A Salute To Leadership: Barbara Gilbert

Way before the people of the United States nominated its first woman to run as a major party’s presidential candidate, CJE SeniorLife elected its first female Board Chair, Barbara A. Gilbert. Ms. Gilbert held this position from 1991-1993, almost the halfway mark in CJE’s 45-year history.

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Ms. Gilbert’s impact on CJE’s trajectory has been notable, and closely entwined, personally and professionally. In the early 1980s, she was immersed in a career as the Director of Beneficiary Education for Chicago’s Medicare office, helping people file for their benefits. In this role, she was familiar with CJE’s original walk-in center on Morse Avenue, where staff also provided free benefits counseling. It was bashert. As she gradually stepped back from her professional career to raise her growing family with her husband Howard, volunteering for CJE was a perfect fit: “I just knew I had to give back to the community and my heart naturally went out to the elderly.” By 1983, she was asked to join CJE’s Board of Directors and has held numerous leadership positions, mentoring dozens of new Board members and providing insightful counsel to staff.

To this day, Ms. Gilbert’s voice softens when she mentions the late Joseph Gidwitz, CJE’s founding Board Chair, who she acknowledges as her mentor. “He taught me a lot about strategic planning… how to be business-oriented… yet he was driven by incredible compassion for the elderly.” She also recalls that in 1986, she and Mark Weiner, a fellow Board vice chair, were in charge of a facilitating a two-day Board Retreat in Woodstock. “Mark was considered a ‘young leader’ who was highly regarded for his dedication to our mission and his business knowledge.” Mr. Weiner’s early tenure on the Board became a predictor of his success as CJE’s President and CEO since 2004. And when asked about Ms. Gilbert, he echoes the words of everyone who has had the honor of working with her: “Barbara has always offered great counsel and support… her commitment as a Board member is unmatched.”

Regarding her legacy, Ms. Gilbert is especially proud of her work to develop the Weinberg Community for Senior Living in Deerfield. She stood beside Joe Gidwitz, shovel to shovel, at the groundbreaking in 1995. Her longtime vision, which was fully supported by the Jewish Federation and CJE’s Board, was to ensure that older adults had options for housing, especially those who needed additional help to live with dignity and respect. Twenty years ago, Weinberg Community was acclaimed as the first licensed assisted living facility in Illinois.

“I just knew I had to give back to the community and my heart naturally went out to the elderly.”

Since Ms. Gilbert is so closely identified with CJE, community members often call her first to get advice on how CJE can help their older loved ones. She is proud to recommend CJE’s myriad of services… from short-term rehab at Lieberman to counseling to Adult Day Services. But she is also realistic. To provide a continuum of care for a growing number of seniors, CJE needs more resources. She would like to see young people get involved in our organization’s work and is especially inspired by the growth of our Associate Board.

Since Ms. Gilbert’s tenure as Board chair, two more women have been elected to this highest office: Mally Rutkoff and Judy Smith, CJE’s current chair. Both have incredible respect for her leadership and devotion to the Jewish and larger community. Characteristically modest, Barbara feels that her biggest contribution was to provide them guidance on how to run a good, tight meeting with action items and deliverables. “Get people in… get ’em out. Everyone has important work to do.”

In 1993, the theme of CJE’s Annual Report was “A Salute to Leadership.” The annual message, co-authored by Barbara Gilbert, Board Chair, includes the following paraphrased passage:  “The leadership that molded and shaped CJE springs from the centuries-old tradition of concern that is part and parcel of Jewish communal life. The tradition binds the generations together. Needs move us to action and mobilizes support for addressing them. Problems are seen as challenges. Leadership responds by taking on the often arduous task of guiding others through complicated decisions and obtaining support.”

During four decades of service to CJE, Barbara Gilbert has lived by these words and we are blessed by her actions. Her impeccable leadership and commitment to serving the elderly, infused with wisdom and grace, have had an immeasurable influence on CJE’s enduring history.