By Andrew Adler
The Blanche B. Ottenheimer Award, which is the highest honor the Jewish Community of Louisville can give, is presented annually to a leader (or leaders) who have made a real difference – improving the quality of life in Louisville, in Kentucky and beyond. Ottenheimer was a Jewish Louisville community activist. In addition to serving as president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Louisville Section, she worked for passage of the city’s Model Registration Law, which curbed corruption and led to cleaner elections.
“Defeat” is not in Karen Berg’s vocabulary.
The Kentucky State Senator (D-26), a physician who represents a sizable chunk of Jefferson County, has become one of the nation’s leading advocates for the rights of transgender children in America. She’s been in the foreground of public debate since her transgender son, Henry Berg-Brousseau, took his own life in December 2022 at the age of 24.
Despite a Republican-dominated General Assembly that passed onerous, anti-trans legislation during its recent session, Berg has refused to back down from her cause. Whether in Frankfort, Louisville or Washington, D.C., – she speaks with the passionate persuasiveness of someone who knows, full well, the anguish of ignorance.
As the sole Jewish member of the Kentucky Senate (and with Louisville Representative Daniel Grossberg, one of only two Jews in the entire General Assembly), Berg is accustomed to being somewhat of an outlier in state politics. Many of her colleagues often seem motivated more by ideology than by logic. But she keeps on keeping on, grounded in grit, science and faith.
“Every cell in my body is Jewish,” says Berg, a diagnostic radiologist who earned her M.D. from the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
“I was raised Jewish; I was raised in Jewish medicine – there’s no way to separate one from the other. It’s too integral to who I am, what I believe and what I do not. The ethical practice of medicine is something I’ve studied my whole life, and that I’ve cared about my whole life. So when we’re talking about these things it’s almost intuitive, because of how I was raised.”
Berg is concerned with a wide array of healthcare issues – Kentucky’s loss of more than 500 physicians over the past year, to cite one recent example. Yet it’s the transgender issue – reflected in the array of states besides Kentucky that have passed anti-trans legislation – that defines her national and even international presence.
Earlier this month, she joined other families with trans children at a White House event hosted by President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden. Berg has been the subject of stories in The Washington Post, NBC, The Today show, NPR, and a host of other media outlets. Last week, a film crew from New York flew up to Louisville to tape an interview with her for Japanese television.
Winning the Ottenheimer Award is further confirmation that she’s not by herself in this fight.
“To have the Jewish community and the medical community both stand behind me is, honestly, the wind beneath my wings,” she says. “It gives me the strength to keep going.”
Berg has talked with trans people in their 70s and beyond who are coming out after decades in the shadows. “And the reason they’re doing it is to protect the children,” she says. “They have stayed in the closet their entire lives because it was the safest place for them to be. But what’s happening now is forcing them to say, ‘I can’t live this way. I’m going to have to stand up and tell the world who I am.’”
Just as Karen Berg is standing up for them.
The 2023 Jewish Community of Louisville Award winners, which were presented at the June 29 Annual Meeting, include lifetime volunteers to the community, emerging young leaders and indispensable Federation and Trager Family JCC staff members.
Here’s 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 Kevin Trager.
Many people know Trager for being the press secretary to Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg. But well before he moved into city government this past January, Trager was active as a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council, carrying on tradition of service established by his late grandfather, Bernard Trager. Today the grandson sits on the board of the Jewish Federation of Louisville and is a frequent visitor to the building that bears his last name: the Trager Family JCC.
“I think about ‘L’dor V’dor’ – ‘from generation to generation’ Trager says. “Starting with my grandfather, who I was very close to for the first 20 years of my life. For him it was always about giving back to the community he grew up in, and which gave him so much.
“The Jewish community was such a big, important part of his life, and then in my parents’ lives. So for me to get to serve, and be a part of the decision-making process, is really an honor.”
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 winner is Mike Fine.
A prominent tax attorney and partner in the law firm of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, Fine is entering his third year as board president of Jewish Family & Career Services. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he lived in Washington, D.C. before coming to Louisville in 1996 when his wife joined the History Department at the University of Louisville.
Fine boasts a fundamentally inclusive mindset. “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a member of the (Trager Family) JCC – and you don’t have to be Jewish to receive services from JFCS,” he says. “These are resources that are here and available to everyone in the community.” He’s proud that JFCS has a deep, expansive footprint.”
“Everything the agency does isn’t contained at the corner of Dutchmans and Cannons lane,” he emphasizes. JFCS “has a growing presence in other pockets of the community, including work at the Shawnee Community Center in the West End, and with various Goodwill Industries campuses throughout the city. We have staff members who go out to Jefferson Community & Technical College to provide services to students there who are refugees and immigrants.”
