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Book imparts lessons learned by self-made billionaire

Sam Zell isn’t known for being subtle—and the tongue-in-cheek title of his newly-released book, Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk from a Business Rebel, hints at his penchant for sarcasm.

With its forthright commentary and distinctive humor, the book is akin to having a conversation with the author.

“There were a whole series of lessons that I’d learned, and I needed to find a vehicle to share them with future generations,” Zell said during a recent interview. The book is his way to mentor and motivate aspiring entrepreneurs, investors, and anyone pursuing success in business and in life.

Zell is a lifelong Chicagoan, but a global investor. His business deals have at times spurred controversy, such as when the Tribune Company went into bankruptcy a year after he agreed to steward the enterprise. But he’s started and grown dozens of companies and he’s created thousands of jobs. Moreover, his employees are uncommonly loyal, many of them working with him for decades.

“Being an entrepreneur, among other things, is generally a lonely perspective,” he said.  “You’re going left when everyone else is going right.”

This sort of antithetical thinking saved his parents’ and sister’s lives. Bernard and Rochelle Zell fled from Western Poland with his 3-year-old sister in tow, in August 1939—one day before the German invasion. “My parents made numerous appeals to their brothers, sisters, and parents to leave Poland,” Zell wrote. But their family refused, and all but two members survived.

The Zells spent the next two years going through Lithuania and Russia, and then to Japan. They landed in the United States in 1941 just months before Sam was born. “They traveled on foot, by bus, by horse-drawn carts, and by cattle train,” he wrote. “Growing up, I heard many stories of the help my family received along the way, often from my father’s business associates, Jews and non-Jews alike.”

His parents’ experiences—and his own experience as a Jew growing up in a mixed environment—had a profound effect on his life. “I was always a minority. I think that always set higher standards of performance,” he said.

The family lived in Chicago, eventually moving to Highland Park. As a teen, Zell attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. “Camp Ramah had a very big impact on my life because it was an environment where everybody, including the younger people, was given a lot of autonomy,” he said. He added that the intersection among campers of all ages, outside the social norms of school, gave him the opportunity to discover his leadership ability. He took those experiences to heart, and created a similar culture of meritocracy over seniority in his business.

“Motivation is an extraordinarily large part of people’s success. Much larger than I think conventional wisdom suggests. And motivation and meritocracy are very connected. If there is no meritocracy, it’s hard to get motivated,” he said. When standards are fair rather than based on time served, “the overachiever is always comfortable that he or she is going to achieve in any scenario.”

Zell refuses to buy into social convention. “Early on, I realized that I had to listen to my own drummer, and that when I didn’t I was unhappy,” he said. “I gained the greatest degree of satisfaction and feeling of achievement when I thought through an issue and executed a strategy based on my own thinking.”

He wants to encourage others with a similar orientation. Zell has been a pioneering sponsor of entrepreneurship education, with programs at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and at IDC (Interdisciplinary Center) Herzliya, a private university in Israel. The latter is making significant contributions to Israel’s future.

“My goal at IDC was to create a cadre of people who were focused on business creation and idea execution,” Zell said. “But I also wanted to create a global network that would be relevant throughout the graduates’ careers.”

In 2016, the Zell Entrepreneurship programs at University of Michigan and Northwestern joined the IDC alumni group. “Today, we have 330 alumni in 12 countries,” Zell said.

He wrote: “I believe my purpose in life is to make a difference, and I define making a difference as driving growth.”  It’s not so much about the deals he has made; rather, it’s the way he has accomplished them.

He ends the book by listing his philosophies—among them, being ready to pivot, keeping it simple, keeping your eyes and mind open, doing the right thing, shem tov (a good name), being consistent with your values, and appreciating loyalty. And most important, “Not taking yourself too seriously.”

At 75, Zell has no intention of slowing down. “People ask me if I’ll retire, and I always answer, ‘Retire from what?’ I love what I do.”

This article was originally published June 29, 2017, in JUF News and in the July 2017 print edition of the magazine.


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Women faith leaders urge collaborative activism to address community violence

Seeking solutions to common problems-even among people who may fundamentally disagree-is key to healing a community besieged by violence. And women can the job done, noted Emily Sweet, executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council and Government Affairs, and past executive director of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Reflecting on her recent work to address violence, Sweet said, “It is the women of our city-and in many cases women of faith-who are the ones getting it done-organizing, moving the needle and leading the charge.”

Sweet facilitated a panel discussion, “Faith Leaders on the Front Lines,” with three Chicago faith leaders-one Jewish, one Muslim, and one Christian-during the April 20 Jewish Women’s Foundation Ideas Exchange, part of JWF’s two-day 20 th Anniversary Celebration. Nearly 90 trustees, former executive directors, JWF grant recipients, and staff attended the event.

