Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series about Detroiters living elsewhere, but…
Rachel Jacobs’ family recalls her devotion to social justice, her loved ones and to Detroit.
Rachel Jacobs, 39, was known for her kind and caring heart, her exceptional business acumen, and the profound impact she made on the many lives she touched with her friendship, compassion and boundless energy.
A devoted wife, mother, daughter and friend; a passionate social justice advocate and ardent supporter of her hometown, Detroit; and a talented corporate executive with an impressive career history, her gift for forming lasting relationships was the foundation of all her endeavors.
“Most important were the connections she made on a personal level,” said her mother, Gilda Jacobs, a former Michigan senator. “She connected with the world.”
Rachel, who lived in New York with her husband, Todd Waldman, and their 2-year-old son, Jacob, was killed when a New York-bound Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday evening, May 12. Rachel was commuting between her home and her new job as CEO of Philadelphia-based tech start-up ApprenNet LLC, a company that provides training and educational programs through Internet/video-enabled, apprentice-style learning.
In her too-short life, Rachel touched hundreds of people across the globe: friends, family members, colleagues, former classmates and supporters of Detroit Nation, an organization Rachel co-founded to enable native Detroiters living elsewhere to contribute to their hometown’s economic and cultural development.
Rachel’s Detroit roots began in Huntington Woods, where her parents, John and Gilda Jacobs, raised Rachel and her sister, Jessica, with a strong sense of community ties, Jewish values and social justice.
“Every Chanukah, the family would choose a charity to donate money to instead of buying gifts,” said John, an attorney. This practice impressed Todd when he first met Rachel and learned about her family.
As a student at Berkley High School, Rachel was involved in student council and theater; she also served as class ombudsman and volunteered at a local Planned Parenthood office. She was president of the youth group at the family’s synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, and served as the vice-president of social action for NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) on a statewide level.
“She was always supporting something; she never said no,” Todd said. “I remember seeing an old photo of her wearing a jean jacket covered with buttons for various causes.”
She spent several summers at Tamarack Camp, as a camper and later as a staff member, leading off-site camping trips.
“Her commitment to and her joy in Judaism are largely due to her time at Tamarack,” John Jacobs said.
Her participation in Tamarack’s Western and Alaskan trips led to a lasting love of travel and outdoor adventure. Her younger sister, Jessica (Jessie), a favorite travel companion, shared happy memories of trips where she and Rachel toured Italy, hiked through Banff in the Canadian Rockies, and experienced the thrill of an African safari. Jessie, who lives in Staten Island with her husband, Joshua, and son, Lyle, shared a close relationship with her sister.
Rachel received her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. After a stint at an urban planning firm and some time on Capitol Hill working for U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers, a Detroit native, Rachel attended Columbia University in New York, where she earned a master’s degree in business administration.
Life was never a spectator sport for Rachel, and her zest for experiencing the world around her was reflected in her travels. While studying in Nepal during her junior year of college, she lived in a dung hut, dodging rats and taking rainwater showers. She spent time in Israel studying the Bedouins. While working in Kyrgyzstan, she immersed herself in the Russian language and culture and was involved in developing a micro-finance company.
Eventually, she found her way into the education arena, serving as vice-president of business development for Ascend Learning, a provider of technology-based education products, before becoming CEO of ApprenNet.
“What was so magical about Rachel was her ability to not only awe-inspire with her intellect, but to also make everyone around her feel as if they could share their deepest secrets,” Emily Foote Williams, COO and co-founder of ApprenNet, wrote in an email. “Her obvious brilliance never made her unapproachable.”
According to close friend and native Detroiter Erin Einhorn, the idea for Detroit Nation was conceived by a group of NFTY alumni attending a Passover seder at Einhorn’s home in New York.
“Rachel took an idea and turned it into something, turned it into a network and an organization and made something happen,” said Einhorn, who lived near Rachel in New York and moved back to Detroit last fall. She recalled how Rachel would always find the time to be there for the people and things she cared about, despite her busy schedule. “She just had this amazing ability to connect, to be there.”
Her mother, Gilda, said Rachel always aspired to be a leader, and it was her innate ability to lead a team and inspire those around her that contributed to the success of Detroit Nation.
“Several years ago, when we started talking about a vibrant Jewish future in Detroit and retaining talent here, people thought we were nuts,” said Scott Kaufman, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “Rachel was an early thought leader — and she did the work.”
Last fall, Rachel was one of a group of successful native Detroiters invited to attend Crain’s Detroit Business’ “Detroit Homecoming,” an event featuring an impressive lineup of speakers that included Warren Buffett, designed to inspire expatriates to re-invest in Detroit. The event fit perfectly with the Detroit Nation mission, and Rachel was enthusiastic about the possibilities.
“I would consider Rachel a mentor in terms of how to create an organizational culture, how to build something, and how to do that with integrity and values in an inclusive manner,” said West Bloomfield native Perry Teicher, 30, current president of Detroit Nation. “She, through her vision and doing the work, was able to bring together a diverse group of people — who otherwise wouldn’t work together — to focus on something they had a shared passion for and create meaningful projects.”
A Perfect Match
When Todd Waldman met Rachel Jacobs at a Brooklyn party hosted by a mutual friend, he knew it was no ordinary encounter. They discovered they had several friends in common; many were Detroiters Todd had met while studying at Hebrew University in Israel. Rachel had all the traits Todd considered important in a potential spouse as well as some similar idiosyncrasies. To maintain his foreign language skills, Todd had been reading the Harry Potter series in German and Spanish.
