Philanthropic matchmaker Donna Kahan retires

Longtime communal fundraiser also is a philanthropist in her own right

Donna Kahan Correct image

Donna Kahan is the woman who helped build Jewish Chicago's skyline.  

As JUF's longtime Senior Associate Vice President of Legacies and Endowments, Kahan devoted her career to helping donors match their philanthropic passions with projects and programs in need of support. After nearly 35 years on JUF's staff, Kahan retired in December.   

A lifelong Chicagoan, Kahan had a hand in virtually every capital project in Jewish Chicago over the last generation, from the Weinger JCC, Weinberg Community for Senior Living and Joy Faith Knapp Children's Center to the Dina and Eli Field EZRA Multi-Service Center, Ida Crown Jewish Academy, and JCFS Chicago's Seigle Campus.  

"Donna is an excellent listener," said Dr. Betsy Gidwitz, a longtime community leader and philanthropist who has worked with Kahan for decades.  "She is friendly and open, able to interact with people of different generations and different interests.  She learns what engages people, but also is discreet and diplomatic."  

Kahan joined JUF's staff in 1989 after many years of service as a lay leader and community activist.  

She and her late husband, Don, shared a love for Jewish life, community, and Israel. They made their first trip to the Jewish State the February following the Six Day War.  

"It was transformative for me," Kahan said. "I came home and got much more involved than I ever was before." 

The couple traveled to Israel often, visiting with each of their four sons to mark the boys' becoming bar mitzvahs.  

They also were deeply involved in the Soviet Jewry movement.   

"We spent many, many Sundays marching and singing 'Let my people go,'" Kahan said. They traveled to meet with Refuseniks in 1973, attended the Second World Conference on Soviet Jewry in Brussels in 1976, and participated in the historic "Freedom Sunday" March on Washington in 1987. 

Fifty years later, Kahan again traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 290,000-strong March for Israel on November 14, 2023.  

"Donna could be on a poster board for what an activist looks like," said JUF Executive Vice Chairman Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, who worked with Kahan as a lay leader and subsequently recruited her to join JUF's staff.  "She is smart and engaging-and absolutely fearless."  

One of Kahan's proudest moments came during her tenure as president of JUF's Women's Division, when Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir came to Chicago on a fundraising tour and Kahan got to meet and sit on the dais with her.  

Advocates for Zionism, Jewish education, and elevating the voices of women, Kahan and her husband became the first husband and wife team to serve together on the JUF board.   

"We were always troublemakers," Kahan said.  

They also were always extraordinarily generous. In the 1970s, when she went on a National Women's Mission to Israel, Kahan was galvanized when she saw a new kindergarten being dedicated in an underserved neighborhood.  

"I called my husband from Israel and said, 'Don, I know what I want for my 40th birthday: I want a kindergarten,'" Kahan remembered.  "He said, 'Well, do it. Why are you waiting until you're 40? Go downstairs and tell them we'll do it!'"  

So, she made her first capital gift to build a kindergarten in Arad. Over the years, Kahan went on to make multiple gifts to JUF's Centennial Campaign. 

"I generally gave at least a small amount to almost every project I worked on, so I could say to people: Please join me," Kahan explained. "And I just loved seeing Jewish Chicago grow and get even better and more responsive to the needs of our community."   

What's next for the grandmother of 14 and great-grandmother of four? 

She plans to take advantage of continuing education classes at local universities, join book and film groups-and work on the next presidential campaign.  


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