“We’ve all worked around these issues of violence. Why aren’t we sitting in the same room talking about the same things?” said Eman Hassaballa Aly, Health Communications Manager at NORC at the University of Chicago, Muslim community activist, and Shalom Hartman Institute Muslim Leadership Initiative fellow. “We’ve all been working in our own circles, but now it’s time to make a difference together,” she said.


“We’re mothers, we’re sisters, we’re aunts, we’re surrogate mothers,” said Rev. Dr. Marcenia Richards, executive director, Fierce Women of Faith, an interfaith, multi-racial group working to bring peace to families and communities affected by violence. “We have so many things in common, and that’s what we wanted to build on.”

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, associate rabbi at Temple Sholom in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, said her congregation has been focused on justice issues-in particular, restorative justice. “(We want to) bring a better way to restore the harm done in communities by violence,” she said.

“Eighty percent of our African American families are raised by women. The men are absent,” Richards said, noting that for this reason, it’s critical for women to lead social change efforts.

People need to spend time nurturing, organizing and setting the tone for their own communities-and they need to learn from other communities by inviting people from other communities to tell their stories, Conover said-even when it’s difficult to engage groups of people with different worldviews.

“Instead of skirting the issue (we need to) be able to have some of these conversations,” Conover said. “More often than not we do find ways to move our bigger agenda forward.”

Aly said some Muslim groups will not cooperate with Jewish organizations and causes because of fundamental disagreements about Israel-and noted that she personally does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement.

“What I’ve told these groups is, ‘The table is huge. There’s plenty of work to do, and the work is going to be done. Sometimes you have to put some beliefs aside…in working together on those (common) issues, you’ll find you can come together,'” she said. “We need to be intolerant of intolerance.”

“I try to get people to agree to disagree,” Richards said. “It’s a moral issue. It’s about the life of children.”

“The responsibility is always on somebody to do it,” Aly said. “I can sit back and let someone else do it, but if I want (something) for myself I have to create the space around me that’s going to work for me… The bonus is that it works for everybody else, too. That’s the kind of stuff that gives me hope.”

Building relationships with individuals from different backgrounds and groups makes it possible to bring them together to work on common concerns. Indeed all of the panelists had been connected over the past year as a result of various programs and events convened by the JCRC and JWF that were aimed at building and organizing a multi-faith coalition of women to address violence in Chicago.

“The only way that we can make an impact in Chicago is by working together” Richards said in her closing remarks.

The JWF Ideas Exchange included additional panel discussions facilitated by past JWF executive directors and featuring JWF trustees on the front lines of feminist issues and current JWF grant recipients. Future events include a Leadership Luncheon on July 20 in collaboration with the JUF Women’s Division, and Marketing the Movement, a stakeholder workshop, on Nov. 14.

For information on JWF and these future events, visit .

Since 1997, the Jewish Women’s Foundation, an independent project of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, has been seeking to expand and improve opportunities and choices in all aspects of Jewish women’s and girls’ lives through strategic and effective grantmaking. The Foundation empowers Jewish women as leaders, funders, and decision-makers. 

This article originally ran in the June print edition of JUF News and at

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Jewish teens present feminist-themed seder

The Passover seder is a complex, ancient tradition steeped in values and meaning. Using the Haggadah as a guide, Jews around the world reflect on events set forth in Exodus, hearing the story of the Jewish People, connecting with Jewish culture, and internalizing the Jewish experience.

One group of Jewish teen girls has found stories of women missing from the Haggadah, so over this past school year, they wrote their own. They hosted “The Revenge of Dinah: a Feminist Seder on Rape Culture in the Jewish Community,” in May. 

The event was the culminating project of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago Research Training Internship (RTI), a selective 10-month paid internship for high school-aged girls, where students discuss, examine, and report on the cultural messages Jewish teen girls receive about who they are supposed to be and become. RTI is a joint program between JUF and DePaul’s Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender, and Community.

Ten Chicago city and suburban high school students who make up the third RTI cohort began meeting last fall. Through their discussions, they focused their research on rape culture.

“The underlying themes and commonalities in our society normalize and perpetuate not only rape, but sexual assault and violence in general through cultural norms, media, victim-blaming attitudes, and the frequent objectification of women’s bodies,” said Chloe Wagner, a junior at Francis W. Parker High School in Chicago. “That is rape culture.”

Rather than writing a more traditional research paper to present their findings, the girls wrote a Haggadah based on the life of Dinah, whose rape and its subsequent aftermath are described in the Book of Genesis. Although Dinah’s brothers seek to avenge the rape, “It’s them trying to protect the family name, not her,” said Jordana Bornstein, a junior at Deerfield High School.

