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Making the right commitment for the Jewish people: Outgoing Chair Jacobson gives strength to Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy

Trudy Jacobson (from left) joins chef and What Jew Wanna Eat blogger Amy Kritzer and Barb Kovacs, Women’s Philanthropy campaign co-chair, at a recent campaign event.

Throughout her life as a businesswoman, volunteer and philanthropist, Trudy Jacobson counts a lot of strong women among her list of mentors.

Those who have inspired her along the way in her volunteer career with the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City — next week she will finish a three-year term as chair of Women’s Philanthropy — include but aren’t limited to Shirley Helzberg, Shirley White, Floriene Lieberman, Maria Devinki and Jeanette Wishna (both of blessed memory), Sarah Beren and Shanny Morgenstern. But the woman who had the earliest impact on her is Ruth Rubenstein, a Jewish merchant in Greenfield, Missouri, a community located in the heart of the Bible belt where Jacobson was raised. 

“We all respected and admired her. She was one of the pillars of our community … and her store was always closed on Saturday,” Jacobson explained.

There weren’t a lot of Jewish people in the area and neither was Jacobson, who grew up as part of a Protestant family. 

“Everybody loved her. I grew up with that role model in mind as a typical Jewish woman.”

Becoming active in the Jewish community

Jacobson married John Jacobson, a Jewish man, and they lived in Liberal, Kansas, another area not populated with many Jewish people. In fact, in order to attend synagogue, they had to travel to Wichita, Kansas.

After they were married 10 years, they sold their business and moved to Kansas City, where they started TransAm Trucking, Inc. in 1987. Soon after they moved here, they were also gifted a membership to the Jewish Community Center. That’s where she first dipped her toe into the Jewish community, becoming an active participant of programming at what is now called The J, especially in sports and fitness.

At the time Congregation Beth Torah was also meeting at the Jewish Community Campus and Jacobson had begun entertaining thoughts about converting, which she made official in 1992. Their young son was enrolled at The J’s Child Development Center and, she said, “our lives pretty much revolved around the Campus.”

It was Wishna who encouraged Jacobson to go on the board of The J. Wishna also invited Jacobson to her first event at what was then known as Women’s Division.

“I love the women and they were so nice and welcoming to me, and by then I had gone through the conversion process,” said Jacobson, whose family belongs to Beth Torah and Congregation Ohev Sholom.

Once she was attracted to the organization, Jacobson said that former Director Bev Jacobson — who coincidentally has the same last name but is not related to Trudy Jacobson — helped guide her journey in leadership with Federation “in her own, quiet, persuasive way.”

“What I started learning was here were more role models like I had known when I was growing up, who were the Ruth Rubensteins … some of them had businesses but more than that, they spent their lives helping others,” Trudy Jacobson said. “Those were the women that I knew that if I could, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Women’s Philanthropy chair

Jacobson began attending events and eventually joined the Women’s Philanthropy (WP) board, serving as campaign chair for WP for two years as well. That position also earned her a spot on the Jewish Federation’s general board. 

When the time was right, Beren and Morgenstern were given the task of persuading Jacobson to become WP chair.

“They said, ‘You know Trudy, we think it’s time for you to really use your leadership and be chair,’ ” recalled Jacobson. “Because I believed in them and I believed in what Women’s Philanthropy does, it was without hesitation I knew that was something I wanted to do and I’ve been there ever since.”

At the beginning of her term she and others wondered if the organization was still relevant.

“Women had been fulfilling their desires to be leaders in organizations and didn’t necessarily need women’s organizations to boost their credibility anymore. It was a good question to ask at that time.”

“Obviously things had changed since the Shirley Whites and Ruthie Tivols and Floriene Liebermans had gone door to door asking for people to give five dollars to help their families settle and to sustain the Jewish people who were coming over here after World War II.”

The board determined that WP was still vital to women and Jewish Federation, so they went about the task of restructuring the women’s organization. With the help of Alana Muller, WP came up with three objectives: leadership development, inspired community and campaign giving.

