Sondra D. Bender Community Leadership Honoree
by Susan Josephs
Catherine Zacks Gildenhorn felt compelled to be a Jewish activist at age 11 when she witnessed her father lead a fundraising campaign to support Israel during the Six-Day War. Six years later, during the Yom Kippur War, she “listened to the radio in the Rabbi’s study and brought reports on the war to my father, who reported to the Rabbi and the congregation,” she recalls. “These experiences left an indelible impression on me.”
A lifelong supporter of Israel and Jewish continuity, Gildenhorn has now spent countless hours serving in community leadership roles for Jewish institutions, including The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, where she recently stepped down from the Executive Committee and as vice president, Women’s Philanthropy; the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); Adas Israel Congregation; and the Jewish Social Service Agency. She is also an alumna of The Wexner Heritage Foundation Program.
"All of my jobs taught me about the power of storytelling to motivate people by reaching their hearts and minds."
Gildenhorn is passionate about building community through “philanthropy, social action and education,”and tries to“help others find the beauty and relevancy of Judaism in their own lives.” With a talent for big picture thinking and a collaborative leadership style, the 60-year-old Bethesda, Md,-based activist and philanthropist currently sits on the board of her local Federation, AIPAC’s Washington Steering Committee, and the National Women’s Philanthropy Board of the Jewish Federations of North America.
Driven by her family’s philanthropic and activist legacy, in 2017 she will join the International Board of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, established by her late grandmother. The school is the largest pluralistic adult Jewish education network in the world.
Gildenhorn remains devoted to her role as editor-in-chief and spokesperson for Redefining Moments: End of Life Stories for Better Living. the book written by her late father after learning he had only weeks to live. “My dad wanted to start a conversation at the end of life about living purposely and lovingly every moment.” She started the Gordon and Carol Sue Zacks Better Living Initiative to encourage conversations and through which she donates copies of the book to cancer centers, hospitals, hospices and senior centers.
Raised in Columbus, Ohio, Gildenhorn grew up in a Conservative Jewish home and credits her father, one of Young Leadership Cabinet and AIPAC’s founders, and grandmother, who invented the Dearfoamsbedroom slipper, with “teaching me how to be a Jewish activist.” Determined to succeed, she majored in political science at the University of Michigan and earned a law degree from Emory. She led successful careers as a television news reporter, an attorney for a securities law firm and a political operative in charge of mobilizing the Jewish vote for the Reagan/Bush and the Bush/Quayle campaigns.
Of all her achievements, Gildenhorn is “most gratified” by having served as a presidential appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council during the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She trained as a docent for the museum and assisted its fundraising and development team.
“All of my jobs taught me about the power of storytelling to motivate people by reaching their hearts and minds,” Gildenhorn says. This is a lesson she now applies to her community work.
Married to fellow philanthropist Michael Gildenhorn, she is the mother of Edward, 23, Elissa, 20, and her golden retriever, Tyler.
Gildenhorn will always support organizations and projects that “build common ground in the Jewish community. I always strive to work passionately, think outside the box and make the most of every moment. Just like my father taught me.”