OyChicago articles

8 Questions for Cary Wolovick, B’nai B’rith worker-bee, Facebook fan, Chicago sports loyalist

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04/27/2010

8 Questions for Cary Wolovick photo

If you enjoyed attending the recent Matzo bash: The Leftovers, you could thank Cary Wolovick.  Cary, the Program Coordinator for the Midwest Region of B’nai B’rith International, not only co-sponsored the event, but originated the idea for the get together—he wanted to raise more dollars for the earthquake victims in Haiti.  Cary is what you’d call a mensch.

Born and raised in Wheeling and a graduate of Northern Illinois University, Cary has always been passionate about Judaism and politics.  At his job with B’nai B’rith, Cary lobbies and advocates for Jewish causes and raises dollars to help people in need.  In his free time, he volunteers in the community and enjoys a good political debate from time-to-time.  An avid sports fan, Cary can often be found at Cubs, Bears and Hawks games.

So, whether you’d enjoy eating dinner with Moses, want to make the world a better place or are a political junkie, Cary Wolovick is a Jew You Should Know:

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
Facebook.  It has to be Facebook.  I use it for almost everything work related at B’nai B’rith.  I use Facebook for just about everything.

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
Hmm, I thought about that one all weekend and I still can’t answer it.  I think I’d go to all of the European Mediterranean countries.  Anywhere that I’m let in—not the ones where my Israeli stamps would be an issue.  And I’d stop in Israel, of course.

3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
Another tough one.  I would say Robin Williams, but he is probably too old.  How about Matt Damon?  We both have blonde hair and good looks.

4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be?
I would love to have a conversation with Moses to hear about how he did what he did.  And Bobby Kennedy.  I’m a political junkie and he is my hero.  Eating with the two of them would be a fun dinner.  I don’t know how much they’d talk together, but it would be a fun story.

5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
I guess I’d say relaxing along the beach and then going to a Cubs or Bears game with some friends. Well, going to any Chicago sporting event, especially the North-side teams would make for a perfect day.

6. What do you love about what you do?
I love the fact that through B’nai B’rith I can help impact people in meaningful ways.  I love educating people about what we do.  We work on so many issues ranging from what’s going on at the UN to helping low income seniors.  I help convey important messages and raise money for important causes that my organization supports.  We just did a fundraiser to give teddy bears to kids in the hospital, which was really meaningful and awesome.  We’ve also been working hard (with Oy!Chicago) to raise money for Haiti.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
I’d probably be working for one of the political candidates this year.  I’m not giving away my political allegiance, but I’d be working on a campaign.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago?
I would say my favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago is…well, there’s a ton.  I try to make the circuit on everything.  But probably I’d say, enjoying a nice Shabbat dinner somewhere in Lakeview or Bucktown or West Rogers Park.  I’d relax, unwind and get to know the people I’m sharing dinner with.  I think that’s my favorite.

Amen, Amen, Amen: an interview with author Abby Sher

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04/20/2010

Amen, Amen, Amen: an interview with author Abby Sher photo

Recently, I stumbled upon a comment on one of TJ Shanoff’s blog posts from an old colleague of his at Second City. The comment linked to the website of author and University of Chicago Alum, Abby Sher, and promoted her new book “Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl who Couldn’t Stop Praying.” I was intrigued by the inside cover:

Until the age of ten, Abby Sher was a happy child in a fun-loving, musical family. But when her father and favorite aunt pass away, Abby fills the void of her loss with rituals: kissing her father's picture over and over each night, washing her hands, counting her steps, and collecting sharp objects that she thinks could harm innocent pedestrians. Then she begins to pray. At first she repeats the few phrases she remembers from synagogue, but by the time she is in high school, Abby is spending hours locked in her closet, urgently reciting a series of incantations and pleas. If she doesn't, she is sure someone else will die, too.

I sat down to read her memoir from start to finish. In a brutally honest, beautifully written, at times funny and often heartbreaking account, Abby opens up about a life ruled by obsessive-compulsive disorder, cutting and anorexia. Abby’s struggle to build a life for herself and her loved ones is difficult to read, especially at her darkest moments— facing an abortion, the death of her aunt, father and mother and the mental abuse of a bad boyfriend. While reading, I began to pray along with Abby that one day she would find the inner peace she was so desperately searching for, some happiness and a semblance of a healthy life.