“The idea for a Haggadah on rape culture took a while to come up with. As a cohort, we wanted our work to affect the right people and engage the proper audience,” said Meghan Kier, Schaumburg High School junior.

Their research has made them more sensitive to the both the overt and subtle sexism they observe in American and Jewish culture, the girls said.

“The effect rape culture has on Jewish teen girls in everyday life is astounding. This can be seen in such expectations as trying to be the ‘perfect’ Jewish girl,” Wagner said.

“We know that rape culture is a huge task to take on because it encompasses so much,” Kier said. “But, if we educate the right audience, that change can start to happen.”

The girls’ Haggadah features data-driven context with new rituals that reflect on the social consequences of rape culture and its related issues.

While the project focuses on educating participants about rape culture-it also provides a framework of hope for the future. The text reads: “…Our potential to make change is not something impossible to attain. Rather, the tree of life, our prospective growth, lies right in front of us.”

“By getting teens to come together to talk about it, that in itself is making change,” Bornstein said.

Becca Gadiel, a junior at Jones College Prep in Chicago, wants participants to realize they can stop sexist speech and attitudes in their own lives and social circles. “I feel like the biggest thing is awareness and educating people, especially teenagers,” she said. “Unless you know what’s going on, you can’t really do anything about it.”

“If we can give those tools to other teens, by the time people of our generation are parents, we can stop the language that perpetrates rape culture,” Bornstein said.

Teens create social change through JUF Research Training Internship  

The Jewish United Fund Research Training Internship (RTI) offers Chicago area high school-aged girls the opportunity to advise JUF’s work from their unique perspectives. Students explore the messages Jewish teen girls receive-from popular culture, parents and other adults, the Jewish community, from school and from peers-about who and what they should be. Students meet twice a month at DePaul University, and receive a $200 stipend at the end of the internship.

RTI is hosted by JUF, DePaul University, the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender, and Community in partnership with Ma’yan and with funding from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, the Ellie Fund of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, and The Hadassah Foundation.

“Students focus their research on injustice as it relates to the Jewish community,” said Stephanie Goldfarb, JUF Director of Youth Philanthropy & Leadership.

Prior cohorts have researched the roles of power and privilege on the lives of Jewish teen girls in Chicago; and on the perpetration of pressure on Jewish teen girls to achieve high standards of academic success, beauty, religious life, relationships and more.

Students are seeing a positive effect, not only on themselves, but also on the Jewish community.

“Women and girls are definitely the future of the Jewish community,” said Becca Gadiel, junior at Jones College Prep, Chicago. “It’s really important to keep younger people involved and connected to Judaism. (By) making it more inclusive … it will help attract and connect younger people.”

“I think that the fact that an organization like RTI and similar groups exist says something,” said Jordana Bornstein, Deerfield High School junior. “There are girls in the Jewish community that are knowledgeable and want to do this-break gender roles, and be more inclusive.”

“In the Jewish community programs and opportunities like RTI should continue to be available,” said Meghan Kier, Schaumburg High School junior. “As teenagers, sometimes we feel that we don’t have a voice. RTI gives Jewish women a powerful voice that could affect people worldwide.”

Artwork by Alana Chandler, RTI intern 

This post originally appeared in JUF News.

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Rabbis share ‘Tales from the Sacred Calling’

Preserving the legacy of women in the rabbinate was the common goal when Rabbi Alysa Mendeslon and Rabbi Rebecca Schorr collaborated on their anthology, “Tales from the Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.” The rabbis spoke about the historic significance of women in the rabbinate at the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago Annual Meeting on Jan. 18.

“Until recently, women were not the keepers of their own stories, Shorr said. “This is why this book is so important to us,” she said.

The rabbis co-edited and wrote chapters for the book published by CCAR Press.

Shorr’s father was a rabbi. “Gender was not an issue in my congregation (when I was) growing up,” she said. One of her rabbis at summer camp was among the first 10 ordained rabbis who were women, an inspiring role model to the future rabbi. “It wasn’t that she was a ‘woman’ rabbi. She was a rabbi,” she said.

When Schorr announced to her parents that she was going to rabbinical school, her mother was concerned. “She saw what I didn’t see, of how difficult it is in any career being a working mom, but especially to be a rabbinic working mom.”

“From a very early age, women rabbis were part of my Jewish life,” Mendelson said. “They helped me fall in love with Judaism.” She wanted to be a rabbi until she saw the congregation’s reaction when the rabbi had her first baby. People criticized the way the rabbi handled her children, how they behaved, what she wore, and so on.