“The first time I went to her apartment, she had a copy of Harry Potter in Russian,” Todd said. They were both passionate about running and participated in half-marathons together. “It was like dating my best friend from day one.”
Todd, a director at Navigant, a Chicago-based consulting firm, said he knew from his first date with Rachel — dinner at an Italian restaurant — that the two would eventually be married. He recalls a trip to Croatia with his mother and brother only weeks after the couple started dating. Rachel was in Kenya with her sister at the same time, and the two spent most of their time texting each other despite the beautiful scenery in their respective locations, resulting in merciless teasing from their travel companions.
Rachel’s friend Noha Waibsnaider, who also attended the party where Rachel and Todd met, said she knew right away something special had begun.
“It was so obvious they were meant to be together,” Waibsnaider said.
Rachel and Todd were married in Cleveland in 2009 and, after a month-long honeymoon in New Zealand, they began their married life in Manhattan, where each had been living when they met. Todd shared Rachel’s love of travel, and they traveled locally and throughout the world, to places such as Australia, Machu Picchu, Argentina, Iceland, France, London, Singapore, Vietnam and Mexico, where they hiked, toured, and visited friends and family. Eventually their family expanded to include their son, Jacob Kody, now 2½.
After Jacob was born, they made time for regular “date nights,” going to concerts, dining out and spending time with their many friends. They enjoyed hosting Shabbat dinners and other holiday celebrations.
“Rachel was a phenomenal chef and baker,” Todd said. “She made recipes from all over the world. When someone wasn’t feeling well, she would bake them cookies just to say, ‘I’m here for you.’ I don’t know many people like that.”
Todd, who is from Beachwood, Ohio, and New Castle, Pa., said his challenge will be to uphold Rachel’s legacy so he and Jacob will be able to maintain the friendships Rachel so lovingly cultivated.
“She was so present in everyone’s lives,” said Todd. “She had friends from so many different backgrounds and professions.”
One of Rachel’s many personal gifts was her ability to maintain deep friendships with a wide array of people throughout the world.
“She was a wonderful person — giving, brilliant, articulate, someone who brought people together,” said Karen Zalenko Weinbaum of Huntington Woods, a cousin and friend. “I hope we all become inspired by what she gave in her short life.”
Her husband said a friend described Rachel as someone who “always showed up for the events and the non-events.” During Hurricane Sandy, Rachel, 40 weeks pregnant and uprooted from her home after a massive power outage, managed to get to a nearby hospital where a friend was giving birth.
“I was amazed to learn how many close friends and deep relationships she had,” said Waibsnaider, part of a group of Columbia business school friends who meet for dinner every Monday night.
Since their graduation in 2002, about a dozen women meet weekly at the home of Michelle Kedem, one of the group members. One of the original participants, Rachel has always been an integral part of the core group, according to Waibsnaider.
“Rachel always showed up, even after she had Jacob, even after she started commuting [to Philadelphia],” her friend said. “When I saw her at a recent dinner, she was so happy about her new job. She was beaming. It was such a great fit, such a great use of her talent and skills.”
Waibsnaider has always been impressed by Rachel’s energy and her steadfast commitment to social justice, regardless of how busy her life became.
“It was such a natural, unassuming part of her you never realized how much she was doing,” Waibsnaider said. “She was undeterred … she lit so many sparks. She was a visionary and a mobilizer. I’m amazed at how much she managed to fit into her 39 years.”
Continuing Rachel’s Legacy
In addition to a funeral service on Monday, May 17, at the Ira Kaufman Chapel, more than 300 people attended a memorial service in New York at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on May 16, where Rachel’s husband, Todd, as well as several members of her New York community paid tribute to this extraordinary young woman.
“I always knew I had a wonderful daughter, but sitting at that service, I realized what a spectacular person she was,” John Jacobs said.
For those wishing to make contributions in Rachel’s memory, her family has requested that donations be sent to Rachel Jacobs’ Detroit Nation, 600 Renaissance Center, Suite 1740, Detroit, Michigan 48243, www.crowdrise.com/racheljacobsdetroitnation. Proceeds will benefit Detroit-area projects that will continue the nonprofit’s mission and leave a lasting legacy in Rachel’s name.
Or choose to give to a scholarship fund for aspiring female social entrepreneurs at Columbia University, www. giving.columbia.edu/giveonline/. Indicate “Other” in the “Select a Designation” field. On the following page, select In Memory, and fill out Rachel Jacobs 2002 in the “Special Instructions” field. Donations may also be mailed c/o Tanya Mujica Keenan, Columbia Business School, 33 W. 60th St., 7th Floor, New York, NY 10023. Checks should be made payable to Columbia Business School.
Rachel is survived by her beloved husband, Todd Waldman; her son, Jacob Kody Waldman; parents, John and Gilda Jacobs; sister, Jessica (Joshua) Steinhart; father- and mothers-in-law, Bruce Waldman, Elisabeth Waldman and Linda Waldman; brother-in-law and sister-in-law Andrew Waldman and Tiffany Brown; nephews and nieces, Lyle Steinhart, Bobby, Alec and Arianna Brown; aunts and uncles Karen and Robert Wildau, Elizabeth Jacobs, and Charles Jacobs; many loving cousins and a world of friends.
Rachel was also the much-loved granddaughter of the late Hyman and the late Lillian Zalenko, the late Gilberta and the late Morton Jacobs.
Interment at Machpelah Cemetery; arrangements by the Ira Kaufman Chapel.
By Ronelle Grier, Contributing Writer