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 winner is Solange Minstein.
As a committee member of the Louisville Jewish Film Festival – touted as the longest-running film festival of any kind in the city – Minstein coordinates an effort that draws an eclectic audience to view what she calls “challenging, poignant, provocative and touching” cinematic fare. The Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary earlier this year with a run at the Trager Family JCC – Minstein’s third as a program curator.
“Film is literature in motion – a way to connect emphatically and sympathetically with messages, themes and teachings outside one’s comfort zone,” says Minstein, who cites seeing Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” on the big screen as her favorite-ever moviegoing experience.
But the Festival is only one aspect of Minstein’s Jewish involvement. Since 2013 she’s taught at the Louisville High School for Jewish Studies, and earlier in her life she served on a young-adult committee at The Temple. She was president of Hillel at the University of Kentucky, where a year-long course on Jewish thought and teachings encouraged her to reach beyond traditional engagement boundaries once back in Louisville.
Minstein called it an example of “just being able to take a profound experience from my college years and bring it to my students, to teach them that Judaism doesn’t have to be the synagogue. It can (go in) a lot of different ways. Judaism is constantly evolving and adapting for what modernity calls for.”
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 Margie Hubert.
Stop by the Trager Family JCC’s Town Scare any given weekday around noon, and you’re likely to find Hubert helping serve lunch to dozens of appreciative (and hungry) seniors. She began volunteering more than a year ago, but her commitment became especially vital after her husband died this past August.
“This is so fulfilling because the grandkids are in college, and I have one son – they’re all doing their thing,” she says. Helping lunchtime seniors is an affirming activity. “It gets you out of the house. You come in the front door and everybody’s smiling. I’ve never seen a person frown. It’s just a happy place.”
When she’s not dishing out noontime sustenance, Hubert takes frequent advantage of numerous fitness classes at the Trager Family JCC. “I take classes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I love dancing.”
This year’s Ronald & Marie Abrams Volunteer of the Year Award, whose extent namesakes exemplify community service, goes to Bill Altman.
Over the past three years, Altman has been among the community’s most significant forces in the realms of public health and physical security. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the retired healthcare executive and Federation board member served as a principal advisor to then-mayor Greg Fischer and the city’s Department of public Health. Altman has also co-chaired SAFE Louisville – a multi-year initiative tasked with securing area Jewish facilities, and which led to the recent hiring of Stuart Lowrey as Regional Security Advisor.
“I have felt for the last five years or so a sense of discomfort for the first time in my life,” Altman says, “about being Jewish in America — around safety — and also around my desire to be active in the Jewish community while feeling safe. So when I was asked to work on the SAFE Louisville initiative, I gravitated toward that, because I can’t think of anything more important than creating a safer and more secure Jewish Louisville – but to do so in a way that results in an open, welcoming and vibrant Jewish community.”
Altman also serves on the steering committee coordinating follow-ups to the Brandeis University-led 2021-2022 Study of Jewish Louisville. “It really speaks to what kind of Jewish community we’re going to have in the future,” he says, emphasizing how “we have a tremendous opportunity. At the same time, at least in my judgment, we’re at a crossroads where our Jewish community and its institutions could – through inertia – dwindle.”
No matter what his involvement, Altman says he “couldn’t have asked to work with better people – nice people, fun people, and people I can learn from.”
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 original 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 Trager Family JCC Membership Director Julia Bright Moran.
Bright Moran is in her sixth year as membership director, taking the job shortly after returning to Kentucky in what she calls the “Bluegrass Boomerang.”
Since the Trager Family JCC opened a little over a year ago, she’s had little chance to catch her breath. “Membership has been booming at what feels like exponential rates,” she said, breaking off from an interview to answer a phone call from a prospective member and schedule a tour.
Thanks to the new building, “people recognize who we are” she says. “And we’ve had a lot of returning members, which has been a lot of fun – talking to people about how they remember growing up in the old building, or how their kids’ first job was being a lifeguard for one summer.”
“It’s really nice to see people coming back at different phases of life,” Bright Moran says. “One of the things that makes this such a special place is that we’re so multi-generational. You have people who come and rely on us heavily when their children are young – they’re building community, getting to know people and forge relationships. Then you have folks coming back to us now that they’re in their senior years. Their kids are grown and they have grandkids, and it can be a whole three generations on one fun pool day.”
Bright Moran says that winning the Kling Award, to say the least, was a surprise. “I was pretty floored,” she recalls. “I had no idea that’s why I was being called up to Sara’s office,” she says, referring to Sara Klein Wagner, President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Louisville and the Trager Family JCC.
“It’s a huge honor, and I’m very touched,” Bright Moran says. “I’m very thankful.”