By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Name a worthy cause, and Michael Maling either has supported it or studied the feasibility of backing the program or institution.
A third-generation Chicago Jewish philanthropist, Maling’s generosity through the Crain-Maling Foundation runs the gamut of medical research, Jewish educational and spiritual growth, and cultural enhancement.
“In general, I like to support (observant) Jewish education,” foundation president Maling said. “Without that, there won’t be any more Judaism, in my opinion. I also like to support a strong Israel. I am a Zionist. We support the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. It helps support the soldiers, everything from canteens and blankets to parks when they are either resting or training.”
A program particularly close to Maling’s heart is one that helps autistic and developmentally-challenged youths train dogs for the Israel Defense Forces. Maling, a clinical psychologist, knows full well the positive impact of giving the youths such a worthy task. Why limit it to Israel? So the foundation has backed a trial program of dog-walking for some 20 similarly-affected youths in the northern suburbs.
“It’s the Crain-Maling Canine Program, part of the IDF,” Maling said in wide-ranging interview in his Highland Park office. “Special-needs people are now able to join the IDF, where they could not join before. I created a program where these young adults can train, feed and care for the dogs that are used by the IDF for a multitude of functions, such as bomb sniffing and finding bodies.
“It incorporates a lot of areas at the same time – inclusiveness and participation. You could not believe how joyous these kids and parents are to be able to join the IDF. It’s a source of great pride.”
Autistic youths have talents that often are not fully employed or understood.
“Autistic youths are better than non-autistic people at looking at a large-sized screen depicting areas within Gaza or the West Bank to detect any changes that would affect military operations,” said Maling. “They look at the screen for eight hours at a time. If I were to look at the screen, I’d have about a 30-second attention span. They work with intelligence units.
“It enables soldiers who are not disabled to grow as people, as well. They develop a type of community within their units that previously was not attainable. It brings me great joy to be a participant in that process.”
Long-range, Maling hopes to set up a dog-training program in the United States. He is working with Keshet, a Northbrook-based Jewish organization serving more than 1,000 clients with developmental disabilities, to try the dog-walking program as a pilot.
“The idea is not to start big. I would like to develop a program where kids are dog-walking. There are a lot of people who can’t or won’t walk their own dogs. The concern is the safety of the young people. It will require tutelage and mentoring, like a job-training coach. We’re starting it now with around 20 kids.
“Inclusiveness and self-sufficiency are the goals. They may or may not be able to become fully self-sufficient. But they will be able contribute financially to their own welfare, which as you know can be very, very expensive.”
Crain-Maling issues about $2 million annually in grants. Maling wants as many of those dollars as possible to benefit Jews.
“Only a handful of foundations on the entire planet can make significant contributions to Jewish people,” Maling said. “We feed hungry people and do what we can. We’re only a medium-sized foundation. I’ve tried with intentionality to re-purpose our foundation’s values to be more focused on addressing the needs of Jewish people, who are my brothers and sisters.”
Cancer research has been a beneficiary of the foundation, and for good reason. Maling’s sister, Evan, died of complications from melanoma. Maling himself has suffered from bladder cancer, enduring regimens of strong intravenous and oral chemotherapy, and 25 sessions of radiation at the University of Chicago.
“It was shocking to see how many people had one sort of (cancer) problem or another,” he said. “Many were in much worse shape than me.
“What I have tried to do since the very beginning, as a psychologist and patient, is to live in the present tense. My experience clinically is people who live in the past are very depressed. People who live in the future are very anxious.”
The trained psychologist, who has journeyed to the darkest corners of his clients’ mindsets, including PTSD left over from combat, has a strategy for dealing with an ongoing negative like cancer treatment.
“The secret in the pursuit of joy is finding humor wherever you can – in ordinary human exchanges,” Maling said. “It’s always jazzed me up personally to lighten someone else’s load. Nobody ever killed himself laughing.
“Every time the nurse came in, I enjoyed the light art of social banter. I poked fun at this or that. I never really allowed myself to get depressed at (the treatment or future prospects). What does help is to keep a positive frame of mind. I distracted myself with TV, reading and conversation with other people. And in talking with them, I’m interested in what their thoughts are, not my own.
“Psychologists are trained to have good ears, not good mouths.”
Listening is part of repairing the world. Appropriately, the Jewish Federation of Arkansas once gave Maling, who had one of his two psychology internships at a huge Veterans Administration facility in North Little Rock, its Tikkun Olam Award.
Helping others has been part of the family since Maling’s immigrant Russian Jewish grandfather Sam Goldberg immigrated to the U.S. at 16, never to see his parents again in the old country. With just $5, Goldberg began a woman’s clothing store at 48th and Ashland that grew into the Chicago chain of Goldberg Fashion Forum stores.
