As the Assistant Regional Director in the Chicago office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), David Kurzmann, among his many outreach projects, led a group of non-Jewish college students on a mission to Israel. The program had no agenda other than providing a first-hand opportunity for its participants to get to know a country that may have been defined for them by news reports and hearsay. When they arrived, Abe Foxman, ADL’s National Director, said to them “If you walk away with one thing from this trip, it’s that it’s complicated.”
Kurzmann, who became the Executive Director the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) last year, has made a career of delving into the complicated, working to untangle and illuminate complex issues of identity, and using that process to build bridges of understanding and trust.
A member of the Frankel Jewish Academy’s first graduating class, Kurzmann was part of a group that helped the school define its identity and its goals. He loved the dual curriculum that combined a college prep program with studying Judaism and learning Hebrew. From his Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp experiences, he formed a strong sense of his own identity.
He credits that for being the foundation from which he can reach out to others.
“I’m not afraid to talk to someone that is a Palestinian supporter because it doesn’t threaten my identity. It’s a learning opportunity,” says Kurzmann.
After graduating from University of Michigan, where he studied Hebrew and Jewish cultural studies, and political studies, he took a temporary position with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center that expanded into a two-year role doing public programming for diverse groups that included law enforcement.
An opening in the ADL office gave him the opportunity to work on projects like an annual program to teach Catholic school teachers about the Holocaust. For five years he visited summer camps, temples, and youth groups, training over 2,000 Jewish students to understand identity, stereo-typing, the types of comments that are the building blocks of hatred. He continued his work with law enforcement, as a liaison creating opportunity for experts to educate officers. With college students, he worked to help them identify the stereotypes that mark the line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.
“I loved it,” he says, “but it was time to move home.”
He and his wife Katie decided that the next step would be here.
Former JCRC Executive Director Robert Cohen had just announced his retirement, so Kurzmann decided to throw his hat in the ring, little expecting them to pick a 29 year-old to head the organization. Clearly his expertise, as well as his energy and his passion for the work were a good fit, and in October, he began a new chapter in the community he loves.
Community relations, he says “has traditionally been telling the stories of this community accurately and in a fair way. It’s a business of relationships and promoting understanding.”
That business for him includes building bridges through efforts like Mitzvah day, which, for the last six years, has seen Muslim and Jewish volunteers work together each Christmas to volunteer while Christian volunteers celebrate the holiday.
“We all know what happens when those bridges don’t exist,” says Kurzmann.
The JCRC’s wide-ranging programs also include a partnership with Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network (DION) training volunteers to do literacy tutoring.
“This work can’t be done exclusively on a one to one basis,” says Kurzmann. “We need to create the right coalitions. So he was enthusiastic when former IFLC Board Member Kari Alterman suggested that David sit down with Bob Bruttell.
“I immediately connected with Bob,” says Kurzmann. “He had a message that resonated with me.”
Kurzmann went to the press conference called by the IFLC last year during the December holiday season to announce the year of faith and peace. Faith leaders from across the community gathered to give voice to a common intent to work for peace.
“Being in that setting and seeing all the faith leaders sending a message in many different voices, to me was very compelling.”
The comfort level and openness of conversation between members of different faiths at the IFLC’s community interfaith luncheon in June was a powerful experience for him, and a confirmation that the work of the IFLC was a good fit.
“It’s a continuation of who I am and what I’m most proud of,” he says. “It’s changing hearts and minds and affecting people. I’m so proud that the Jewish community is embracing this program.”