As an early graduate of Highland Park High School in the middle of a winter in the early 1970s, Jill Weinberg could have stayed at home for six months and slept in until it was time for lunch each day.
She chose instead to work with an American Indian cultural center and museum — in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
“American Indians at the time were finding their voices and establishing their strength politically,” says Weinberg, who had volunteered at the American Indian Center in Chicago during her high school years and heard about the opportunity in Oklahoma from her college guidance counselor, Jim Alexander. “I cared deeply about causes at a young age.
“I was a doer.”
Still is. Weinberg, 62, has been the Midwest regional director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) for nearly 29 years. Located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the museum has welcomed more than 40 million visitors, including 10 million school-aged children, since its dedication in 1993. The living memorial, according to its website, “inspires citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide and promote human dignity.”
Weeks before the “What You Do Matters” Risa K. Lambert Chicago Luncheon — an annual benefit for the USHMM, to be held at Sheraton Grand Chicago, on Sept. 8 — I find myself sitting at Weinberg’s kitchen table in her elegant house in Highland Park. The former waitress at Pickle Barrel in Northbrook and at Zelda’s in the Lincoln Village shopping center and at Mushrooms & Sons in Highland Park had politely declined my invitation to meet me at a restaurant for an interview. Before me, in the middle of the table in a house built in 1868, rests an empty parfait glass next to a bowl of yogurt and small glasses filled with strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and pineapple slices. My first thought: So THIS is what a charming bed and breakfast in the morning must look like.
I concoct a personal breakfast parfait. Weinberg also offers me coffee, homemade sourdough bread, biscotti and Ping-Pong-ball-sized muffins.
“I enjoy baking and cooking,” says the wife of Bernard Kramer and the mother of daughters Perri, 32, and Julia, 31, and the grandmother of newborn Philip (Julia’s son). “To create a meal or a dessert for somebody brings joy and pleasure to me; there’s a therapeutic aspect to baking and cooking. I sometimes bake things at 3 a.m., if I’m up and can’t get back to sleep.
“My father [Louis] loved to cook, loved to share food with our neighbors. He’d search for hours to find the best tomatoes, going from grocery store to grocery store. He’d make the best onion soup and then head out the door to deliver some of it to friends who lived nearby.”
Weinberg’s mother, Elaine, had a passion for all things Chicago, particularly if they had anything to do with the city’s museums, theaters and music halls. She started a business and called it Fancy Free Tours.
Of Chicago, of course.
“My mother was a great appreciator of experiences,” says Weinberg, who worked for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago for 11 years before Ralph Grunewald of the USHMM offered her the position she holds today in 1989 — when the museum was a vision. “I am an appreciator, too. I’ve always been a seeker of experiences.”
Weinberg flew to Washington, D.C. 28 years ago to meet with Grunewald and other members of the USHMM team and absorbed every detail of the concept. The privately funded landmark would provide educational outreach and onsite and traveling exhibitions, as well as serve as an enduring reminder that freedom is fragile.
“I was amazed when I looked at a model of the museum and the big opportunity presented to me,” Weinberg recalls. “I returned home and asked everybody what they thought of the opportunity to become a regional director of something that would focus on the importance of Holocaust history. I asked my parents, my husband, my friends, my neighbors and even my kids, who were 2 and 3 at the time.”
The museum’s first Midwest regional office, for 18 years? Right here, where I’m breaking a thick piece of sourdough bread and listening to a classy, engaging dynamo. I learn her Midwest team’s Next Generation Group began with three young men: Scott Bernstein, Aaron Tucker and Jordan Goodman.
“Those three men, about 10 years ago, had returned to begin their professional lives here and were looking to do something meaningful for an organization,” says Weinberg, who double majored (art history and urban studies) at Colorado College and earned master’s degrees in social work and Jewish Communal Service at Yeshiva University in New York City. “The number of members in that group has grown to a thousand, and we’re also excited about our Teen Committee. I am proud of this community and so many other Chicago-area people. I consider it a blessing to do what I do and work with wonderful, dedicated people. I’ve met the most extraordinary people.”
This year’s Risa K. Lambert Chicago Luncheon is expected to draw more the 2,000 attendees, with the goal to raise $5 million. The event’s keynote speaker will be Maziar Bahari, a Muslim journalist, filmmaker, human rights activist and subject of Jon Stewart’s film, Rosewater. A former Newsweek reporter, Bahari was jailed for 118 days — in 2009, in solitary confinement — in Tehran, Iran. The subject of his most recent film, Crime and Denial, addresses Iran’s denial of the Holocaust.
Mesirow Financial CEO and Founder Richard Price, a USHMM founder, council member and former luncheon chair, will be honored with a National Leadership Award for his commitment to keeping Holocaust memory alive.
Rabbi Steven and Julie Stark Lowenstein of Glencoe will co-chair the luncheon. Julie, whose parents escaped Germany in 1938, is active in the recovery and study of Holocaust artifacts. Rabbi Steven, the senior rabbi of Am Shalom Congregation in Glencoe, has spent much of this year helping Syrian refugees transition to life in the United States.
In May 1993, the first major delegation to tour the new USHMM arrived from Chicago. Dignitaries in the gathering of 800 included then Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and then Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. The resourceful Weinberg and her tireless staff had secured $30 million in private donations for the USHMM in only four years.
Admission to the USHMM then and now: free.
“The museum, with its collection of artifacts and oral histories, is for every person,” Weinberg says, adding the museum’s website (ushmm.org) is available in 16 languages and amassed millions of visitors from natives of 240 countries and territories in 2016. “It’s for people, young and old, from the smallest town in Kentucky to New York City.
“This cause, this museum, is important to me, is a passion of mine. And it has been since the day I started as Midwest regional director of it. We were so busy from the beginning, so immersed in what we were doing. There wasn’t time to look for a traditional office location in my first 18 years with the organization.”
For more information about the “What You Do Matters” Risa K. Lambert Chicago Luncheon, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org or call the USHMM Midwest regional office in Highland Park at (847) 433-8099.