Instead of rabbinic school, Mendelson went to law school. She practiced matrimonial law for a year before she realized she was “supposed to be doing this…I took the leap of faith and went to rabbinical school,” she said. “It truly is a sacred calling.”

Reflecting on the changes during the past 40 years since the first woman was ordained, Schorr said, “Jewish communal life as a whole has been positively affected and influenced by the Reform movement allowing women to become rabbis.”

“Women brought new issues to the table,” Mendelson said. “And women also brought new styles of leadership to the Jewish world.

“When women entered the rabbinate, I think they helped move things in a different direction. The ways (women) think about success…it was just different (from men.) It was really about the quality of relationships and the way we connect with each other.”

In the recent past-and the present-rabbis often serve their congregations with a top-down leadership style. Women in the rabbinate “can’t be compared to that old paradigm,” Schorr said.

There have been ripple effects on Jewish life and the rabbinate in general, Mendelson said, noting that their male colleagues have benefited by a new definition of success.

The book is an anthology of essays from Jews across the spectrum, written by both women and men. They each wrote chapters-Schorr’s focusing on parenting, and Mendelson’s, on the importance of setting a “Gold Standard” for maternity leave-three months of paid leave, so rabbis can spend the time with their newborns.

“There are still women (rabbis) who are not getting paid leave at all, whose congregations don’t want to put it in their contracts,” Mendelson said, noting that often, the argument is that people in the corporate world don’t get that kind of paid maternity leave.

“Please don’t compare Jewish life or Jewish leadership or actually, what Jewish organizations should be doing to the corporate world,” she said. “We are supposed to be the ones that show everyone the right thing to do. And while there may be corporations that don’t want to do the right thing, Jewish organizations should always be at the forefront of doing the right thing.”


Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf is currently the rabbi of Port Jewish Center in Port Washington, NY, and has served for 11 years on the Women’s Rabbinic Network Board and is its immediate past co-president. She is a 2016-17 Fellow with the NY Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing writer at, and is the former editor of the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She has contributed her writing to numerous anthologies, magazines and other publications. 

This article originally ran in the February edition of JUF News.


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What’s Jewish about BRCA?

The Center for Jewish Genetics, in conjunction with the Basser Center for BRCA, will host one of the nation’s leading authorities on breast cancer and a panel of experts discussing “What’s Jewish about BRCA ?” on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. A reception begins at 6 p.m.; followed by the program at 7 p.m. Cost is $18 per person.

“BRCA refers to hereditary mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that significantly increase the risk of breast cancer both in women and in men,” said Jason Rothstein, director of the Center for Jewish Genetics.

“While everyone faces a risk of cancer, Jewish men and women with an Ashkenazi background are 10 times more likely to have a BRCA mutation than the general population,” he said. “The connection between the mutation and breast cancer is widely known, but individuals with BRCA mutations also face an increased risk of ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma.”

Panelists at the Oct. 14 event-all experts in fields ranging from medical oncology, surgery and gynecological oncology to genetics and advocacy-will discuss a variety of topics, including strategies for identification of high-risk individuals and families, and options for intervention.

“If you don’t know you’re at risk, you can’t make an informed decision about [how to address] that risk,” said keynote speaker Dr. Susan M. Domchek, MD, during a recent interview. She is a nationally recognized expert in breast and ovarian cancer genetics; hereditary cancer risk and prevention; and breast cancer treatment.

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes were identified in 1994 and 1995 respectively-within a year of Domchek’s graduation from medical school. “I have grown up with the discoveries related to these genes. During the past 20 years, so much has been learned,” she said.

“Genetic testing is valuable because you can identify individuals who are at increased risk of developing cancer,” she said. “Family history is important as well. If you have a strong family history of cancer, that’s important to know for screening and prevention. It’s important to talk to your health care provider about the pros and cons and what will work best for you,” she said.

Domchek is executive director of the Basser Center for BRCA in Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center; director of the MacDonald Cancer Risk Evaluation Center; and the Basser Professor of Oncology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on understanding breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility in genes such as BRCA1 and BRCA2 , and how to target such genetic mutations for improved cancer treatment. Domchek has been recognized as one of the “Best Doctors in America” by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and as a “Top Doc” in Philadelphia Magazine .

Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune Health and Family reporter, will moderate the event.

Expert panelists include Taya J. Fallen , CGC, Northwestern University; Melissa K. Rosen , MA, Director of National Outreach, Sharsheret; Catherine E. Pesce , MD, breast oncology specialist at NorthShore University Health System; and S. Diane Yamada , MD, Professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology and Chief, Section of Gynecologic Oncology, at University of Chicago.

This article originally ran in the September 2015 edition of JUF News.