REMEMBERING THE STRANGER: Brad Sugar is the Chicago director of AJWS, a Jewish organization dedicated to helping non-Jews in need the world over

BURMA 2016 Photo by: Jonathan Torgovnik ©

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

It was his own personal evolution that has led Brad Sugar to expand his horizons to include the entire world rather than just the Jewish world.

Skokie native Sugar’s own enlightenment enables him to care about, and corral others to do the same, about people under dire stress halfway around the world in Myanmar (Burma) and journey to Guatemala. After all, both he and historians will point out that’s what Jews wanted the world to do, to care about them and act when they were under fire before and during the Holocaust.

Girls in Mumbra, India prepare placards for a bicycle rally with messages to help sensitize the community towards women’s issues and rights.

To be sure, Sugar’s got plenty of horizons close to home. As a result of the path he took while attending the University of Michigan, he’s got nine states’ worth of Jewish communities with whom to engage as Midwest executive director of American Jewish World Service. Sugar’s Chicago operation is one of five regional offices comprising the domestic part of AJWS, a 33-year old global relief and human rights effort supporting 460 organizations in 20 countries.

Sugar is a well-educated man in so many ways. First was Jewish tradition enveloping him as he grew up. Then the lessons drawn from the giant Ann Arbor campus. Working with Jewish high school and college students here and in Israel will get you a graduate degree in life. Finally, he was a weekend warrior in corralling an MBA from Northwestern’s famed Kellogg School of Management.

Of course, life takes some unexpected turns. Sugar never planned to be a “communal professional.”  His seeds were planted in college.

“It’s a story (of a transformation) from looking inward to looking outward,” said Sugar, who spent more time giving to the community and Jewish life than going to class at Michigan. Somehow, he made enough grades to earn dual bachelor’s degrees in political science and religious studies.

Sugar was not encouraged to go to a big state school.

Students at a primary school in Gulu, Uganda.

“I grew up fairly Modern Orthodox,” he said. “I went to Orthodox institutions, Orthodox camps. I went to Hillel Torah, I went to Ida Crown. But I did not want to go to a right-wing yeshiva. If you go some of the high schools here, that’s the direction they put you in. It’s an expectation that you go and become immersed in Jewish text. The best way to do that is studying in a yeshiva environment.

“That works for a lot of people. For me, it was a little bit of a turnoff. I had rabbis in my yeshiva telling me you really shouldn’t (attend Michigan). You should stay in Israel longer.  What I have grown to love about Judaism and has helped me come into my own as a Jewish person and professional is to love the many valid expressions of Jewish faith. That is what makes our community so robust and complex, and at times excruciatingly difficult to deal with.

“Before I went to Michigan, all of my life was Jewish schooling, Jewish camping, leading a Jewish life. And when I got to an unbelievably large place like Ann Arbor, it was the first time a (sheltered Jewish) kid got to encounter the real world. I didn’t know what the word ‘progressive’ meant. That word didn’t exist (in his youthful environment). There was one way to be a Jew, and that was the way you were expected to be. Any deviation from that was considered a disappointment.”

In Ann Arbor, Sugar first experienced “divergent opinions” on Judaism. “I came to understand that Judaism was much more than the piece that I was given,” he said. “The journey of Judaism is the acceptance that you are going to grow and continue to be challenged. If you are the same way your entire life, you’re missing out experiencing so much in engaging with so many others that have a lot of offer. I think there’s a healthy shift, and many of the institutions I engaged with when I was younger have also slightly shifted their philosophy, and realize that there is merit in looking outward a little bit.”

School kids in Tanetze, Mexico, attending to the organic vegetable garden that was created with the help of UNOSJO, an AJWS grantee.

That shift should help Sugar when he tries to spread the message to the Jewish community to help non-Jews all over the world through AJWS. But before he was fully vested in his present job, he had to gain other experiences that helped round out his personal portfolio.

Sugar kicked the tires on the traditional “nice Jewish boy makes good money” path, getting accepted to several law schools and even dental schools. But down the road, he realized a stiff price had to be paid for success on the traditional career route.

“I see so many of my peers and colleagues who are working from 5 in the morning ‘til 10 at night in various professions,” he said. “They don’t get to see their children or be involved in their community or take leadership roles in their synagogues.

“One of the things I’ve found as a Jewish communal professional is it allows me to invest in my community and my family (three children). It means I sacrifice some pay, but I’m happy and I’m content, and I get to spend time with my family, and be involved in my community, my synagogue and my local organizations.”

Now vice president of Kol Sasson Congregation, Sugar had a term as synagogue president. Since Theo Epstein’s job is claimed for the foreseeable future, the lifelong Cubs fan is currently board treasurer and coach for Skokie Youth Baseball.

