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JUF’s 2019 Vanguard Dinner with Judd Apatow reaffirms Jewish endurance, resilience, and even humor

The dinner, which kicked off the 2019 JUF Annual Campaign, reminded the community that the Jewish spirit can never be crushed.

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Pictured: Comedian Judd Apatow in a conversation with Wendy Berger, 2019 JUF General Campaign Chair. Photo credit: Robert Kusel.

After one of the most painful weeks in modern American Jewish history, JUF's Vanguard Dinner -- which kicked off the 2019 JUF Annual Campaign -- demonstrated the resilience of the Jewish people.

Held Monday, Nov. 5, just nine days after the Pittsburgh Shabbat massacre, the dinner reaffirmed the Chicago Jewish community's longstanding commitment to nurturing Jewish life, building community, and caring for those in need -- and reminded us that the Jewish spirit can never be crushed.

"Last week our hearts were broken -- but our resolve was not," said 2019 JUF General Campaign Chair Wendy A. Berger. "Tonight, we 'choose life,' even in the face of tragedy. Tonight, we refuse to give in to fear. We will not be deterred in coming together for good, to do good, as a Jewish community. Tonight, we reaffirm our commitment to healing a broken world."

Nearly 650 people attended the Vanguard dinner, headlined by comedian Judd Apatow and held at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. Vanguard is JUF's giving society for those making a minimum gift of $5,000 to the JUF Annual Campaign.

Guests were invited to bring their young adult children to the event, as an expression of inspiring future generations. One such young woman who attended the dinner with her parents was Kayla Schwartz, daughter of Vanguard dinner co-chairs Jamie Diamond Schwartz and David Schwartz. Jamie and David have modeled the importance of Jewish involvement to Kayla and her two brothers. "We have always taught our kids that they have a responsibility to their community, and the Jewish people are their people, their identity, and their history," Jamie said.

The Schwartzes' first involvement with JUF dates back to the 1980s when they attended a singles mission to Israel together as recent college grads. At the end of the mission, on the top of Mount. Herzl, the participants had a chance to share their impressions about the trip and announce their philanthropic commitment to the Jewish community. They were blown away by people's dedication. One guy pledged $25,000.

"I was flabbergasted," David said. "I really had no money to pledge, but I did have an old, fire engine red 1964 MGB. I decided on the spot that I could sell my car -- and so I pledged $500. When I got home, I did sell the car to fulfill that pledge."

David and Jamie have been leaders in the Chicago Jewish community ever since.

'Do we really ever root for the handsome, strong guy?'

Through the Jewish people's long history of tears, part of Jewish resilience has always centered around the healing power of laughter. With that in mind, Vanguard attendees enjoyed entertainment from Jewish writer, director, producer, and comedian Judd Apatow, who has created some of the most iconic comedies of the last two decades on the big screen and small.

Apatow performed a short stand-up set for the audience, followed by a sit-down Q & A with Berger.

His latest projects, both on HBO, are Crashing , chronicling a stand-up comic; and his documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling , which recently earned him an Emmy nomination for best director.

Apatow, who wrote for Shandling's 1990s sitcom The Larry Sanders Show , told the crowd he considered the late comedian one of his most influential mentors. "He taught me about writing from a truthful place," he said.

Maybe that place of truth is what draws Apatow to depicting stories about the underdog. In Apatow's movies like Trainwreck , Knocked Up , Bridesmaids , and The 40 Year Old Virgin , he portrays lovable -- albeit sometimes awkward -- protagonists, who you're rooting for, ultimately, to succeed at life.

"Do we really ever root for the handsome, strong guy?" he said. "I'd like [the movie] The Bourne Identity better if it starred Norm from Cheers ."

It's no coincidence that those same underdog characters are often Jewish. "For me, I like writing warm-hearted and strong characters… [that exemplify] Jewish values," he said. "Those values are what I try to instill in everything. I'm not super religious, but I really do believe that all that matters in life is being kind… I like to write about people who try to love better, learn something, and move closer together."

They say you should write what you know -- and Apatow knows the Jews. "People talk about writing diversity in the movies. But I don't know if I can write anyone but the Jews," he joked. "I'm Sephardic -- I can't even write [about] an Ashkenazi Jew."

During his time on stage, he talked about his wife of 23 years, actress Leslie Mann, and their two daughters, ages 16 and 21.

Their elder daughter recently told her parents she wanted to quit college. Apatow tried to talk her out of it, but he felt like a hypocrite since he, himself, had only attended college for 1.5 years -- and yet his career trajectory hasn't been too shabby.

He said he couldn't imagine scolding her with, "Do you want to end up like me -- sitting in a room all day with your friends, telling jokes, and meeting Rihanna?"

Apatow works with Mann and casts his daughters in his movies frequently, but it's another woman in his family -- his mom -- who indirectly helped him launch his career in comedy.

After his parents divorced when he was a kid, his mother got a job as a hostess at a comedy club, which was Apatow's first foray into the comedy world. Stemming from her connections at the club, he was able to interview for his Long Island high school radio show comedy legends like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.

"I feel like, on some level," he said, "my mom unconsciously took that job for me because it was my destiny to be around comedy."

"We will not be deterred in coming together for good, to do good, as a Jewish community. Tonight, we reaffirm our commitment to healing a broken world."

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