“That meant that we added leadership development segments to every board meeting. We also focused on programs that spoke to our different members, including different affinity groups and age groups, ages.

They also renewed WP’s focus on the campaign — the process of actually raising money.

“We needed to create a culture of giving where we weren’t embarrassed to talk about philanthropy. We had educational pieces to teach us what Federation does. We opened up the communication. I think one of the biggest things I did was we were finally able to sit down and talk about giving and the different ways that the members contribute whether it is with their time or their experience and of course with their investments.”

Most terms are only two years, but the opportunity arose for Jacobson to take on an extra year. So she did, giving herself and the board a little extra time to put new strategies into practice.

One of her proudest accomplishments is steering WP in a way that has become relevant to younger women.

“I am so thrilled to see that at the end of three years we have so many younger women who are involved, attending our programs and joining our board.”

Lisa Schifman, director of WP, said Federation appreciates Jacobson’s dedication to Federation here as well as on the national and international levels.

“Trudy never misses an opportunity to talk about why Federated giving is important to our community. She works tirelessly to make sure Federation has adequate resources to fund Jewish programming in Kansas City and around the world. Her generosity and concern for our future is inspiring a new generation of women,” Schifman said.

Lion of Judah

Besides giving her time, Jacobson also opens her checkbook generously. For the past 12 years she has been a Lion of Judah, a program she says raises more than $190 million nationally each year.

“The Lion of Judah program was started in 1972 and it was meant to be a leadership program with the entry giving level of $5,000 per year. Women are committed to invest at least $5,000 every year for the privilege of helping others,” said Jacobson, of the elite club comprised of 17,500 women around the world, including more than 100 locally.

“What it was meant to do and what it has done is it has reflected the wide and sophisticated influence that women have had with respect to financial decisions in the philanthropic landscape. Even more so it gives women a platform to be creative and play an essential role in creating social justice and preserving human dignity and building Jewish identity, which falls right into the Federation mission of sustaining and enhancing Jewish life at home and around the world. So on the national level the Lion of Judah program is extremely important,” she continued.

Jacobson would love to find ways to encourage younger women to become Lions of Judah.

“This is asking a lot. Five thousand dollars. Why would any woman want to invest that much in an organization to help people when there are other ways that you can do that? So my vision has been to grow the Lion of Judah program in our community by adding more events and by communicating the importance of the work we do. One of the things that we’ve done is have a local Lion Legends event where we honor the women who have really made the organization strong. We’ve had one for two years now and we’ve honored Floriene Lieberman as a Lion Legend and Ruthie Tivol was honored this year.”

This year, Jacobson became even more invested in the Lion of Judah program by donating $100,000 to become a member of the Prime Minister’s Council. Shirley Helzberg made that commitment in 2015.

“Shirley Helzberg is one of my biggest idols. I think she’s just one of the most generous, capable women I’ve ever known.”

Wearing another one of her hats, major benefactor chair of the Federation’s general campaign, Jacobson discussed with Helzberg her investments in Federation. During that conversation, Helzberg encouraged Jacobson to actively encourage other women to commit to the Prime Minister’s Council level.

“As I spoke with her, she inspired me,” said Jacobson. “She made me understand that not only should I do that, but that I must do that.”

All this brings Jacobson back full circle to what she came to love about Judaism while she was studying it.

“I love Judaism’s dependence on community and the caring about one another,” she said. “That spoke to me as that girl from a small town who had a good, female Jewish role model and it has helped me fulfill my personal philanthropic mission in life to help other people. This is a leadership step that I wanted to take.”

Jacobson is quick to point out that while her donation is substantial, that doesn’t mean her gift is any more important that someone who gives $180 a year.

“It’s the fact that I am doing what I can individually to make this world a better place. If I can, I should. I must.” 

“This doesn’t mean anything other than I recognize that I needed to take this step like Shirley did, like others have before us, that we’re sure we’re making the right commitment to the Jewish people.”