MILWAUKEE – She’s outdoorsy, with a love of art and a career in Israeli galleries, and her family lineage is so cemented to Israel, she comes to Wisconsin representing her country with an unbridled passion.
“We need to create strong connections because we are different, but we are one people,” said Keren Weisshaus, the new community shlichah. “We need to figure out how we can be different together.”
As the local shlichah, the Israeli will live and work in the Milwaukee area for at least two years. Brought here by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Weisshaus, 42, arrived in August with her husband, two kids, a cat and a 19-year-old dog.
Weisshaus and her family came with an open heart and a desire to learn, she said, noting that she’s not a politician or a Jewish professional.
She said she brings “more a view of the Israeli cultural scene, what’s going on in the art world and film. Because I come more from the culture side of things.”
She has studied design, sculpted and taught sculpture to kids. For the last eight years, she worked as a curator for two art galleries owned by one of Israel’s largest municipalities, Rishon LeZion.
Even though she feels she’s anything but a politician, she engaged with issues at the galleries through art. “We used art as a platform to talk about all sorts of topics about Israeli identity and Israeli issues,” she said.
Refugees have been streaming into Israel from Africa and public comments on Facebook have turned intolerant, she said. So one of her galleries, Banim gallery at Rishon LeZion, put on an exhibition of videos of a woman posing as a black immigrant. The woman got into character to challenge museumgoers to question how refugees are viewed in Israeli society.
In general, the Banim gallery has dealt with difficult subjects of Israeli society.
“It was making them look at themselves in the mirror. Is that who I am?” she asked rhetorically. “Why am I blaming people for not receiving Jewish refugees when I am not doing the same now?”
Another exhibition had photos shot by a mother whose son was killed in the Israel Defense Forces. The photos were of gravesites the day after all the pomp and circumstance of Yom Hazikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day.
“We brought a lot of kids to see that show,” she said.
This was an amazing thing about the Banim gallery in particular, she said. “We had the courage to go into our most painful issues.”
Weisshaus’ family in Israel goes back eight generations on her father’s side, to the mid-1800s. “They were religious. They weren’t Zionists. They just came to the holy land,” she said.
Her mother worked as a secretary for the government and at one point she was tasked with typing up founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s memoirs. Before that, she was smuggling items in her purse between officials of the Haganah, the predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces.
Her father was in the War for Independence, having not mentioned that he was 16 so that the Haganah would take him.
Mom the Haganah courier, Tziporah Back, still lives today in Israel with dad, Chaim Back, the young Haganah warrior. Both are now 87.
To this day, Tziporah tells her daughter Keren, “You don’t know what it’s like to grow up in a world with no state of Israel.”
“So that’s the story I grew with,” Keren said. “That’s what I heard at home.”
The community shlichah educates and engages our community in ongoing conversations about Israel, according to Rabbi Hannah Greenstein, vice president of outreach, Israel and overseas. She gives us the opportunity to get to know Israel through Israel’s people.
“Get to know her and her family by inviting her to coffee or have them to your house or your organization’s programming,” Greenstein said. “The community shlichah is a gift from Federation to the community so that people in Milwaukee can connect to Israel.”
Weisshaus and her family have already attended events and visited some Milwaukee sites. She said she offers “my deepest gratitude to the Jewish community in Milwaukee for showing us such a generous and warm welcome.”
* * *
How to meet a Weisshaus
Keren Weisshaus, the new community shlichah, moved to the Milwaukee area from Israel for an extended stay. She’s here with her husband and their two children, to help connect you to Israel.
“I want to invite the community to feel free to approach us,” she said. “They can do it the Israeli way. Just come over.”
If you see a Weisshaus and you need an easy conversation starter, here’s a quick field guide:
Husband Oori, 43, holds a doctoral degree and is a plant geneticist. He’ll continue to work from home for an Israeli company while in town. He likes mountain biking and he plans to buy a bike and take it around Wisconsin.
Daughter Stav, 11. “She’s really an artist in her soul,” Keren said. Her name means autumn. She likes three Ds: Drawing, dance and drama.
Son Erez, 8. Stav’s brother will be attending Milwaukee Jewish Day School in Whitefish Bay with her. He’s into Pokémon and computer games.
Grappa the dog, 19, is named after an Italian drink. The Weisshaus adults love Italy and speak some Italian. Poor, old Grappa had a long flight but she “came out of the cage jumping around,” Keren said. Grappa is a “tough cookie.”
Phobia the cat, 15. Phobia scampers under a bed and won’t leave. We asked, what’s she scared of? Answer: “Everything.”