During our phone interview, Abby opened up about everything from her time living in Chicago and working at Second City to life after her mother’s death and to whether OCD is a Jewish disease and how it shouldn’t be seen as just a negative disorder:

Cheryl Jacobs: When did you decide to turn your life into a book? Did you have concerns about being so open about your life?
Abby Sher:  I wrote a piece not really knowing that I would be opening up my life. I was taking a personal essay class in 2004, right after my mom died, and my teacher was an editor at Self Magazine and she bought it. That started the high of writing things that were haunting me and when it ran in 2007 another editor contacted me and wanted the memoir. And I said, “Yeah, do you want to write it because I don’t want to.”  This was in 2007, I was done writing about myself and had begun chipping away at fiction and trying to get over this eating disorder. But the fact that somebody said, “you should give it a try” was definitely a huge factor. The whole proposal process wound up being really helpful too, with organizing what kind of story it could make. I sold it to Scribner in 2007 and once it was an assignment I knew there was no turning back. With each draft my editor was great and really pushed me to be more and more open and revealing.

Do you think OCD is somewhat of a Jewish disease?
I have gotten many responses like that where people have said, “well this is what happens to us Jewish ladies.” But I don’t know if I could say it’s Jewish though, because there is Catholic guilt— with repeating the rosary… I think Buddhists are the only ones who don’t have to deal with this as much.

People see it [OCD] as a disorder, but it has also been tremendously helpful for me through some really difficult situations. My praying every day now is a very different experience then even two years ago. The challenge is, can you go back to services without having to repeat every word in the prayer book or kiss it a certain number of times.

Tell me more about your time at Second City?
It was fantastic! I think improv in many ways is the antidote for OCD, because you are forcing yourself to be present (not that I was always successful) living in a character and be spontaneous. You can’t be writing in your head or repeating. You have to present for your partner. I was riddled with self doubt much like any performer in history.

One really harsh director once said to me, “If you are not present for your partner, then get the fuck off the stage.”  It’s not just about you. It was a real wakeup call also. I found a vocation where I was accountable to someone in a real non life-threatening way, which was a huge gift for me. I definitely miss the high of performing every night and creating shows all the time. It helped me take my words less seriously because they’d be gone in a minute. I couldn’t recapture whatever just happened on stage.

Do you keep in touch with the people you write about in the book?
Yes, definitely, some of my closest friends are still there [at Second City.] Everyone in the book has read this or I’ve given them at least one version of it and they’ve okayed it.

Tell me about what it was like for you living in Chicago.
I really had a great time in Chicago. It was a very formative time for me. I wouldn’t have left home [in Westchester, New York] given the choice. I went kicking and screaming, but it was the only way I could gain some independence. I loved Hyde Park. I loved the intensity of living down there. I loved how the demographics changed when the school year was over— you became a minority.

How is your relationship with your siblings these days? Have you grown closer?
That’s actually been the hardest one, because so many of my family members learned about the stuff I was going through for the first time through the book. It’s been surprisingly helpful with my distant relationships.  My mom’s side, which I wasn’t as close to growing up, has been so welcoming. Everyone should write a memoir so you don’t have to introduce yourself anymore. My brother and sister and I have never been super close and it’s been hard especially not having my mom forge our relationship for us. It’s a lot of work and at this very moment, it feels very tiring.

What advice do you have for other young people facing OCD? What do you want readers to talk away from reading Amen, Amen, Amen?
I think the biggest pillar of OCD or any affliction is secrecy. The more secret your actions or rituals or obsessions become, the more out of control they feel. Many people have reached out to me through my website, I love talking to them. Especially people who have gone through similar experiences. It is so important that you just talk to someone you trust. It’s totally worth it to talk to someone even if you or they don’t have the answers.

Are you still praying every day?
Yes, I do have a daily practice and I will say I really enjoy it. The other day I couldn’t get to it till 8 at night and before I couldn’t do that. Sometimes I still do have to keep myself in-check and make sure that I’m not going over 40 minutes and make sure that other rituals aren’t creeping up and those are definitely things I check in with my doctor about.

Are you planning more books? Is there anything else you want your readers to take away from the book?
I’m slowly chipping away at a little fiction that is hopefully a little lighter, well, it’s fun— it’s dark humor. There are resources at the back of the book and there are also resources on the web site that I think are helpful. And the paperback is coming out October, 2010.

Federation leaders meet Haiti’s President, see how Jewish community helps

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04/15/2010

Hey Oy!sters-

We just thought you guys would be interested in this story—two leaders of Chicago’s Jewish Federation were the first official representatives of the North American Jewish community to travel to Haiti since the catastrophic earthquake. Thanks again for attending our fundraising parties for the Jewish Federation Earthquake Relief Fund—read on to hear their first-person accounts of visiting this devastated nation and learn what the Jewish community is doing to help.

