Two weeks ago, a white supremacist opened fire outside of the Jewish Community Center and at an assisted living facility in Overland Park, Kan. He is charged with murdering three people.
After his arrest, he yelled "Heil Hitler" from inside a squad car.
The tragic episode made headlines around the world and hit home for Chicagoan Susan Abrams, the newly appointed CEO of an organization uniquely positioned to address such a dark turn of events.
"It reminds us once again of the importance of an institution like the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and the critical opportunity to teach the lessons that help to combat hatred, prejudice, discrimination and indifference," says Abrams, seated in the library of the Skokie museum.
"That work, sadly, is never done."
But starting Monday, when Abrams assumes her new post, she will have a unique platform from which to try to influence the way people think and feel about those who are different, marginalized, excluded. As successor to Rick Hirschhaut, the first executive director of the museum in its current, 65,000-square-foot quarters, Abrams immediately becomes a voice to combat hate crimes, genocide and other matters the organization has addressed since its founding in 1981.
That Abrams takes office on Holocaust Remembrance Day (which, by Jewish tradition, begins Sunday evening and ends Monday night) seems felicitous, for, at its core, the museum was built to tell the story of those who survived the Holocaust and those who did not. Its mission is remembrance and education, and individuals who championed her appointment feel she's uniquely qualified to lead that effort.
"She's really very unusual and special," says J.B. Pritzker, immediate past chair of the museum's board of trustees, which conducted a national search.
The museum selected a longtime figure in Chicago's nonprofit world who until recently was chief operating officer of JCC Chicago, a nonprofit "dedicated to ensuring a strong and vibrant Jewish life and community for generations to come," according to its website.
Before that, Abrams, 49, served as director of program review at Northwestern University (2009-11), founder and president of a real estate company (2004-09) and vice president of the Chicago Children's Museum (1991-97), among other positions.
"She's had this terrific business background, so she thinks about efficiency and effectiveness, and so that's one part of a CEO's job, of course," Pritzker says. "Secondly, she had the experience of being the COO of JCC, which, remember, they don't just run the buildings that you see around town or around the region. They also run camps for thousands of kids, as well as early childhood centers. … She also worked at the Children's Museum many years ago. … She had done fundraising in several of those positions.
"So when you think about all the things that are required of a great CEO, she really had all those components in her background. And then (we) would ask: How important is the Holocaust in her life, how important are the survivors?
"And throughout the process of interviewing, and we had multiple interviews with her, we really came to understand how much, how deeply she cares about the subject of the Holocaust, as well as for the survivors themselves."
Pritzker says Abrams won the unanimous support of the survivors at the museum, who since the beginning have set the tone and direction of the institution and hold top positions on the board.
They sound enthusiastic.
"She's made it a point to meet most of the survivors, which is great," says Fritzie Fritzshall, who was involved in the survivors' first meetings in the late 1970s and became president of the museum in 2010.
"She's been in nonprofits for 25-some years. … She's easy to talk to. … This (appointment) is the most important thing we've done since the museum opened."
Adds Aaron Elster, also a survivor and vice president of the museum, "We have great hopes for her, that she can help lead us in the direction that we need to go in order for us to exist and to sustain the type of work that we are doing."
That, indeed, is the central issue: Where does the museum need to go from here, and how can Abrams take it there?
What started as an ad hoc speakers bureau in 1981 morphed into a tiny storefront museum on Main Street in Skokie in 1984 and quickly developed outsize muscle. It was the survivors who lobbied the legislature to make Illinois the first state to require Holocaust education in public elementary and high schools, starting in 1990.
The opening in 2009 of the $50 million edifice, which now has a $10 million annual budget, a staff of 40 and 400-plus volunteers, raised the stakes considerably.
"I would say the museum is in its adolescence," observes Abrams. "I think so much of what's happened in the past and under Rick's leadership as the founding executive director was about creating the institution and then opening the institution, opening the museum and setting it on the path.
"Now is that opportunity to catch our breath, assess all that's been accomplished and to start setting in place the goals and priorities for the next five, 10 years and beyond."
First among these, to Abrams, is "getting the word out, building awareness. … How do we enhance the museum's mission, (its) reach and impact? … By both bringing more people into the museum and taking the museum's critical lessons and messages out into the community."
