January 19, 2019

Inspiring stories of family, support as keys to success

An idea that came up again and again over the course of the recent Women’s Leadership Network’s fourth annual Woman to Woman Conference benefiting Jewish Vocational Service (JVS) was the importance of support by family and those who become like family. It was an especially fitting theme given that so much of JVS’ work in helping people find meaningful, long-term employment depends on a family-like network.

The event, held at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Guerin Pavilion on Nov. 17, attracted nearly 500 women — from recent college graduates to grandmothers — along with a smattering of men. For some attendees, it was their first Woman to Woman Conference. Many others were returnees happy to support JVS’ mission and eager for another healthy dose of inspiration, of which they got plenty from the day’s two featured speakers.

Dr. Margareta Pisarska, director of the Center for Fertility and Reproductive Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, began by speaking about her parents, both Holocaust survivors from Poland who were sent to concentration camps as Christian prisoners of war. She showed pictures of a small metal cross a man who had worked in an ammunition factory had fashioned for her mother from a bullet casing. “I believe this kept her going,” Pisarska said. “He was not her family in a traditional sense,” she said, but through his actions he became family.

Pisarska talked about her father’s colon cancer diagnosis when she was a high school freshman, and the “special moments” they shared when she accompanied him on train trips to his treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. She also helped change his dressings. It was at that time when she decided to become a doctor. When her father died a year later, Pisarska said, she “became her mother’s rock and roles were reversed.” She considered not going to college, but her mother would not have it and sold the family’s motel to support her. 

“My mother was not only my family but my mentor and champion,” Pisarska said. 

The mother of three also shared stories about her other critical “mentors, champions and family,” including her fellowship director at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine, who was keen to hire her for an open clinical position but ultimately encouraged her to head west to Stanford University, where she would have an opportunity to do more research as well as take care of patients. This “selfless” act, she said, ultimately helped her grow and flourish.

Pisarska went on to talk about her work helping people build families through some of the latest advances in the field of reproductive medicine.

The event’s other featured speaker, Nancy Spielberg, shared comic stories of growing up with her “rogue” mom and three siblings in Phoenix. There was the pet monkey. There was acting in her big brother Steven’s home movies. (Yes, that Steven Spielberg.)

“I was abducted by aliens when I was 6 years old,” she recalled.

Spielberg said her mother regularly wrote notes for her kids and even their friends so they could skip school. But despite those quirks, Spielberg said, her mother “allowed us to thrive and venture into whatever direction we felt ourselves pulled.”

Spielberg spoke candidly about being “the sister of” her celebrity brother, including registering for writing classes under her married name so she would not be prejudged.

“I never wanted to be a filmmaker,” she said. “Probably that’s partially due to the fact that the bigger my brother became, the more intimidated I became — not by my brother, because he’s a really nice guy, but by public opinion. You know, it’s that fear of failing publicly or measuring up.” 

But even when she questioned her own ability, Spielberg said, her husband — whom she described as “brutally honest but very supportive” — cheered her on. “Many times he would say, ‘You can do this,’ and I would cower and say, ‘I can’t.’ ”

Eventually, Spielberg’s belief in herself caught up to the belief that others had in her. Today, at 60, she is a highly respected documentary filmmaker. Her films include 2014’s “Above and Beyond,” about volunteer fighter pilots in Israel’s War of Independence, and the new “On the Map,” which revisits the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team’s 1977 European Cup victory. Currently, she is at work on a film called “Who Will Write Our History,” about uncovered archives from the Warsaw Ghetto.

“One of most important things I learned is that collaboration and support and respect are really the salt in every successful recipe, whether you are running a business or making a movie,” Spielberg said. “Find your support group, like you are today. Ask for help. Ask questions. People love to help. So it’s a win-win.”

This message was echoed by three JVS clients who spoke at the event, including Nicole Johnson, a mentee in JVS’ WoMentoring Program. Motivated by her 14-year-old son with  autism, and with the support of a devoted volunteer mentor, Johnson hopes to launch next year a creative incubator space for young people with autism.

The conference brought in close to $300,000 for JVS programs such as WoMentoring; A Girl’s Place, which serves at-risk middle and high school students; and BankWork$, which provides job seekers eight weeks of intensive training and placement support for entry-level positions in the financial services field.

In the words of conference co-chair Nancy Paul, “There is nothing more powerful than women joining together to help each other overcome, advance and succeed.”