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.