Stef and Cheryl

Federation leaders meet Haiti’s President photo 1

"We walked among the Haitian people where bodies still lay under the rubble." Steven B. Nasatir, center.

The first official representatives of the North American Jewish community to travel to Haiti since the catastrophic earthquake, David Sherman, Chairman, and Steven B. Nasatir, President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago have just completed a 36-hour fact-finding mission to the devastated island nation.

On Tuesday they had an hour-long debriefing with Haiti’s President Rene Preval and first lady Elisabeth Preval, and toured Haitian relief work with Amos Radian, Israel’s Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, and Honorary Consul General of Israel to Haiti Gilbert Bigio.

Federation leaders meet Haiti’s President photo 2

In their warm meeting with President Preval, Sherman and Nasatir expressed "the American Jewish community’s support for Haiti, and our admiration for their courage in dealing with the adversity," Nasatir said. After presenting the President with a tzedaka box, Nasatir and Sherman explained that tzedaka is an opportunity for righteous action… "and as a matter of fact the President then made a contribution."

They then discussed what Nasatir described as "a very important project of education and welfare that we hope to help happen here, one that will cement further the friendship of the State of Israel with Haiti and the American Jewish community with the people of Haiti." Details of that project will soon be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Nasatir and Sherman toured two schools run by JDC, a Federation overseas beneficiary, where he saw education is the key to Haiti’s future, as well as the Haitian people's appreciation of the generosity of the American Jewish community and Israel.

"Just to see these smiling faces of young children back in school, in a setting with Jewish signs on the wall, makes me feel so proud to be part of our community," Sherman said. "Prior to the earthquake many kids were not in school to begin with, so some of these children now have the opportunity to attend school for the first time in their lives. I can’t help but notice how much can be done with so little resources."

"What also becomes clear is the long-term importance of education," Nasatir said. "If there’s anything positive that could emerge from this disaster. perhaps it’s the reconfiguration of education in this country… It is clear that for a different future, the education of children is key."

Wherever they went, Sherman and Nasatir noted trauma and destruction that they described as "overwhelming." The counterpoint to that, they said, was the work of so many trying to do their best in impossible circumstances.

"Then you meet the young women working on behalf of IsraAID and I cannot help but think, these folks are just angels working in such a difficult and deadly environment. I feel proud to be part of a community that cares about repairing the world," Sherman said.

"I feel proud and privileged saying that we represent Jews of America," Nasatir said. "People here understand the involvement and contribution and the energy that we and our partner organizations have brought to the rebuilding of Haiti. There is a special quality that we Jews and Israel bring to situations like this, and it’s clear that significant numbers of citizens of Haiti, at least from anecdotal information, seem to understand that. Whether it’s standing in front of a second-grade classroom or speaking directly with president or the prime minister, that’s a theme that’s very strong and important."

During their visit Nasatir and Sherman described the confidence instilled by the work of organizations that are being funded by the Federation's Earthquake Relief Fund.

"Our confidence was definitely justified; the projects we saw and the people we met are of the standard and the quality that makes JUF so credible," Nasatir said. "Clearly there is no one organization, no one fund, no one government that can solve all of Haiti’s problems. But, we can carefully choose to take on initiatives… Our suggestion is that the investment should be made in connection with education initiatives; that is the long term key for this country to get back on its feet."

As they were departing Haiti, Nasatir summed up the impact of the experience.

"We saw people living in conditions that no humans should have to live under, and we are talking about 1 to 2 million people living in makeshift tents… It is certainly not something that any of us can stand idly by and tolerate. We often talk about the role of the Jewish people in helping repair the world. This clearly is a part of the world that is in need of repair and in our small but important way we will continue to do what we can to help the people of Haiti," he said.

Listen to reports from the field (report onereport tworeport threereport four) by Sherman and Nasatir as they visit some of the humanitarian programs run by IsraAID and JDC, supported through Chicago’s Jewish Federation Earthquake Relief Fund, which continues to accept donations. The Jewish Federation has taken a lead role in Haitian diaster relief.

Sherman and Nasatir were in Haiti representing both the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Jewish Federations of North America. Nasatir wrote eloquently about the situation in Haiti, and how the Jewish community and Israel have responded, in an op-ed piece published in the Jan. 30 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times.

