Betsy Green gave this speech at the Create a Jewish Legacy celebration of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Foundation, where she accepted the 2016 Legacy Leadership Award on June 22. She is a resident of Mequon, a major gifts solicitor, former president of the Federation board and a current member of both the Federation and Foundation boards and former chair of the annual campaign, among other roles.
Being Jewish took on a new meaning when I realized being Jewish was being different!
It was a beautiful winter afternoon as I walked down Burleigh Street with my young friends to go ice skating and we passed a kosher meat market. It was then they asked if those “strange words” were the language I spoke at home.
That became a turning point in my life as I, too, wanted to know what was different about being Jewish.
As a child I had never attended a Seder; in fact, I was the first in my family to have a Seder.
But for some reason as a child I felt comfortable being in a synagogue. For me it was a place of learning and peace. To this day, I find spiritual peace in the synagogue. I guess it was because I learned what being Jewish meant through the synagogue, religious school, BBYO, and a Jewish sorority in college.
At the University of Wisconsin non-Jewish sororities allowed Jews to go through the freshman rush, but no Jew was ever invited back for a second rush. Being Jewish was being different.
But the major turning point in my life was a Jewish Federation trip to Israel with Michael in 1972. Being Jewish in Israel was being proud of who I was, of my heritage and my people. I wanted to wear the biggest Jewish star I could find and shout that I was a Jew, but at home that Jewish star was too big. Being Jewish in Milwaukee was still being different.
After the trip I was asked to be on the Women’s Division Board of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. That began a new stage of my life. I learned that being Jewish came with responsibility to our Jewish world.
At about the same time, our children were among the first group to attend the new Jewish Community Center Day Camp in Fredonia. Esther Leah Ritz was the president of the JCC at that time and she came to speak to all of us on Parent’s Day.
She was brilliant and talked about the philosophy of the camp and how it would impact our children Jewishly. I wondered how a woman ever got to be a leader of that stature within the Jewish community (remember, it was the ‘70s). She, along with Betty Lieberman and Ruth Orenstein, and others, became my ultimate role models.
I believe that the only people who really care about Jews are Jews. Therefore, I have put almost all my energies into serving the Jewish community. I assumed leadership roles when asked because I felt as Jews we have a duty and responsibility to our people whoever and wherever they are – in Milwaukee, Israel, and throughout the world. We are commanded to leave the world a better place. I hope my life has fulfilled that commandment.
Being Jewish is being different! And that is a privilege.
So now you know why the Create a Jewish Legacy program is so important to Michael and me. It will insure the Jewish future of our community. Because history has a way of repeating itself and as Jews we must always remain alert to signs of hate and bigotry, even if it is not aimed at us.
About 15 years ago, Michael and I in our estate plan included a bequest to the Jewish Community Foundation to sustain our annual giving, make gifts to agencies and to endow our synagogue.
We are happy that Milwaukee has chosen to join the Create a Jewish Legacy program because of the opportunity it provides for Jewish fulfillment. And while our children and grandchildren do not live in Milwaukee, we are hopeful that the communities where they live have the same kind of participation we have had in Milwaukee’s Create a Jewish Legacy Program.
There is saying in the Talmud: “I did not find the world desolate when I entered it, and as my fathers and mothers planted for me before I was born, so do I plant for those who will come after me.”
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About the Create a Jewish Legacy program
The Create a Jewish Legacy program, through incentives and training, helps local Jewish organizations connect with donors to arrange after-lifetime giving through wills, insurance and other methods. In all, more than 400 local donors have signed promises worth an estimated $16 million, to leave a Jewish legacy for 15 local organizations, the Chronicle reported in July. The program is administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.