Adds Abrams, "I think partnerships will be a key to growing the museum's impact."
Pritzker has specific thoughts along those lines. He hopes Abrams and the board will be able to link the institution "with other museums and organizations," he says.
"Not only other Holocaust institutions … but what about the DuSable Museum, what about the Smithsonian's new African-American heritage museum? … There's also the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
"I think our museum is extraordinarily important, because it sits in the heartland of the America," Pritzker adds. "We have this unique ability to become a hub for … institutions in the U.S.," though, of course, the immense United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington holds a pre-eminent position.
Beyond partnering with organizations across the country and around the world, Abrams sees her task as "securing the museum's future by strengthening its financial base." That means "building the endowment," which stands at more than $13 million, "and continuing to focus on annual operations as well."
That does not equate to cutting costs.
"We have less than $10 million of net debt," says Pritzker. "We're closing in, over the next three years, on being net debt-free. … But much of the kind of financial understanding that we need from (Abrams) is really more about thinking about how we branch out and do new things for our museum. (There are) traveling exhibitions that we would like to bring (to Skokie); those are not inexpensive endeavors.
"And there may be other kinds of income-producing things we could do. … This isn't about her coming in and grabbing onto the expense side of the house. It's really about creativity and the future."
Abrams faces a formidable task, but her resume certainly covers a broad range of experiences and training. Born in New York and raised on the East Coast, she received dual degrees — a bachelor's in economics and a bachelor's in history — from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in 1986, then began work as a financial analyst in corporate finance at Goldman Sachs in New York.
"Before I started my job at Goldman … I went to one of the major museums in town and said, 'I'd like to help you reach all the young people in town, like myself,'" Abrams recalls. "And the woman who I somehow found my way to looked at me and said, 'Sweetie, we have donors write six-figure checks, but if you would like to come work at a special event this weekend, we could sure use your help.' And I remember thinking: 'OK, memo to self: Go where you're needed.'"
Notwithstanding that incident, Abrams developed an interest in nonprofits while at Goldman, which led her to pursue a master's degree at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management because it "then was one of the few leading business schools that had a strong nonprofit management program."
It was during a stint as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co. in Chicago, from 1990-91, that she came to realize she "was interested in applying my business skills (to nonprofit work) not just as an extracurricular opportunity but really in my day-to-day work." Hence her journeys at the Chicago Children's Museum and JCC Chicago.
Along the way, Abrams wrote "The New Success Rules for Women: 10 Surefire Strategies for Reaching Your Career Goals" (2000), a book that surveyed female executives on how they shattered glass ceilings.
"I hoped to empower women to maximize their success, whatever their objectives might be, whether it was becoming CEO or whether it was the next job in front of them or finding something meaningful and exciting to them, something they were passionate about," explains Abrams.
The book explored how women should not pursue a "balancing act" between professional and personal lives but instead a "blending" of the two.
Abrams says she has been doing that in her own life with her husband, Bill Abrams, and their three children, ages 21, 19 and 16. She's also constantly brainstorming with "two of my closest friends and confidants" — her sisters-in-law — both of whom work prominently in Chicago's nonprofit world: Wendy M. Abrams, founder of Cool Globes, which addresses climate change, and Wendy C. Abrams, vice chair of the government affairs committee and president-elect of the women's board of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Now that Susan Abrams has become CEO of a prominent cultural institution, she emerges as its newest ambassador.
Says Hirschhaut, her predecessor, in an email: "It is important that the museum continue to be a thought leader on issues of anti-Semitism, atrocity crimes and, of course, genocide, making a presence beyond its walls and acting as a global voice of conscience. Given the ever-changing global landscape, Susan should have ample opportunity to weigh in on issues that lie at the core of the museum's identity."
But there's yet another key concern at play here, as well: the presence of the survivors — and their eventual absence.
"I do think that is the challenge as the generations pass and the direct storytelling within families and communities fade a bit," says Abrams. "How do we help to keep front and center the ability to honor the legacy of both the Holocaust and its survivors, and have those stories really resonate in a very personal way?
"It's something that museum leadership (is) thinking passionately about and in some very creative ways that I'm not able to share right now.
"But I think there's a lot of creative and fervent thinking that's going into how to continue to tell the stories."
Abrams' work begins now.
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