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JCL honorees are new, longtime givers to Jewish life in Louisville

By Comunity Staff

The 2022 Jewish Communinty of Louisville Award winners, which will be presented on July 14 at the Annual Meeting, include lifetime volunteers to the community, emerging young leaders and indispensable Federation and Trager Family JCC staff members.
Here is a rundown of this year’s honorees:

The Julie Linker Community Relations Young Leadership Award is named for a Jewish leader who passed away unexpectedly in 1984, depriving the community of a friend. She chaired the Young Women’s Division of the United Jewish Campaign and was vice-chair of the Major Gifts Division, of the Women’s Division, and was vice-president of the Women’s Cabinet of the Federation. This year’s winner is Farrah Alexander.

Farrah Alexander

An author and activist, Alexander has served on the JCRC Board for 1½ years, but her first community experience came as a member of the Louisville chapter of Bend the Arc, a national social action organization for young progressive Jews seeking to make positive change based on Jewish values.
“We got together in such a tumultuous year for Jewish Louisville (2020), and we very early took a proactive, instead of reactive, stance on racial justice,” she said. “I built some relationships with other young Jews that I’m really happy to maintain and have.”
She is the author of two books: Resistance in the Bluegrass: Empowering the Commonwealth, a history of civil rights and political activism in Kentucky including recent movements; and Raising the Resistance: A Mother’s Guide to Practical Activism.
A Sellersburg, Indiana, resident and mother of two, Alexander is a student at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law and a summer intern at ACLU-KY.

The Joseph J. Kaplan Young Leadership Award is named for a leader in Jewish education and president of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) – the predecessor of the Jewish Community Center. Kaplan encouraged people to remember Jewish Louisville in their wills. The Award was established during his lifetime. This year’s winners are Andrew and Helene Trager-Kusman.

Andrew and Helene Trager-Kusman

Andrew and Helene met on JDate while living in Washington. They returned to Louisville where they are raising their son, Harper, 3, and are expecting another child in December.
Both parents are active in Jewish Louisville. Andrew, a Louisville native and chief strategy officer at Republic Bank, served on the JTomorrow! committee and was active in the capital campaign to build the Trager Family JCC.
Helene, who grew up in suburban Maryland and went on a birthright mission while in college, joined the young leadership program at the Federation and is on the board at the Jewish Family & Career Services.
The family belongs to The Temple.
“We believe Judaism is about community, and we support each other as a community,” Andrew said.
Added Helene, “We always identified closely with the Jewish religion. There is this strong bond to us and the community because of the same values everyone has.”
That’s always been important to me.”

The Lewis W. Cole Memorial Young Leadership Award is named for an organizer of the Conference of Jewish Organizations, the predecessor to the Federation. A committed Annual Campaign volunteer, Cole devoted his life to Jewish Louisville. This year’s winners are Michael and Mollie Weisberg.

Michael and Mollie Weisberg

Michael, a fourth generation Louisvillian, and Mollie, the daughter of Jews by choice, see themselves as emerging leaders in the community who want to pass their love of traditions to their 5-year-old son, Arlo.
“My grandfather was advisor to my father and uncle at BBYO, and my father was my advisor, so I want to be Arlo’s advisor,” Michael said. “Things like that I want to carry on … to give back and show some leadership.”
Mollie said the Federation has been a springboard of sorts for giving back. “Being part of the Federation, we get to help strengthen the Jewish community’s involvement in that kind of stuff – social justice causes.”
Jewish life is important to the young parents, who keep Shabbat every Friday night. “We love it, and we want to instill in Arlo everything that is wonderful about it,” Mollie said. “The new JCC really helps. He’s made new friends now because we’re at the pool so much.”
A businessman who keeps crazy hours, Michael had some advice for young Jews thinking about getting involved: A little bit goes a long way.
“Being involved doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to take up a lot of your free time,” he said. “Being involved has been stigmatized…. We need to get the word out that committing to something … is really not going to take up all of your free time. Everybody does a little.”

