You are here

Alumni Profile: Marilyn Diamond

Alumni Profile: Marilyn Diamond

Building Cross-Cultural Connections, One Personal
Relationship at a Time

Spertus Alumna Marilyn Diamond—who received her MA in Jewish Communal Studies from Spertus in 1982—is the Honorary Consul General for Morocco in Illinois.

As if that isn’t impressive enough, she is on the board of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, and Chairs the American Board of Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. She and her husband Terry (grandparents of six) have traveled the globe. Their adventures have included climbing mountains in Africa, Mexico, and Bhutan. Terry, a founding partner of Method Capital LLC and former Chairman of Chicago's Talon Asset Management, quips: "We are on a very short list of Jewish-grandparent mountain climbers."

Spertus Institute VP for External Relations Ellen Spira Hattenbach recently sat down with Marilyn to look back at her Spertus experience, discuss her remarkable career, and hear her thoughts for the future.

Ellen: Tell me about your experience at Spertus. What brought you to the program? What has stayed with you?

Marilyn: I enrolled at Spertus in 1976 because I love languages and wanted to study Hebrew. When I got here, I discovered an intellectual feast. The program offered the best critical thinking experience I had yet been exposed to!

Every faculty member I studied with was a giant in their field. I studied the Holocaust with Dr. Byron Sherwin (noted author and theologian, Director of Spertus Doctoral programs), Jewish history with David Weinstein (professor of Jewish Studies who served as Spertus President 1964-1980, later tapped by Elie Wiesel to lead the fundraising effort for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC), and Talmud with noted expert Dr. Martin Goldman. Since I was studying Jewish Communal Service, one of my professors was my cousin, Dr. Steven Nasatir (President, Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago), an experience that was a little weird but really wonderful.

In the summer, they would bring in scholars from Hebrew University. One summer I had my husband Terry sit in on a class about Job, taught by noted biblical scholar Stanley Kazan. Terry said the intellectual rigor was comparable to his courses at the University of Chicago Law School.

Classes were small and discussions were central. The students were all incredible too, all extremely committed. I remember being in class with Capers Funnye (now Rabbi of Chicago’s Beth Shalom Bnai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation and head of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis).

Looking back, my interest in Jewish communal work was born even before my experience with Spertus. I was involved with an organization called the American Association for Ethiopian Jews. I worked with Nathan Shapiro, the late Henry Rosenberg, and William Recant (who went on to hold a senior position with the JDC) to build a coalition of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations in order to open the doors to send international food aid to Ethiopia, in exchange for release of members of the Ethiopian Jewish community. The advocacy I did on behalf of Ethiopian Jews started me on a path of working as a political activist for the Jewish community, with my next project working on behalf of Refuseniks in the Former Soviet Union.

Although I came to Spertus to learn Hebrew, I was attracted to Jewish Communal Studies. This kind of work clearly was in my blood! For the internship then required to fulfill my Spertus degree requirements, I chose to do work with the pioneering Jewish activist Peggy Norton, who then ran the Jewish Community Relations Council. She was gifted in building coalitions and I learned so much from her. She understood in the broadest sense how we need to work together. After graduating, I worked at the Jewish Federation under Joel Carp in the Department of Grants and Special Programs. These experiences concentrated my focus on Jews as an interest group in the American political arena, which became my thesis topic when I went on to pursue a graduate degree in Political Science from Northeastern Illinois University, where I was privileged to study with the brilliant Dr. Ellen Cannon.

I taught Political Science at Loyola and, as the result of my training at Spertus, I taught at the Dawn Shuman Institute as well.

Ellen: What is your connection to Morocco?

Marilyn: It is a long story, but the short version is that I co-chaired the Sister City program between Chicago and Casablanca for many years, starting right after 9/11. New in that role, I traveled to Morocco, even though I had friends saying that at that political moment, with Islamophobia rising in the United States and anti-American sentiment escalating in the Muslim world, it wasn’t something I should do. Especially not as a Jew and as a woman.

In fact, I was taken into the hearts and homes of the people of Morocco. When you develop close ties—one on one—you find out that our commonalities are more important than our differences. It validates the whole concept of people-to-people diplomacy. In December of 2010, the government of Morocco approached me to represent them in Illinois.

Ellen: The program in which you studied—the MA in Jewish Communal Studies—was the precursor to a program that is now called the MA in Jewish Professional Studies. It serves students not just here in Chicago, but around the world. What message do you have for today’s students?

Marilyn: There are a number of big challenges that I think Jewish communal leaders need to pay attention to. I believe that key among them is the challenge of keeping young people connected to Israel. In this time of rising global antisemitism, something illustrated with such profound tragedy in Pittsburgh, American Jews regardless of politics must understand the necessity of Israel. We are all part of Am Yisrael. Likewise, we need to be able to speak honestly with our Israeli brothers and sisters about issues that impact Jewish communities around the world.

Ellen: Terry and you are mountain climbers and world travelers. What has been your favorite adventure?

Marilyn: I have many and for different reasons. I’ll tell you about one that influenced the work I do. When we went to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, we traveled under the auspices of CARE. Before we climbed, we spent a week in Kenya visiting projects CARE was working on. One of these taught me my most important lesson about diplomacy.

We went to a remote village to see an education initiative. The project was to teach illiterate villagers to recognize the early symptoms of acute respiratory and digestive diseases that were killing their children. Villagers came from across the region. A woman with a beautiful voice taught them a song with lyrics that outlined the symptoms. After her students learned the song and passed a test, they were empowered to be village pharmacists who could dispense that medicine that CARE sent.

We went to see the dispensaries and all the medicine was still on the shelf. None had been used. The people from CARE sought to find out why, and it turned out that the medicine hadn’t been blessed by their local witch doctor, so no one would take it. 

The lesson is that you have to meet people where they are, not where you think they ought to be.

Ellen: You have been a longtime Spertus Institute donor. Why should others follow your lead in terms of supporting the work Spertus does?

Marilyn: I could not be doing what I’m doing without the critical thinking skills I gained through Spertus and the hands-on experience.

This institution is very close to my heart. I don’t know of any other place that fills the space that Spertus does. This is an entire institution that exists to educate, support, serve, and advance Jewish causes and community.

Be like Marilyn! Give to support future leaders > 


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Marilyn Diamond. Photo by Barry Kafka.