8 Questions for Jeff Eckerling, travel site CEO, Cubs fan, John Turturro look alike

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04/13/2010

8 Questions for Jeff Eckerling photo

Let’s face it—even though the sun is starting to shine around here and we’ve all prematurely busted out the tanks and sandals (don’t kid yourself—you know you did it too), we could all use a little vacation. But, you whine, hotels can be so expensive! Have no fear, Chicagoan Jeff Eckerling is here to help.

After graduating from Tulane University, the Wilmette-native had a three-year stint as a CPA for Ernst and Young before joining the original team of Orbitz.com back in 2000. After about 9 years, Jeff—along with two of his colleagues—left the travel mega-site to create BonVoyou, a members-only website that can save you up to 50 percent on stays at boutique and luxury hotels nationwide. Every day, a handful of hotels go on sale and the sales last only for a few days.

When you join Bonvoyou, you become a member of an exclusive network, meaning you have to be invited by another member (click here for an invitation from Oy! to join BonVoyou.com). Being a member is completely free, and they’ll give you a $25 credit the first time a new member that you referred books a hotel. Also, a portion of the proceeds from each sale goes to a charity—right now their current charitable partner is Bright Pink.

So whether you love to stay in swanky hotels, dream of being the Cubs’ general manager or just love a run through Lincoln Park, Jeff Eckerling is a Jew You Should Know:

1. What is your favorite blog or website?
www.BonVoyou.com, and here is your invitation to join: http://www.bonvoyou.com/invite/oychicago

2. If time and money were limitless, where would you travel?
Having worked in the travel business for 10 years, I've been fortunate to visit and see some amazing places in Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Right now, I would love to go on an African safari and explore Patagonia in South America.

3. If a movie was made about your life, who would play you?
According to a flight attendant, it apparently would be John Turturro, as she actually thought that I was him. Of course, if John Turturro was not available, I would think a younger Harrison Ford would do.

4. If you could have a meal with any two people, living or dead, famous or not, who would they be?
I think I would pick Jacques Cousteau and Sir Ernest Shackleton. They have both traveled to the ends of the earth, and I would love to hear their stories first-hand.

5. What's your idea of the perfect day?
Well, clearly going to work and having a successful day followed by a run through Lincoln Park or a good workout at the gym—and seeing a Chicago Cubs victory!

6. What do you love about what you do?
I have the opportunity to bring a bit of luxury within everyone's reach while building a business from the ground up with a great team.

7. What job would you have had if not the one you have now?
General manager of the Chicago Cubs. After my failed attempt to purchase the Cubs, I realized that my place would be as an employee within the organization.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago?
Picking up a bagel and lox from NY City Bagels in Lincoln Park or going with a good friend and grabbing a table at Eleven City Diner. Oh, and holidays with my family.

Catch Jeff this Thursday night at the Elysian Hotel as part of a panel discussion presented by the Business Professionals Network of the Young Leadership Division and TIP’s High Tech Division of the Jewish United Fund, titled “Online Consumer Businesses To Get You Through the Recession.” The panel of speakers also includes Shawn Bercuson, VP of Business Development for Groupon.com and Tony Bombacino, marketing director for Restaurant.com. For more information, visit  www.yldchicago.org/events .

Forgive, but never forget

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04/08/2010

Forgive, but never forget photo 1

Eva Kor

“To Stefanie Pervos: Never ever give up!” is the phrase Eva Mozes Kor wrote inside my copy of her new book. I didn’t think much of it as I turned the page and began reading, but 135 pages and an hour long phone conversation later, I discovered that Kor was a woman who not only writes the words “never give up”; she lives them to the fullest.

A child Holocaust survivor, Kor, along with her twin sister Miriam, was just 10 years old when her family arrived at Auschwitz. Because they were twins, they escaped the fate of their parents and two older sisters, who did not survive the war, and became two of “Dr. Mengele’s twins,” subjected daily to sadistic medical experiments. Refusing to die, Kor was forced to fight for her and her sister’s survival every day. In her new book, “Surviving the Angel of Death: The Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz” (Tanglewood Publishing, Inc., 2009) Kor, with the help of coauthor Lisa Rojany Buccieri, shares a true story of perseverance, survival and forgiveness in a format written for young adults.

“It’s a very simple idea that I am aware of and I know that young people relate to—growing up is very hard,” Kor said. “It’s very hard to grow up even if you live in the US and even if you have loving parents. So I am hoping as [young adults] read the story that they realize that they have it a lot better than I did. I did not give up. At times, [young adults] come up to me and they say ‘well how on earth can I give up if you did not give up?’ and that is exactly what I am hoping to accomplish.”