Goldberg was a founding director of the Hebrew Theological College in 1921 on the West Side. The seminary moved to Skokie in 1958. Goldberg remained treasurer and benefactor until his death.
Maling’s mother, Bee Crain, still effervescent at 99, worked in the business, even supervising models’ wardrobe selections on live TV commercials in the early days of WGN-TV at Tribune Tower. She also acquired a psychology degree from the University of Illinois, but only used its precepts for business and philanthropy.
Long before Crain-Maling was incorporated as a foundation in 2006, Bee Crain supported pioneering research into gastro-intestinal maladies, such as Crohn’s disease, by Dr. Joseph Kirsner, also Jewish, at the University of Chicago. Kirsner had met Bee Crain’s second husband, Richard Crain, while both were stationed in the Army in Japan just after the end of World War II. Over the decades, she would ensure Kirsner would have more than just the $100 annually he was awarded for annual GI diseases research in 1962.
Using a psychology degree as one’s pastime would be left to Bee Crain’s son.
“My mother had a psychology professor who moved on to UCLA to become the dean of the graduate school of psychology and engineering – both,” Maling said. “He was an odd kind of genius. His name was ‘Uncle Harry’ Case. He designed his own house in Malibu and was a horticulturalist.
“’Harry always told my mother I’d make a great psychologist. I was like 11. But I also had an uncle who said, ‘Only a nut would want to work with nuts.’
“I believe you don’t have to be sick to get better.”
Maling’s family expected him to work in the business. Sure enough, he became the third generation to work at Goldberg’s Fashion Forum, handling personnel matters for seven years.
“I took courses, one or two at a time, in psychology,” at Governor’s State University in the far south suburbs. “Their motto was it was a place to finish where you started.” He continued his education at the Illinois Institute of Technology, but hated the internal politics. Maling moved to the Illinois School of Professional Psychology, where he obtained his doctorate in psychology.
So how did a nice Jewish boy from Chicago end up interning in Bill Clinton Country?
“There were three of us there,” said Maling, chuckling. The VA center was an American Psychology Association accredited site. Maling said the facility was the second largest in the VA system after Hines hospital in Chicago. The training was like working in a M*A*S*H* unit, only stateside, but with firefights and associated horrors being mentally regurgitated daily.
“You’re not used to seeing people’s heads getting blown off,” Maling said of the average mindset. “What you witness in a war is hellacious. It requires a lot of luck to get through it not too-damaged psychologically. It all depends on your psychological makeup going into (war), how tightly-strung you are beforehand as to how you come out afterward.
“We had people living in caves in the mountains of Arkansas coming in once in a while to get their meds regulated. It was an eye-opener, all right. I had all kinds of experiences.”
But lacking experience treating women, children and families, Maling took a second internship at a community mental health center in Conway, 20 miles north of Little Rock.
“What I realized is I could manage it all without falling apart, without having to own the pathology of another. I was able to be useful to people. I came back to Chicago only because I was able to obtain a post-doctorate fellowship at Northwestern.”
Putting out his own shingle as a clinical psychologist in 1991, Maling practiced for most of the next three decades, working on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, before devoting himself full-time to the Crain-Maling Foundation. All the while, he served on the board of directors of the Associated Talmud Torahs and American Friends of Bar-Ilan University, and was a member of the curator board of Jewish Educational Media (JEM).
The best analysts never stop learning.
“What I found across time is I became a better listener – listening with a third ear,” he said. “I listen for ‘latent’ as well as manifest communications. Whenever people say things, there’s always something underneath it. That’s the true meaning of what their issues are.
“We all have manifest, which is on the outside and is what you hear from me right now. The latent is beneath it – the sort of meaningfulness from what they are saying on the surface.
“It happens from the first session and you can deepen your understanding of the person. It’s not something that just appears after a while. It appears every session. It’s like peeling layers off an onion.”
Still practicing forms of psychology in philanthropy, Maling’s forward-looking goals include making sure every dollar is well-spent.
“I’d like to become as efficient as I can with the dollars so that we make distributions that are as broadly utilized as possible,” he said. “If I support a school with (just) 10 kids, then that’s not a very good utilization of our resources, which are finite. Nothing is unlimited, and that’s even true of Bill Gates.
“There’s two ways you can go with a foundation. You can spend it all down until you have nothing in there. Or you can have it exist into perpetuity, which is what we’re hoping to do.
“My thinking is if you’re stagnant, you die. So you either have to grow or give up the ethic of existing into perpetuity.”