) Federation President Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, Michael Oxman, Rachel Stein and Federation Board Chair Michael H. Zaransky.

Michael H. Zaransky, chairman of the JUF/Federation Board of Directors, presented the annual Davis, Gidwitz and Glasser Young Leadership Award to Michael Oxman and Rachel Stein. The award honors young adult volunteers who have demonstrated exemplary dedication and made significant contributions to Chicago's Jewish community. Honorees have the opportunity to attend the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which this year takes place in Los Angeles Nov. 12-14.

Michael Oxman: Building a movement

Oxman, 33, serves on the JUF Professional Advisory Committee. He has been a member of the JUF Young Leadership Division (YLD) Board, serving as president from 2015 to 2016. As the YLD Campaign vice chair from 2014 to 2015, he helped raise more than $1.78 million from over 5,500 donors. He also served on the JUF Executive and Legacies & Endowments committees.

During his first year on the YLD Board, Oxman led the creation of YLD Pride, an LGBTQ outreach group, which just completed its fourth year of programming and has brought more than 400 people together for social, volunteer and educational events. He helped establish a leadership committee of 12 members to guide the initiative. The program has become a model for Federations around the country. In 2012, he was among the first cohort of YLD and Oy!Chicago's 36 Under 36 list of the Chicago area's outstanding young Jewish leaders.

He traveled on the Jewish Federations of North America's first-ever LGBT Mission to Israel in the summer of 2016, serving as bus captain for the national group. He just completed his first year on JFNA's National Young Leadership Cabinet, and traveled to India on the spring study mission. He was nominated to lead the newly created LGBTQ Inclusion portfolio for the 2017-18 Cabinet Year.

An Alpha Epsilon Pi brother, Oxman continues to be involved with the fraternity as a regional governor. He is also a current Wexner Heritage Fellow.

In his remarks (watch the video above), Oxman said that YLD Pride has helped make JUF more accessible, particularly because it has been many participants' first introductions to JUF.

"I knew that having a single event would not be enough. We needed to build a movement," he said. "JUF provides the infrastructure, resources, and willingness to participate, but it is up to us to bring people in. Events don't engage people -- people engage people." 

Professionally, Oxman is Associate Vice President and Financial Advisor at the Cohn Weisskopf Oxman Group at Morgan Stanley. 

Originally from Mequon, Wis., a northern suburb of Milwaukee, Oxman graduated from Northwestern University in 2006 with degrees in economics and political science.

Rachel Stein: Advocating for justice

Stein, 40, serves as board advisor for JUF's Young Women's Board, after just completing her term as president. She also serves on the JUF Community Building and Jewish Continuity Commission, and participates in the Wexner Heritage Program.

Previously, she served on the JUF Young Women's Executive Board as vice president of campaign, and vice president of area development. She has served on the event committee for many Women's Division and Young Women's Board events, chaired the YWB Campaign Event in 2012, and was a co-chair for the 2016 Spring Event. She participated in the second cohort of the Jewish Leaders Institute. In 2013, she was named to YLD and Oy!Chicago's 36 Under 36 list.

In addition to her work with JUF, Stein serves on the Youth and Family Community Committee at North Shore Congregation Israel on its Early Childhood Task Force, and teaches Strollers, Stories and Celebrations, a class for toddlers; and a preschool enrichment class for 3- and 4-year-olds, highlighting Shabbat and Jewish holidays. She also helped manage its JUF Breakthrough Fund mini-grant.

She also serves on the Family Service of Glencoe Executive Leadership Council. She has planned the Glencoe Parent Teacher Organization's major spring fundraiser, and has previously been involved with the JCC Women's Auxiliary Board. She previously ran the early childhood program at the Mayer Kaplan JCC.

In her remarks, Stein talked about the examples set by her parents and grandparents, to advocate for what is right -- even when those ideas are unpopular.

"In every role I play and every journey I take, I face challenges, as we all do. Challenges of those around me not sharing the same values or beliefs in doing what is right," she said. "Lean on people around you for inspiration and strength, and have the courage to stand up to the apathy, indifference and negativity. I have faith in what we can do together, as a collective, from generation to generation, to make this world a better place."

Stein grew up in Maplewood, N.J., and graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in early childhood and elementary education, and received a master's degree in child development from The Erikson Institute.

Samuel A. Goldsmith Award

Brodsky and Spitz

(From left) Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, Ellie Spitz, Julie Brodsky and Michael H. Zaransky.

Julie Brodsky and Ellie Spitz received the Samuel A. Goldsmith Award, given to exceptional young professionals who have shown outstanding performance at a Jewish agency in the Chicago area.

