When Phyllis Margolius became involved in any organization, she went in 100%. “She was an incredibly bright, perceptive woman who didn’t take no for an answer,” noted her husband of 46 years, Philip Margolius.
She not only often rose to the top, being named to the board or head of a project, but she also made sure she got to know all the players in that organization, from the top to the bottom.
“The way she got things done was collaborative,” he said.
The mother of three and grandmother of five who died of cancer in 2014 often expressed concern that the mid-level, hardworking and caring staff of Jewish agencies all too often left to take new positions outside the Jewish world so they could earn more money.
With this in mind, her husband established the Phyllis G. Margolius Impossible Dream Award. It will be awarded annually to one Jewish nonprofit professional who has great ideas and works to carry them out. That winner, who must promise to continue his or her career in the nonprofit Jewish world, will receive $18,000.
Eligible professionals must have five years in the field and live in the Washington, D.C. area. The ideal person will not be the CEO but rather head a smaller group or be a mid-level manager.
“She had a great respect for communal workers,” her husband said, adding he believed, “She’d love this program.” However, he noted, “She would be embarrassed from having her name associated with it.”
Phyllis Margolius was greatly involved and “rose to the top of any organization she was apart of,” Philip Margolius said. “She was the first woman president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, an officer with the Council of Jewish Federations and president of what is today the Jewish Community Foundation.
During her lifetime, Margolius was active in or chaired such organizations as March of the Living, AIPAC and the United Jewish Appeal. She traveled to Israel more than 50 times.
Margolius, who was an active member of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County and sat on its board, was a native Washingtonian and a graduate of American University with a degree in psychology.
She had started at the University of Pennsylvania but left to raise her family. When her youngest was in school, Margolius started at American.
She was set to graduate the same year as one of her children, but “she didn’t want to humble him, so she put off graduating for one year,” her husband, a managing partner at the Margolius Law Firm, recalled.
She chaired the former Soviet Union Committee of the Jewish Agency and traveled to the former Soviet Union and United Kingdom “to meet with people on the ground. She had a knack of making friends with everyone she met,” said her husband.
The amount, $18,000, was chosen partly because it corresponds with the Hebrew word “chai,” meaning life, and commonly is used when making donations. But it also was chosen, because it is not an insignificant amount of money, he noted.
Besides the financial reward, Margolius hopes the notoriety and prestige that comes with being named the recipient will encourage others to apply in future years. And he encourages anyone to reapply if they aren’t chosen.
“We are trying to encourage people to apply for it. We want to incentivize people to stay in the field.”
“I think there are a lot of hidden gems out there” who he and his wife want to continue Jewishly, Margolius said.
“She really had respect for Jewish professionals. She felt sad when they left the professional for money,” he said.
Margolius also was a huge baseball fan, who went into mourning when the Senators left the District. She grew to love the Nationals, and her license plate read, My Nats.
“She was a very spiritual person as well,” he said.
Keeping good people involved in the Jewish world would make his wife and her family very happy. “Her family was always very rooted in doing good things. Her grandfather helped fund the Exodus,” he said, referring to the ship that was to take those who survived the Holocaust to Palestine but eventually was routed to back to Europe.
The winner will be named in April 2023 and will be chosen by a committee of local, national and international Jewish leaders as well as Sara Hurwitz, former speechwriter for Michelle Obama; Simone Friedman, founder of the Partnership for Patient Advocacy; and Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
For information on how to submit a nomination, visit: https://impossibledreamaward.com/
Correction, Nov. 28, 2022, 4:45 p.m. Phyllis Margolius’ work with the Jewish Agency has been corrected.