Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
First local ‘Jewish summit’ coming: Attendees to help in reimagining area community
June 1st, 2011
An unprecedented opportunity to become a voice for change is now open to every member of Milwaukee’s Jewish community.
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation, through its Reimagining Project, is seeking to capture the hopes and dreams that Milwaukee Jews have for their community, and to enlist support in making those dreams come true.
To this end, each of the 55 community members who convened on April 13, and worked as a team to design aspects of the project, is currently conducting interviews of four or five other people in the community.
These interviewees, in turn, will be encouraged to interview others. The process is known as “cascading interviews.”
The information and views that individuals tell in these interviews, and the themes that arise from all the data collected, will form the basis for the first ever Milwaukee “Jewish Community Summit” (JCS), in which the entire Jewish community is invited to participate.
At the JCS, participants will be asked to share their positive experiences of Jewish community, “and then begin to dream together about how what has been meaningful in the past can be built upon for a strong Jewish community in the future,” said Sheryl Primakow, MJF director of community planning, in an email May 22.
She said that people attending the JCS will decide upon initiatives that “will then guide the restructuring of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation,” a process that will follow the event.
The event is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., on Sunday, June 26, and Monday, June 27, at the Milwaukee Public Museum. (See box.)
“There will be times when people will work together one on one, at tables, and in larger groups. And there will be times when the whole assembled group will be listening to inspiring messages about change, the future, and the Jewish community in the United States today,” Primakow said.
In an email May 20, Primakow emphasized the need for maximum community participation. “The more people who are involved in that process (of envisioning what is most important for the future), both through the cascading interviews and by attending the Summit, the greater our understanding of our community.”
Judy Guten chairs the Reimagining Project. In a telephone interview May 20, she said she shared the belief that community-wide participation in the JCS would be vital to the project’s success.
“We want people to feel compelled to come,” she said. “They must come because they’re going to affect the future — and dreams may not come true if they’re never heard.”
Guten expressed hope that JCS attendees would represent the diversity of today’s Milwaukee Jewish community.
“By design, this project aims at having the participation of a lot of people,” she said. “But, while numbers are important, in my mind the project benefits most from having the greatest possible diversity.”
Guten said she would define as “diverse” a group that included people who are and are not involved in the Jewish community, and who represent a range of age groups, residential locations, and levels of Jewish observance.
Five members of the team — Jane Avner, Nancy Barnett, Nita Corré, Lucille Rosenberg, and Sue Strait — worked as a subgroup on April 13 to create the “Pre-Summit Interview Guide.” This contained the interview questions and guidelines for conducting the interviews.
In a telephone interview May 18, Barnett said the interview was designed, first, to encourage interviewees to take a positive perspective in framing their responses to the questions. This is in accordance with the “appreciative inquiry” (AI) process that is the guiding framework for the project.
The AI process seeks to effect change in an organization by identifying and building upon what constituents see as the worthy and desirable qualities of the organization.
“We wanted to set up a situation where people would feel favorable about their Jewishness,” Barnett said. She said such favorable feelings might be evoked through questions that brought back fond memories of, say, the tastes and smells the person associated with their Jewish background.
For example, Jerry Benjamin, MJF president, conducted a 90-minute, interview with Rebecca Guralnick, 41, of Bayside, at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center on May 19. He asked her to describe her “specific memories of camp — the tastes, the smells.”
Guralnick had just finished telling Benjamin that her summers at the B’nai B’rith Camp at Lake of the Woods in Kenora, Ontario, had been among the most memorable of her childhood Jewish experiences. But his question opened a window onto Guralnick’s concept of her own Jewishness.
“At age 15, I was a counselor at camp, but I didn’t love [that job], and asked to be kitchen staff instead,” she recalled. “Shabbat cooking was great. Everybody loved Shabbat, loved the whole atmosphere.
“I still have a strong attachment to it today, and I create it in my home every Friday night. They might not always appreciate it now, but one day my kids will appreciate it.”
Benjamin probed what Guralnick characterized as the “tougher question” of what makes her proud to be Jewish.
Guralnick said she feels proud that Jews “are such a small percentage of the [world] population, and look at how much we’ve accomplished. We have a strong work ethic, and intelligence; everyone I know is extremely bright.”
Guralnick talked about the pride she felt watching her own children sing Chanukah songs in a holiday program at Bayshore Mall in Glendale. She spoke of her travels abroad and encountering foreign cultures in places like New Zealand and China.
Said Guralnick: “You don’t run into many Jews in those places, and I feel unique in most of those settings. We [as Jews] have this amazing background we don’t share with them, and there is a sense of pride that we have more tradition than so many people in the world, and that we keep going back to it.”
The group that created the “Pre-Summit Interview Guide” anticipated that some of the questions might elicit negative responses. The interview guidelines state that this could happen.
“It’s all about listening and letting the person tell the story they want to tell,” Barnett said. “I’m a solicitor for Federation, and so many of us have had the situation of people who won’t give because 20 years ago you did something they didn’t like.
“But now, to move forward, maybe you agree we were not right 20 years ago. And maybe they feel better because they finally got to tell it to a Federation person who cared enough to ask.”
Strait, who also participated in producing the interview guide, said she thought the interviewer’s willingness to listen, to allow an interviewee to vent complaints, could turn the person to thinking positively about reimagining the community and MJF.
When asked to describe her vision of the ideal Jewish community Guralnick said she thought it important to involve everyone in the community, even if they are unable to give financial support.
“Involvement is most key to me,” she said. To make MJF the best organization it can be, she would “make sure everyone feels equally included, irrespective of ability to give.”
Benjamin asked for Guralnick’s thoughts about why “we have trouble engaging people under 50 in the community; why we have trouble connecting them to what we do.”
She replied that, in her view, having the wherewithal to support the Jewish community financially is often not what keeps younger members from participating.
She noted that people under age 50 in the community are busy completing educations, advancing in professions, and raising children. The big problem for this younger group, she said, is that involvement requires a substantial commitment of time.
“I have more time for committee work; for others, involvement is a lot more of a burden,” she said. She speculated that perhaps an increase in MJF staff, to do logistical planning of meetings and other detail work might “ease volunteer hours.”
Considering such changes is essentially what the Reimagining Project is about. “It’s a survival mechanism,” Guralnick said. “I feel if we weren’t moving forward, adapting to modern interests, we would die.”
Her hope for the future, she said, is to hear people coming from other places comment on what a strong, vibrant community we have. “That would make me really proud.”
Anyone in the Milwaukee Jewish community who wishes to participate in the cascading interview process, or who has questions concerning the upcoming Summit, should contact Chelsea McNerney, administrative assistant at MJF, 414-390-5722.
Lynne Kleinman, Ph.D., a retired teacher and journalist, is currently working with a group developing “Jewish Neighbors in Wisconsin: A Web-based Curriculum,” a project of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation will hold a first-ever Jewish Community Summit on Sunday, June 26, and Monday, June 27, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day, at the Milwaukee Public Museum, 800 W. Wells St.
All interested members of the community, ages 18 and older, are invited to attend. Breakfast and lunch will be served; dietary laws observed. There is no charge to attend. More information is available at www.thejewishsummit.org.