Honest, credible, authentic. Those words describe Elana Kahn’s approach to drawing people into a dialogue. The departing 10-year director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation tells it like it is in a way that leads people to believe that different groups can be brought together to strengthen the relationship of the Jewish community and the general community.
Kahn leaves the Milwaukee Jewish Federation after 18 years — eight as an award-winning writer and editor for the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle — for a new position of associate dean for outreach at Spertus Institute for Leadership and Learning in Chicago.
“Her important work is felt throughout our Jewish community, the Milwaukee community at large and all of Wisconsin,” Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO, wrote to Federation professionals. “I’m so happy Elana will have the opportunity to share her incredible wisdom and passion for Jewish life and learning as Spertus trains a new generation of Jewish leaders.”
“She talks from a position of openness to varying perspectives,” said Richard Meyer, past CEO of the Federation. “It takes unique characteristics to be able to accomplish that and the people who worked with her felt very comfortable with that.”
Kahn’s career as a Jewish organizational professional is punctuated by a unique leadership style and education. She received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Emerson College and a master’s in Jewish Professional Leadership from Spertus.
“There’s an understanding that is constantly shifting about what the work is in a world that has changed,” said Kahn, a Milwaukee native whose family moved to Salt Lake City when she was 11.
“I think that there’s much more of an understanding now of the need for us to be in real relationships with people we need when things come up or we anticipate things coming up. We need to be able to make a call to an ally and make sure that we stand together. We need people who are going to stand up for us.
“That’s not done with a press release,” Kahn added. “That is done by showing up over and over at lots of meetings, frankly, and calling people and taking the time to have real relationships. There is no shortcut.”
(In the present moment, many of those in-person meetings are taking place over Zoom or similar computer applications.)
When Kahn started her job in 2010, antisemitic acts and hate crimes were minimal compared to now. Statistics provide clear evidence of an increasing threat, but people holding antisemitic views are now more emboldened to act on their hate, she said. “People feel freer to say really harmful, dehumanizing things.”
Polarized politics feeds antisemitism and Kahn saw her role as counteracting that without partisanship. “I don’t want to fall into any traps of speaking within or for any particular camp,” she said.
Federation Chair Moshe Katz said Kahn has been “calm, cool and collected under extreme circumstances, oftentimes literally being bombarded with antisemitic hatred coming at us at a remarkable rate. She’s a phenomenal community builder working across party lines, across religious lines, across political lines.”
Among her accomplishments was helping to put aside differences during an Israel trip last November with 14 bipartisan leaders from the state legislature. “It was incredible not only because of the trip itself in all the ways that these trips are exciting and inspiring, but because there is so much political division within our legislature,” Kahn said. “People were afraid to sit next to people from the other party. The trip really did bring down some of those walls and let people sit next to each other and talk with each other. They talked about the improved quality of the relationship between them.”
Another highlight of her tenure with the Jewish Community Relations Council was her efforts to create a Muslim-Jewish dialogue. “It’s new and it’s young, but it’s so important that we have a relationship that we didn’t have,” she said. “There’s a great sense of hope and realizing that we can connect with people beyond the headlines, beyond what you know, what the old narratives about each other are.”
Kahn’s Jewish identity mirrors her inclusiveness in fostering an understanding between community groups. She spent her teen years in Salt Lake City, where she had to explain the matzah sandwich she brought for school lunch. She became active as president of B’nai B’rith Girls and forged a self-awareness that develops from being in such an extreme minority.
Her family moved from Conservative to Orthodox traditions. Kahn herself has affiliated with synagogues of most branches of Judaism. She also knows Hebrew, having spent time in Israel where she got married and had the first of her two children.
“Certain parts of each of those denominations speak to me, but that’s been really important to me my whole time at Federation,” Kahn said. “Making sure that we were as inclusive as we should be and having just a broad picture of the Jewish community and what it means to be Jewish.”
All of her considerable talents will be put to use at the Spertus Institute, said Keren Fraiman, dean and chief academic officer. “Elana brings with her a great deal of professional experience and expertise, remarkable Jewish knowledge and sensibilities. She will cultivate relationships, as she has so skillfully done, with the diverse range of communities with which Spertus works and seeks to engage.”