We each have a life story that informs why and how we get involved with our community. My story began in Queens, New York, where it seemed like everyone was Jewish.
Moving to the diaspora of upstate New York at 9-years-old, I soon realized that I was “different.” While this realization helped me develop a Jewish identity, I was dismayed when another child called me a “dirty Jew.” The Jewish Community Relations Council and Hours Against Hate were not available then to educate against anti-Semitism. These programs of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation dialogue with other faith communities and races to build bridges of understanding and respect.
This feeling of being in a minority resulted in a deep connection to synagogue life for my family. We were Shabbat morning regulars and I formed my first sense of community. I was even the odd kid who loved Hebrew school. With Coalition for Jewish Learning and all of its initiatives on behalf of Jewish education in religious afterschool programs and day schools, I believe others in the Milwaukee community are able to say the same. USY (United Synagogue Youth) and NCSY (the Orthodox youth group) laid a groundwork for my leadership development and my connection to like-minded Jewish teens in other cities, and we are fortunate for our teens here to have BBYO as well for the same purposes.
When I arrived at Boston University I was drawn to Hillel for both my spiritual and dietary needs. Students in our community are likewise nurtured during a critical time of growth in their lives by Hillel at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee or Madison. I know from my own children how lifelong friends have been made at their individual Hillels – my daughter married one!
Throughout my teens and college years I benefited from the wisdom of teachers who survived the Holocaust: Hebrew school teachers, the Hillel rabbi and Elie Wiesel. It was an honor to have been able to learn from them and hear their stories. We are fortunate here to have the Holocaust Education Resource Center to educate the next generation so we will never forget and stand up for justice for everyone.
Supporting Israel was always important in our home, as the miracle of this young country whose existence was constantly challenged with wars flourished. With all its complexities I have an undying love for the State of Israel. With our strong Partnership Region, 50 year shlichut program and Israel Center, we too have made a commitment to connecting our community with Israel.
When my children were of school age, I joined the Jewish Awareness and Political Awareness series, programs of the Women’s Division, due to the interesting subject matter and to meet other women. That is where my Women’s Philanthropy journey began, a program near and dear to my heart that has been a cornerstone of my connection to Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Women’s Philanthropy started the Jewish Women’s Endowment Fund and provides grants for nonprofits supporting women and children in the greater Milwaukee community. Women’s Philanthropy also started the Jewish Community Food Pantry in 1976, and it is sadly needed more than ever. On top of all the positive aspects of Women’s Philanthropy it has been a great source of friendship and leadership development for those of us who get involved.
I share this story of where my Jewish journey has taken me to illustrate the incredible range of opportunities that are available to every one of us to connect with our Jewish heritage, our fellow community members and the world at large. Wherever your life story has taken you, I know that the Federation offers a program that can help you explore your interests, whether those lie in interfaith dialogue, charitable giving, education, history or many other areas. I also encourage you to make a gift to the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Annual Campaign to help ensure that we can continue funding these fabulous programs.
My husband Glenn and I feel blessed to live in this community, where a vibrant Jewish life offers us all the chance to give back to our fellow Jews, countrymen and people across the world. I hope that in the next chapter of your journey, you explore at least one of these myriad opportunities.
Eileen Graves is president of Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy and is a member of the Federation’s board.