Julie Brodsky: Connecting families to community

Brodsky, 40, is assistant vice president of new parent engagement at JUF. A lead member of the JUF Young Families staff, she oversees jBaby Chicago, a Slingshot Award-winning program that has been described as a "game-changer for how parents connect to Jewish community." This JUF outreach and engagement program is open to new parents and parents with children ages 0-2. She also helped launch new initiatives that have become prototypes for Jewish communities across the country. During her five years at JUF, she has taken on numerous responsibilities, first serving as the program associate for PJ Library, then as program director. In 2015, she became the director of new parent engagement and was recently promoted to her current position.

Prior to JUF, Brodsky was employed for 10 years at a synagogue preschool where she taught in the classroom for four years, and was assistant director for six.

During her address, Brodsky, a Memphis native, said that like many of the Jewish parents she works with, her first connection to the Chicago Jewish community eight years ago was through PJ Library and related events. "It was nice to do a Jewish activity as a family, but we were still searching for our village," she said.

After she began working at JUF, a study focusing on the needs of young Chicago Jewish families was conducted. The data showed that local parents wanted the same thing -- to connect to the Jewish community more deeply -- and in 2014, jBaby was born. Since its inception, jBaby has engaged over 1,900 families -- and two-thirds of those families have indicated that jBaby is the only Jewish activity with which they are currently involved.

"I have seen first-hand how jBaby Chicago is changing the landscape for families with young children," she said. "The opportunities that are available to us as new parents are so much bigger and greater than what was available just eight years ago. I know that our community will be stronger and more vibrant in years to come because of these connections made today."

Brodsky also is a member of the Beber Camp Alumni Association Executive Committee. She graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Science in early childhood education and a Jewish studies certificate.

Ellie Spitz: Investing in people

Spitz, 28, is the Director of Community Engagement and Wellness at Mishkan Chicago, where she facilitates community building, volunteer development, and immersive experiences, and designs and implements many of Mishkan's programs. She also is director of Maggie's Place, Mishkan's holistic wellness center. She began her work as the Community Mobilizer for Mishkan, spearheading the "LOCALS" effort, funded by a two-year JUF Breakthrough Fund grant, which invites members of the Jewish community and others to participate in an open and accepting Jewish space.

During her remarks, she said that investing in people -- in relationships -- builds Jewish community.

"I see a Judaism full of diversity, full of people who crave a connection with spirituality and culture, full of people who actually prioritize Jewish community and Jewish learning over the plethora of other options life has for us," she said. "Let's stretch ourselves to meet people where they are at, to shake up our traditions, rituals and models. Let's take the deep and rich Judaism we know and love and make it accessible to everyone who is interested."

Spitz graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with highest honors in human development and family studies, and dual minors in sociology and Jewish culture and society. She received her master's degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, and holds a certificate in Jewish leadership from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning & Leadership and Northwestern University. Spitz was a 2013 James M. Holobaugh Honor recipient for her advocacy and service to the St. Louis metro LGBTQ community. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

Working toward an inclusive community

In addition to the election and awards presentations, Rabbi Michael Schwab of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, Highland Park, highlighted a community-wide, cross-denominational initiative focused on creating a more inclusive environment for individuals with disabilities. Schwab and JUF Board member Marc Roth co-chaired the Synagogue Inclusion Project, which engaged more than 25 congregations to increase their efforts for people with disabilities.

"One in five Jews in Chicago lives with a disability," Schwab said. "This statistic includes people with a wide range of disabilities, from physical impairments to sight and hearing loss, to aging-related conditions and mental illness.

"(And) the vast majority of Jews with disabilities -- more than half -- do not participate in synagogue or Jewish communal life because they believe that they are perceived as disruptive," he said. "People with disabilities want what everyone in this room wants -- to have the right and the opportunity to participate in and contribute to our community."

Over the past two years, the JUF Synagogue Federation Commission partnered with Jewish Child & Family Services Encompass to research barriers and opportunities for inclusion in congregations. With funding support from JUF, Encompass helps raise community awareness, and coordinate planning with Jewish organizations, including JUF, CJE SeniorLife, JCC Chicago, JCFS, JVS Chicago, Keshet, the Libenu Foundation, Yachad, and a number of other organizations.

In addition, JUF this fall is partnering with Encompass and the community to launch the Community Endowment for Jewish Adults with Disabilities, with an initial fundraising goal of $10 million.

Partnerships between government, service providers, community and family are critical to ensuring that Jewish adults with disabilities receive the financially sustainable services they need. Yet the reality is that for Chicago Jews living with disabilities, the needs outpace available resources.

"Public funding sources are grossly inadequate to meet the costs associated with these needs," Schwab said, noting that the state of Illinois ranks 48th in the country for the "abysmal" amount of funding it provides for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Community Endowment for Jewish Adults with Disabilities is a step toward meeting those current and future needs.

"Our Jewish community can and must do better," Schwab said. "And through JUF, its agencies, our local synagogues and community partners, we will," he said. "Our goal must be no less than making inclusion a reality for everyone."

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