“Everyone who wants to lead needs to be committed.” - Earl J. Tranin
Earl Tranin believed strongly that one should fully commit to his or her work as a volunteer and as a community leader. And no one embodies those traits better than Merilyn Berenbom, which is why she was selected for the 2018 Earl J. Tranin Distinguished Jewish Community Service Award, according to former Tranin Award winners Howard Jacobson and Stan Zeldin.
“Merilyn has been an involved Jewish leader for approximately 30 years, and she still serves the community. She has been the board chair of many organizations, yet she is still extremely committed, continuing her work as a campaign ambassador for Jewish Federation, and working on other ongoing projects to benefit our community,” said Jacobson.
“Merilyn joins the ranks of Don Tranin, who is the only other person in Kansas City Jewish leadership to win this special award and to have served as president of the Jewish Community Foundation, Jewish Federation and the Jewish Heritage Foundation. She is a vital leader in our community and is active, down to earth, and really makes things happen in Kansas City,” said Zeldin.
“Above all, she is humble,” said Jacobson, who surprised her with news of the honor in person. “She was speechless when she learned that she won the award. She was very touched and honored as well.”
“We are thrilled to honor such a wonderful leader and ambassador of Jewish Federation and really, of the Jewish community. She has become a wonderful friend and advisor to me personally and has done so much to create a foundation for the long-term health and vibrancy of our community,” said Dr. Helene Lotman, President and CEO of Jewish Federation.
Berenbom’s Volunteer Career
A native Kansas Citian, Berenbom has given of her time for most of her adult life in Kansas City, getting a start in volunteering through Jewish Federation.
“In order to become reacquainted with the KC community after being gone for 12 years, I signed up for a Jewish Federation young woman's leadership session in the mid-80s. I was working in psychological and educational testing and had three small children. I was not sure where my volunteer interests lay so Jewish Federation covered a lot of bases,” said Berenbom.
In addition to expanding her horizons, Berenbom had strong ties to the Jewish community and wanted to give back.
“Why I did it? Out of gratitude. My mother and her family came to the United States just before the outbreak of World War II. My grandmother lost 8 siblings and their families during the war. I am grateful for my great uncle Sam Abend who got his entire family to Kansas City and to the Kansas City Jewish community who welcomed and helped settle our family here.”
Yet it was inspiration that moved Berenbom from participant to leadership roles.
“Becoming a leader was not a singular decision. I learned along the way that together we are better. It is much easier to walk the distance with people at your side. That is the inspiration that steers a person toward leadership roles.”
By 1989, Berenbom was the Campaign Chair for what is now known as Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federation. In the 1990s, she was the National Operation Exodus Chair for the United Jewish Appeal’s (now Jewish Federations of North America) Young Leadership Cabinet, President of Women’s Philanthropy, and committee chairs for a variety of Jewish Federation committees including campaign, planning and allocations, and strategic planning. She also chaired the HBHA dinner and was an active board member at HBHA for a number of years.
There was no slowing down either. By the 2000s, Berenbom was board chair of Jewish Federation, Jewish Community Foundation and Jewish Heritage Foundation. She has also been a member of the University of Kansas Hospital Women's Heart Council, Truman Library Institute Board member and Campaign Cabinet member, and chair of the Truman Strategic Plan.
“I enjoyed all of it, yet the most meaningful volunteer experience for me was Operation Exodus, which brought Russian Jews to Israel and the United States in the 1990s. There was so much that couldn’t be done to save people during WWII, but Operation Exodus gave us the opportunity to help fellow Jews in need,” said Berenbom.
After hearing a refusenik speak at the UJA Young Leadership Conference in Washington D.C in 1990, forty young leaders gathered in the Berenboms' living room and raised the first $64,000 for the Operation Exodus Campaign. Berenbom went on to co-chair the Kansas City Operation Exodus Campaign with John Uhlmann.
Today, Berenbom finds new meaning in her work as she looks to the future of Kansas City’s Jewish community.
“My parents and in-laws were involved in the community, then my husband Loren and I became involved. Now that we have grandchildren, we know they have a community…a foundation that will nurture them. I am happy to see these values are now being passed on from my children to my grandchildren,” she said.
The Meaning Behind the Award
Berenbom joins a short list of winners. Since its inception in 1980, the award has been given to five others: Don Tranin, Paul Rosenberg, Arthur Brand, Stan Zeldin and Howard Jacobson.
“Earl was a great leader. Every time I look at my award, I am reminded of a very meaningful conversation I had with him years ago about what makes a great leader,” said Jacobson.
Zeldin agrees, “Earl Tranin was a pillar in the community – he set patterns for others and led by giving his money and his time. Just like Earl, Merilyn is one of those special leaders who lead by example. Leaders who are on the ground working to make good things happen.”