It's been a year of simchas and milestones for Alene Rutzky, JUF's outgoing Southern Suburbs Coordinator. In late 2018, she celebrated both her 70th birthday and 50 years of marriage to her husband Ronald. And this winter, she celebrated her retirement after more than 23 years at JUF representing and serving the extended south suburban Jewish community.
In her role as South Suburban Coordinator, Rutzky's days were devoted to identifying and filling service gaps within the local Jewish community. Over the course of her nearly 24 years of service, she wore innumerable hats. Rutzky, who retired in February, helped organize everything from college fairs for Jewish high school students to adult education programs, to a south suburban Maot Chitim chapter and emergency financial assistance supports. She also helped establish, launch, and manage JUF's Mini-Grant Kehillah program, which provides small grants to bring additional Jewish programming to the region.
But one of the projects she's most proud of is the south suburban transportation program. Chicago's sprawling southern suburbs (i.e., Olympia Fields, Park Forest, Homewood, Flossmoor, Hazelcrest, and Glenwood) have train lines connecting to the city proper, but little in terms of local public transit. As such, those without access to a car, particularly the region's older and aging residents, often struggle with mobility, making outings like a trip to the grocery store or to the doctor challenging. Rutzky identified this barrier in the mid-1990s, and promptly got to work leveraging local resources to improve the lives of her neighbors. Out of this project came the first Shalom bus system in the southern suburbs.
Today, the transportation program includes a partnership with the ride-share platform GoGoGrandparent. Those needing a ride do not need access to a smartphone or computer. Instead, they can call a phone number and order a ride much like one would a taxi. JUF helps subsidize the cost of service, so users pay a minimal fee.
It brings Rutzky great satisfaction to help provide such critical services for her neighbors. This Jewish community, she explained, is incredibly close: "It's like living in a small town. We all know each other…when somebody is in trouble, everyone responds." JUF, likewise, "has always been very responsive" to the needs of the community, she said. "I've gotten a tremendous amount of support from everybody downtown…and I know JUF will continue to serve the community."
"Alene is an incredibly knowledgeable resource for both the Jewish and general community," said Karen Galin, assistant vice president of Health and Human Services at JUF. "We will miss her perspective, thoughtful, and diligent advocacy, and rich sense of history."
In her retirement, Rutzky looks forward to spending more time with her grandchildren Moira, Naphtali, and Raphael, and going on a long-awaited trip to Europe with Ronald. She plans to remain heavily involved in the local Jewish community and to continue serving in leadership roles on several social service/homeless prevention-related provider networks in the region.
"We are staying in the community because we love it," Rutzky said. "I've enjoyed [my role] so much…it's been a very big part of my life." Now, "I look forward to what comes next."
Jenna Cohen serves as Grants and Planning Associate for Jewish Child & Family Services and is a freelance writer living in the Chicago area.