Two years of post-Michigan experience, starting in 2004, working for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago gave Sugar a framework for dealing with individuals, organizations and all the political and social approaches necessary.

Then, in 2006, as Sugar spread his wings, he co-founded the Jewish Student Connection, a national nonprofit that assisted high school students in the creation of after-school activities. Sugar built the organization to six states, eventually serving more than 330 schools and 30,000 students.

Brad Sugar.

“I started an organization that would address the precipitous dropoff in Jewish engagement after bar and bat mitzvahs,” he said. “It was basically a Hillel for high schools. It provided a mentorship opportunity for students in public schools whose parents may not necessarily belong to synagogues or be involved in the Jewish community. For whatever reason, day school was not the right choice for them.

“For me, it was a lesson in institution building. It was about strategy. It was my first experience with hiring and firing. I learned about accounting. I learned about fund-raising. I learned about ideology and negotiating. That really was my baby for a long time – nine years. We started in Chicago, expanded to several other states.”

Sugar, though, always plants seeds for personal growth. While talking to high school students, he informed them of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and why Jews should be involved.

“I said that we as Jews need to be mindful and attentive and responsive to people thousands of miles away,” he said. “What does it mean to think outward? It was at the end of that process that I wanted to think more global. I wanted to be a better professional and get global exposure.”

The Kellogg MBA program afforded that wider scope to Sugar. Degree-seekers get to spend time in other countries. Students came from 12 different nations. Sugar finally got his master’s degree last spring as he completed his break-in year as AJWS regional director, operating from communal shared space with other Jewish social service organizations.

“It’s not just about a balance sheet, it’s relationships with other individuals,” Sugar said of one of his prime lessons from Kellogg being applied daily.

AJWS nationally has other local connections. Two Chicagoans high up on the management chain at the New York headquarters are chairman Monte Dube and board member Carol Yanowitz Miller.

The organization was founded in 1985. Only a year later, AJWS had its first disaster relief project after a volcano eruption in Colombia.

AJWS now raises more than $38 million a year. In all, it has raised more than $316 million to support thousands of social justice organizations in the developing world that have taken on some of the biggest global challenges.

Today, AJWS is one of the top human rights funders in the world. The organization ranks as the sixth-largest funder of organizations working to advance the rights of women and girls, the eighth-largest funder of organizations focused on environmental and natural resource rights, and the fourth-largest U.S.-based funder of international LGBT rights work.

Fighting global hunger, responding to the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and the earthquake in Nepal, and working to end violence against women, girls and LGBT people worldwide have been highlights of AJWS activities.

One current, but not-well publicized humanitarian challenge given the boiling-hot Syrian civil war is persecution of the Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar. Since August, 2017, Myanmar forces have burned entire Rohingya villages to the ground, soldiers have indiscriminately massacred Rohingya men, women and children, and an estimated 688,000 people have fled on foot or by boat to refugee camps in Bangladesh, several weeks’ walk from their burned villages. World leaders have called the atrocities “ethnic cleansing.”

AJWS’ pitch for support reminds Jews they found themselves in the same crisis in Europe 80 years ago. The goal of Sugar and other regional directors is to educate their respective Jewish communities about these and other causes by bringing eyewitnesses to the U.S., recruit volunteers and conduct fund-raising.

“What is the world going to look like if we accomplish our mission?” said Sugar. “What is the type of progress you’d like to see in the world? For me, there are all of these things, as opposed to just doing programs. Talking to (potential backers) has to be toward a certain end – supporting the most vulnerable people on the planet.

“Across the world, are there vulnerable Jews? Sure, there are vulnerable Jews. But we as Jews were the stranger. The Torah talks about welcoming the stranger, accepting the stranger, more so than almost any other concept. It’s debated whether it was 36 times or 46 times. Being Jewish is the story of being the stranger. And so for me it’s all about Jews helping strangers around the world.”

When the recipients of AJWS work worldwide come to Chicago and environs, they demonstrate what Sugar calls their “heroic work” in their own communities. Also a regular feature is a leadership council of lay leaders and supporters that creates webinars for Jews to learn more about Rohingya and other crises.

“We want to make that accessible to those who can’t necessarily attend physical programs,” Sugar said. “We have a global justice fellowship that works with rabbis to train them on our view of social justice, so they can bring that back to their communities.”

“A lot of Jews ask, ‘Why should I care?” Sugar said. “We have so many needs in the Jewish community. Why should I care what goes on in Burma and what does it matter to me as a Jew?’”

And Sugar simply gives personal history as an answer.

“I am the grandson of Holocaust survivors who were in DP camps in Sweden,” he said. “And if other communities didn’t say we have a responsibility to help the Jews, many of us wouldn’t be here.”

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