When Highland Park's Mally Zoberman Rutkoff is honored at the "What You Do Matters 2020 Risa K. Lambert Chicago Virtual Event," a Sept. 15 online gathering sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), she will share the spotlight with University of Chicago graduate student R. Derek Black, the event's keynote speaker.
On the surface of it, the two are a most unlikely pair.
Rutkoff, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, served as chair of Chicago's Holocaust Community Services Leadership Committee. She was also the first chair of the USHMM's Chicago Children of Survivors group and launched the National Children of Survivors programs and trips to Washington, D.C. Long involved with the Jewish elderly-first as a geriatric social worker, later as a lay leader-Rutkoff served as chair of the CJE SeniorLife and has been a longtime board member. She has also been a JUF board member and JUF Women's Board member for many years.
Black, on the other hand, is the son of Southern Florida white nationalists, Chloe and Don Black, and the godson of David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) who continues to espouse racist, antisemitic, and neo-Nazi theories. Don Black, who was also active in the KKK and the American Nazi Party, co-hosted a white nationalist radio program with R. Derek, who fully embraced his parents' and godfather's beliefs in white superiority.
Blame college and a group of classmates for R. Derek Black's appearance at a Holocaust-related event.
After a childhood of homeschooling-his parents "loudly complained" about the diversity of the schools in Palm Beach County, he said-and two years at a community college, Black headed off to Sarasota's New College of Florida, the small, elite honors college of the State University System of Florida, where he began undergoing a transformation.
As The Washington Post's Eli Saslow recounted in his 2018 book about Black, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, Black encountered a group of bright students from various backgrounds who, through casual discussion and vigorous intellectual debate, challenged, often unwittingly, his firmly held views about Black people, Jews, immigrants, and members of other minority groups. Among the most influential members of his student cohort was a classmate Matthew Stevenson, an Orthodox Jew, who began inviting Black to his weekly Shabbat dinners with a diverse group of students.
Black, who said that he had come to New College with "an extreme sense of confidence" in his white nationalist ideology, a belief system in which he had maintained that "we had the science correct," found himself questioning everything he had once accepted as gospel. Eventually, in an email he sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which promotes racial justice and tracks hate crimes, he renounced white nationalism, dissociated himself from racist and antisemitic groups, and apologized for the harm he had done to people of color and to Jews.
That was in 2013. Today, Black, who is a doctoral student in European history at the University of Chicago, where he is writing his dissertation on "how medieval ideas were responsible for creating racist ideas," such as slavery, said that his relationship with his parents remains "extremely strained."
Newly married and now based in Baltimore, where his wife is a clinical psychologist, he speaks frequently about his background and his liberation from racism and antisemitism in the hopes of helping others break free from hateful speech and actions.
Just as his own transformation began on a micro level-Shabbat dinners and student give-and-take-he said, the most effective way of getting through to others is through sharing thoughts and ideas with "the people in our lives who listen to us."
"Personal relationships feel insignificant," he continued, "but they're how you change the world."
The "What You Do Matters 2020 Risa K. Lambert Chicago Virtual Event" starts at noon. It is free, but registration is required at ushmm.org.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.