It seems bashert--or meant to be--that Brian Baker has joined the JUF family as its Deputy Director of Security, but you might not have predicted it considering his origins.
Growing up in the tiny town of Aledo, Ill., near the Quad Cities, Baker never met anyone Jewish. In fact, he admits, "I didn't know what a Jewish person was until I got to college."
Only there, while studying at Iowa State University, did he happen to befriend a couple of Jewish guys in his fraternity. It was in that same frat that another one of Baker's buddies connected him with the ROTC--a U.S. Army training program for college students--which Baker joined and fell in love with.
Baker served in the U.S. Army Reserve for 23 years, as both an Army Intelligence Major and certified paratrooper, with assignments in Ukraine, Jordan, and Egypt. He also deployed for one year in the wake of 9/11 in Oman and Afghanistan. "It really opened my eyes to how good we have it in our country," he said.
During Baker's time in the reserves, a few north suburban police officers--fellow reservists--chatted him up about joining the police force.
Then, in 1994, he launched his 30-year career at the Skokie Police Department, rising through the ranks from patrol officer through the ranks to police chief in 2020.
Skokie's large Jewish population and headline-grabbing cases relevant to the Jewish community in Baker's jurisdiction initially drew his attention to the Jewish world: the 1999 neo-Nazi-fueled shooting spree that killed basketball coach Ricky Byrdsong; a KKK rally in 2000 that erupted in violence; and the grand opening of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in 2009, for which Baker helmed the security detail.
Upon joining the Anti-Defamation League's Law Enforcement Advisory Committee, Baker met Lonnie Nasatir, then-regional director of the ADL-and now JUF President.
The stars aligned when Baker was contemplating his next professional steps, with his retirement looming. "Nothing had interested me," said Baker, who retired from the police force after 30 years. Then, last September, Nasatir invited Baker as a guest to the Jewish Federation's Annual Meeting. Around the same time, Daniel Godsel, JUF's Director of Security, called on Baker to help out with security at the same meeting.
Baker was blown away by the work of JUF. "Prior to that day, I had no idea what JUF did, and the [breadth] of its programs," he said. But he wasn't just inspired--he wanted to be a part of it. "I went home that night," he said, "and told my wife, 'I could do Dan [Godsel's] job. The problem is Dan's got the job."
But two weeks later, someone alerted him to an opening for Deputy Director of Security, and he applied for the job and was hired. "What really strikes me is how invested the Jewish community is in their community," he said. I don't feel like there's any other community like it."
Then October 7 happened.
"After that day," he said, "we were flooded with requests."
Through Baker's encounters with members of the Chicago Jewish community in the wake of that horrible day, he said he sees how close to home things hits for the community. "It drove home for me that it's not just that the community is scared because of what happened overseas," he said. "It's that they're personally affected by it."
While on the force, Baker and other officers participated in a social media project to explain, "Why I wear the badge." Baker's reply: "So no one has to live in fear."
He discovered that JUF's security initiative Live Secure Chicago aligns with why he wears the badge. "JUF has the exact same mission--that no one in the Jewish community should have to live in fear," he said.
"Chief Baker's joining our Dan Godsel-led security team is another significant milestone towards realizing our vision of Chicago Jewish communal life being secure, where no one is deterred from participating because of fear," said Michael H. Zaransky, JUF's Security Committee Chair.
Since getting hired, Baker--who is married with three grown children--said that his wife has told him at least 20 times that his new job is meant to be.
As he puts it, "Everything I've done to this point has prepared me for this next job."