Comedian Amy Poehler brings 'joy' to nearly 1,000 at JUF's 2018 Vanguard Dinner

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Amy Poehler at the 2018 JUF Vanguard Dinner. (Photo by Robert F. Kusel)

Amy Poehler's visit to Chicago this week was a return home for the star, who launched her career in the Windy City two decades ago. 

To make it in Chicago, she said, "all you need is a good attitude and a good winter coat."  Poehler--the Emmy-winning actor, comedian, producer, author--headlined the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago's Vanguard Dinner on behalf of the 2018 Jewish United Fund Annual Campaign on Tuesday evening, Nov. 7, at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

'The people of miracles'

The Vanguard dinner, attended by nearly 1,000 people, kicked off the 2018 JUF Annual Campaign, which is being chaired by King Harris. Vanguard is JUF's giving society for those making a minimum gift of $5,000 to the JUF Annual Campaign. To inspire future generations, attendees were invited to bring their young adult children as guests. Any young adult who made their first JUF gift at the event will be matched in full, dollar for dollar, under JUF's 2018 Match program. 

Husband and wife Jim and Linda Ginsburg--who first met on a JUF Young Leadership Division singles mission to Israel decades ago--co-chaired the Vanguard dinner. "We have come together tonight to engage in collective action and to harness the power of our community's generosity," Jim said. 

Michael H. Zaransky, Chairman of the JUF Board of Directors, spoke about the resilience of the Jewish people. How impressed his 94-year-old father-in-law, Jack--a Holocaust survivor--will be, Zaransky said, to hear about this gathering of 1,000 dedicated, committed, and successful Jewish people. "We are a vibrant, wonderful community," Zaransky said. "We are the people of miracles."

Vanguard guests also paused to remember the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when the Holocaust began in November of 1938. 

Then, with the Jewish future in mind, Sasha Becker, Nathan Moncrieff, and Julia Siegel, students representing the Hillels of Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago, and University of Chicago, led the blessing over the challah.

'Laughter extends your life'

Then it was on to the laughter-and a profound conversation between two funny people. 

Peter Sagal--the host of the popular radio show, National Public Radio's Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me !--interviewed Poehler on stage. A Boston native, Poehler started her comedy career in Chicago in 1993 in improv and sketch comedy theaters at Second City, ImprovOlympics, and Upright Citizens Brigade, of which she was a founding member. 

Her Chicago sketch comedy roots eventually led her to Saturday Night Live , in which she debuted on the first episode after 9/11 when Americans were questioning whether it was still okay to laugh. Comedy is the best medicine, according to Poehler. "I believe in the very simple thing that laughter extends your life," she said. 

Then, Sagal and Poehler discussed some of Poehler's most lovable--and Pollyana-like--characters. As Leslie Knope in the sitcom Parks and Recreation , Poehler played deputy director of the Parks and Rec department in a fictional Indiana town. What resonated for viewers, Poehler said, was Leslie's boundless idealism. "It was a workplace comedy that talked about people with big dreams with a small amount of power," she said. "…Cynicism will only get you so far." 

Later, Poehler took on the tall order of playing "Joy"--the character and the emotion--in the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out . The film, beloved by children and adults alike, explores the range of human emotions.  Joy and sadness so often intermingle, Poehler said, an important lesson to teach children. "Happiness and sadness live right next to each other …So many kids are constantly being asked if they're happy and they're rarely being asked if they're sad. Parents want desperately to get them out of that stage," she said. "[But] sitting in it, being okay and not being afraid, showing your kid that they can be in it too, is powerful."

Lately, Poehler is relishing in her role as producer--on the other side of the camera. Wearing her producer hat landed her in Israel for the first time this past summer, where she is adapting-alongside Jewish Orange is the New Black star Natasha Lyonne--an Israeli film about female soldiers in the Israel army into a TV series. Poehler said she loves that the project is "a way in" for people who know little about Israel, a country she said she is enamored by. "I was entranced by the intersection of culture and religion. I was blown away by the people," she said. "…For the incredible history that's in Israel, there is this intense alive vibe."

Poehler said she learned during her time on the Chicago comedy scene about collaboration-a concept she likened to the work that the Chicago Jewish community does. "You become better by playing with better people. It was basically the idea of succeeding and failing together," she said. "…It's exactly what you guys [at JUF] are doing too. It's the idea that you can't do it alone and you must take care and look out for each other, and that good ideas come from connections with other people-so we're exactly the same," she added with a smile.

The Vanguard Dinner is supported by several generous corporate partners, including GCM Grosvenor and Kirkland & Ellis.  The Vanguard Dinner is also sponsored in part by a grant from the Manfred & Fern Steinfeld Campaign Events Fund.

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