JWF Dollars at Work: The Women Behind the Scenes

The Unstoppable Stephanie Goldfarb, Program Director of the Research Training Institute, a four-time JWF & Ellie Fund Grantee

By Mary E. Thomas

Stephanie Goldfarb is not your average twenty-or-thirty-something. You might call her an overachiever. You might say she has an insatiable thirst for knowledge. However you see it, Chicago's Jewish United Fund (JUF) is lucky to have her.

She grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona in what Stephanie would call a "pretty normal Reform upbringing". Not unlike many young American Jews, she received a great deal of informal Jewish education throughout her childhood, including nine years of Jewish summer camp. In her family, the emphasis was not on religion but in preserving the cultural traditions of her heritage, and for Stephanie, that message translated into a lifelong commitment to her community. After high school, she set out as an undergraduate at Arizona State University to earn a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Gender Studies with the hope of someday finding a meaningful job in social work. To better prepare her for serving future clients and the community, she moved to Chicago to pursue two Master's Degrees from Loyola University, one in Gender Studies and another in Clinical Social Work.

Today, as Program Director of Youth Philanthropy and Leadership in the Jewish United Fund's Community Outreach and Engagement Department, she is the director of two innovative programs working with Chicago's Jewish youth. Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation introduces teens to professional philanthropy and grantmaking through a Jewish lens to prepare them for their final year-end project: allocating $25,000 to programs positively impacting change in their community and abroad. Her second program, the Research Training Internship (RTI), is a paid internship for a small group of high-school aged girls to explore the social justice issues of privilege, power, and intersectionality through a feminist lens.

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Stephanie with the teens from Voices taking a moment to enjoy a laugh

Stephanie's journey to JUF started many years ago. Initially a Program Associate in JUF's Legacies and Endowments department, her knowledge and work ethic quickly drew the attention of staff throughout the building. In order to complete her graduate degrees, she briefly left JUF—only to be lured back a few years later for a position in the Teen Initiatives department. Despite being fully committed as a graduate student at Loyola and involved in a 15 hour/week clinical internship, Stephanie accepted the offer to work part-time as Program Director of Voices.

In the meantime, a program of the Manhattan JCC working with girls and teen professionals, May'an, began its own process of exploring who Jewish teen girls are and what they might be looking for from their community. Based on the ideas that a) teens benefit from connecting to other young people and adults while engaging in serious inquiry about topic that matter to them, and b) adolescents need a space where they can investigate and think critically about the world around them, Ma'yan developed the Research Training Internship (RTI) as a way of including girls' voices and enhancing the depth and quality of their research. After demonstrating consistent success with RTI in New York, Ma'yan began contacting Jewish community professionals to pilot the program around the country. Due to their team's tremendous success with teens in their various programs, including Voices, Hallie Shapiro Devir, Associate Vice President in Community Outreach and Engagement of JUF, was approached by Ma'yan about running a pilot RTI program. After securing some much-needed funding—including a grant from JWF and the Ellie Fund at JWF—the first cohort of fifteen high school girls embarked on the first-ever Chicago Research Training Internship in 2014. Stephanie was asked to direct the program.

As Director of RTI, Stephanie formed critical connections between JUF and the Beck Research Institute at DePaul University. As a result, the interns have the extensive expertise of three university professors in the social work, education, and gender studies fields to guide them as they learn and implement feminist research methodology throughout the year at bi-monthly meetings. RTI interns produce new, well-researched evidence of the needs and experiences of Jewish teen girls, which can be used by community professionals to improve existing programs.

This past December, the inaugural group of fifteen teens presented their research at a DePaul University community forum, #JewishAndProud: A Study of Young Jewish Women in Chicago, with the intent of starting a public discussion about the roles of adolescent Jewish women in the Chicago community. Through their research, the interns hope to better assist Jewish institutions in their outreach and programming for girls in their demographic. "Everyone is really the expert on their own lives," Stephanie says, "And I'm always surprised by their capacity for nuanced, complicated discussion—their ability to challenge each other and themselves to think about things differently, and to explore ideas that are uncomfortable to them."

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RTI Interns presented their published research report at a DePaul University community forum in December 2015

As a Program Director, Stephanie sees herself much less as an authority figure and more as a guide. "I'm the adult that's there to provide the tools and resources that they need in order for them to set the agenda, to carry out the conversations," she says, "I'm there to train and support them and facilitate conversation, but really I see myself as a backup dancer." This philosophy allows her to cultivate a trusting relationship and ensure that she is not getting in the way of the teens' personal journeys. As she puts it, "It's not my job to tell them what their experiences are. It's my job to give them the tools and resources they need to explore what their experiences are."

The Jewish Women's Foundation supported the first cohort of interns with a grant of $17,650 in 2014 and $15,150 in 2015. In addition, the Ellie Fund at the Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago supported the program with two $20,000 grants over the past two years. Stephanie is the first to tell you the support of RTI from an organization like JWF, which is focused on women and girls, makes all the difference. "Because of the commitment that JWF has to young, Jewish women, we've been able to produce strong, independent, thoughtful young women who are trained in university-level research," she says, "Many programs serve only the participants and it can be hard to see the payout over the years when it comes to Jewish continuity and l'dor v'dor, but it's very clear to see exactly what investing in RTI interns will do for the community."

Unsurprisingly, Stephanie's life outside of her professional work with teens is also filled with happiness and success. She is an award-winning chef and won America's Best Cook on Food Network and is a contributor for two food blogs, AutoStraddle and Oy!Chicago. Because she sees her personal philanthropy as the cornerstone of her Jewish identity, she uses her skills for good. She is the founder of the Seven Species Supper Club, a Jewish-themed supper club that she hosts in her home. Each month, the proceeds are donated to a different charity around Chicago that is working to help women, young people, and the LGBTQ community. "Commit to the causes you care most about with everything you have," Stephanie says—and she practices what she preaches.

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Stephanie's Seven Species Supper Club is known for delicious seasonal, (mostly) vegetarian, and multi-regional cuisine

Despite her success in the kitchen, she won't be opening a restaurant anytime soon. In Stephanie's world, there is no greater personal satisfaction to be found than in working professionally with teens. "I love it! I live for my job. Every day I wake up and I'm excited to go to work," she says, "I get to practice social work, I get to think about gender, I get to work with Jewish teens—it's just the best! I'm very, very happy in my job."

It goes without saying we are equally pleased to have Stephanie in our Chicago community, imparting her wisdom and knowledge to the next generation of Jewish leaders.

To learn more about RTI and JUF's teen programs, click here.