A resident of Terre Haute, Indiana, Kor founded an organization for surviving Mengele twins in 1985. Following the devastating death of her sister Miriam—who died in 1993 due to kidney complications from Nazi experiments during the war—she opened the CANDLES (Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors) Holocaust Museum and Education Center in 1995. The museum was destroyed by an arson fire in 2003, but rebuilt and re-opened in 2005. Kor is a recognized speaker nationally and internationally on topics related to the Holocaust, medical ethics, forgiveness and peace. She also leads groups of students and teachers on educational trips to Auschwitz and visits every five years on the anniversary of the liberation, Jan. 27, 1945.

Forgive, but never forget photo 2

Eva, with her sister Miriam, being led out of Auschwitz

At the end of her book, in addition to her message of “never give up,” Kor has another lesson: “Forgive your worst enemy and forgive everyone who has hurt you—it will heal your soul and set you free,” she writes. Kor has forgiven the Nazis for what they did to her and her family, and was the subject of a documentary titled  Forgiving Dr. Mengele .

“By forgiveness, I feel that every person can reclaim their own power which we all have…Forgiveness is the best way to practice Tikkun Olam,” she said. “If anybody would have asked me 17 years ago today, if I would forgive the Nazis I would have told them to please find a really good psychiatrist.”

But then she met Dr. Hans Munch, who had worked as a doctor in Auschwitz. Kor took this once in a lifetime opportunity to learn more about the experiments performed on her and Miriam during the war. Unexpectedly, Dr. Munch also shared with her the operating procedure of the gas chambers, where he worked signing the death certificates.

Kor said Dr. Munch refused to do selections in Auschwitz because he didn’t want to be in charge of who would live and who would die, so instead he worked in the gas chambers. People would be told that they were going to take a shower, he told her—remember your hanger number, tie your shoes together. Then they would walk into a luxurious shower room, and once it was packed to capacity, they would close the doors. Zyklon B pellets dropped from a hatch-like opening in the ceiling, acted like dry ice and the gas rose up from the floor. People climbed on top of each other, trying to escape the gas.

“When the people on the top of the pile stopped moving, he knew that everyone was dead,” Kor said. “And then he would sign the death certificate—never any names only numbers.”

Kor said she never knew this was how the gas chambers operated, so she asked Dr. Munch if he would join her in Auschwitz in 1995 to celebrate 50 years since the liberation of the camps and sign a document which stated this information—he immediately agreed to do it.

“Here I will have a document signed not by a survivor who witnessed it, not by a liberator, but by a Nazi who was there,” she said. “To me that was very important, so whenever a revisionist says that it didn’t happen I could take this document and shove it in their face.”

In searching for a way to thank Dr. Munch, Kor stumbled on the idea of forgiveness—so she went about writing Dr. Munch a simple letter, forgiving him for his actions during the war which she read to him when they visited Auschwitz.

“I immediately felt that all the pain that I was carrying for 50 years was suddenly lifted from my shoulders, that I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, that I was no longer a prisoner of my tragic past; I was finally free,” Kor said. “I was physically liberated from Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945; I was completely and emotionally liberated from Auschwitz on Jan 27, 1995 by my own initiative.”

Of course not everyone agrees with Kor’s motto of forgiveness—her ideas have received some resistance from her fellow Holocaust survivors and Holocaust scholars. And, she said, she recognizes that forgiveness is not always an option, like when someone’s life is in immediate danger. But despite all this, she plugs on sharing her message of forgiveness, while making sure the members of the next generation never forget what happened at Auschwitz.

This Sunday, April 11, is Holocaust Memorial Day, a perpetual reaffirmation of our commitment to “Never Forget.” To mark the commemoration, check out these very special events to honor those we have lost:

At 1:30 p.m., the 65th annual community-wide Holocaust memorial observance, sponsored by Sheerit Hapleitah  of Metropolitan Chicago and co-sponsored by JUF, will be held at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue, 8825 East Prairie Road in Skokie. At 8 o’clock that evening, WTTW-Channel 11 will broadcast the new Masterpiece Classic production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

CANDLES Holocaust Museum will hold a Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony Saturday, April 10, at 4 pm–Kor will lead a public candle-lighting ceremony to commemorate and tell her story of surviving Auschwitz and Dr. Mengele’s experiments on twin children starting at 1 pm at the museum.

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