The Elsie P. Judah Memorial Award is named for the woman who, with Ronetta Mayer, established the Golden Age Group for active seniors. It honors volunteer service to the Senior Adult Department. This year’s winner is Emily Podgursky.
Podgursky has been volunteering and delivering meals for the Senior Program for 13 years. She started as a volunteer with JFVS, and began delivering meals for the JCC program in 2009.
It is “her job” to deliver the meals to the residents of Shalom Towers, Active Adult and Senior Programming Director Dara Cohen said, doing it rain or shine, and always with a smile.
She doesn’t speak Russian, but Podgursky manages to communicate with her clients with smiles and hugs, Cohen said.
“They all love seeing her each week,” Cohen said. “One client told me it always brightens his day.”

The Arthur S. Kling Award honors the memory of a prominent Jewish Louisville leader, who served as president of the YMHA. He was instrumental in establishing the JCC on Dutchmans Lane, starting the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Conference of Jewish Organizations, which ran the United Jewish Campaign. This year, the award, which recognizes outstanding performances by JCL staff, goes to Susan Kwasny and Kristy Benefield.
Kwasny has experienced the JCC as a member and an employee. She joined in 2005 to work out, then went to work here in 2006.

Susan Kwasny

“I was exercising, and I told one of the instructors at the time that I always wanted to teach fitness classes,” Kwasny recalled. “She said, ‘Well, I’ll show you how. I’ll get you certified. “Three months later, I was certified and teaching. I’ve been here ever since.”
Kwasny became the director of the Kindred Active Adult Program in 2016 then the senior director of health and wellness in 2017 – the position she still holds. In her current job, Kwasny oversees the fitness, membership, member services, sports and senior departments as well as the kitchen.
“It really entails all the adult experiences in the JCC…, she said. “With my team, we oversee the experience from the time they join.”
She loves the diversity of her job. Every day brings a different challenge or task, and she is always interacting with the members.
But she still finds time for her first love, teaching five classes a week, “everything from spin to step to boot camp.”
Kwasny said she couldn’t do it all without her staff, which can swell to 100 during busy seasons. “They make me look good every single day.”

Kristy Benefield

A Massachusetts native, Benefield is the philanthropy database senior manager. Her job involves entering pledges into the database, compiling the annual and capital campaign reports, taking minutes at board meetings, and updating the Community mailing lists. Interestingly, her work is made easier by four years’ experience in Army Intelligence.
And what did she do there? “Those are secrets I can’t reveal,” she quipped.
Seriously, Benefield, who left the service with the rank of sergeant, worked as a specialist in “human information gathering” with a language specialty of German, serving at the Army’s Defense Language Institute in San Francisco and at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. She also traveled to Germany to translate documents. “There’s some analyst stuff here” in her Federation work, Benefield said, “and I’m good at uncovering stuff.”
After leaving the service, she was the southwest Virginia coordinator for the American Cancer Society and facilities manager for Fidelity Investments in New Hampshire.
She met her future husband in the Army, which is what brought her to Louisville.
Her work isn’t all about crunching numbers. Part of her job is to research the donors to the JCC, especially the families that established endowments. She uses the Community database at the Filson Historical Society to cull and record information. She finds families’ stories engaging.
“I’m learning what was in these people’s hearts and minds when they established these endowments,” she said.

This year’s Ronald & Marie Abrams Volunteer of the Year Award, whose extent namesakes exemplify community service, goes to Leon Wahba.

Leon Wahba

A refugee from Cairo, Egypt, with his family, Wahba is always looking for ways to give back to Jewish Louisville.
“I have Great debt to repay the Jewish community of Louisville, which sponsored our immigration to the United States and welcomed us in 1959 when we first arrived in Louisville,” he said.
A 1967 graduate from the University of Louisville, Wahba had 30-plus-year career in banking, working here, in Cleveland and in Belgium, before retiring in 2005. Wahba and his wife, Helen, a Louisville native, then returned home and went to work for the community.
He has been treasurer of the Federation and chaired its Allocation Committee and Jewish Community Relations Council and. For two years, he headed the Annual Campaign, and he has been a regular volunteer at the Sunday Phonathon for more than 16 years.
Together with Helen, an active member of the NCJW, Louisville Section, they support Gilda’s House.
Small wonder Wahba was a 2011 MOSAIC honoree by the Jewish Family & Career Services.

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