UWM student devoted to Israel, local causes

We shared a bagel with Milwaukee mensch Jonathan Brostoff, a junior majoring in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, campus Zionist leader, social activist and urban volunteer.

When Milwaukee native Jonathan Brostoff was 14, an age that many would characterize as more than a little self-centered, he was already deeply concerned with the welfare of others.

As a freshman at Milwaukee’s High School for the Arts (West Division High School) and later at a private alternative high school, Brostoff spent part of every week working with teens in crisis.

Through Pathfinders, a program of The Counseling Center of Milwaukee, Inc., that “provides outreach, shelter and support services to runaway, homeless and at-risk teens,” according to its Web site, Brostoff connected with some less fortunate contemporaries and started off on a path toward tikkun olam (repairing the world).

Since then, Brostoff, now 22, has devoted himself to several social and public service organizations. And this year, in addition to his community social justice work and his studies, Brostoff is co-president (with Tiffany Allen) of UWM’s Campus Organization for Israel.
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Brostoff said he experienced a life-changing encounter when he went on a 10-day tour with Taglit-birthright israel, a cost-free educational trip available to all diaspora Jews, aged 18 through 26, after he graduated from high school.

Before that, Brostoff said, “I was exposed to knee-jerk leftist anti-Israel stuff,” but his friend Liat Mayer, “whose dad set up the birthright trip, turned that around for me.”
“I had a narrow range of false information regarding Israel before I went,” he said. But Mayer convinced him to go on her father’s trip and see it for himself.

“I decided to go there with an open mind and it was the most eye-opening and amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Brostoff said.

“Walking through the shuks [outdoor markets], seeing all the different Israelis who have escaped persecution from pretty much any country you could think of in the world, really had an impact on me.

“Also seeing the diversity of Jews, Arabs, Baha’is, Christians and Druze co-existing with free expression really reminded me of the kind of wonderful democracy that I knew from growing up in America; as opposed to the repressive totalitarian regime I had been told existed in Israel,” Brostoff said.

“Being there was a spiritual experience that opened up a whole new world to me. I continue to do a lot of research and I now believe that Israel is one of the most moral countries in the world.”

Effecting change

After returning from the Israel trip, Brostoff joined AmeriCorps, “a network of local, state and national service programs that connects more than 70,000 Americans each year in intensive service to meet our country’s critical needs in education, public safety, health and the environment,” according to its Web site.

Through AmeriCorps, Brostoff was matched with Milwaukee’s Family Support Center, a homeless shelter run by the Social Development Corporation, where he worked to get free legal aid for parents, ran an after-school day care center, recruited volunteers, and did programming for parents.

Though the homeless shelter experience was “very tough, emotionally, for everyone involved, ” Brostoff said, he felt that he was able to effect a lot of change there.

“I was mainly responsible for the kids from zero to any age. On Saturdays I would bring in artists to do really funky stuff with really cheap materials. I brought in a friend who plays African drums, arranged exercise [activities], and set up a homework center,” he said.

At the same time Brostoff became involved with Tikkun Ha-Ir (Repairing the City) of Milwaukee, a local group sponsored by four area synagogues and Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee.

Brostoff “got interested right away” in the group’s activities, which combine Jewish study with social justice projects within the city of Milwaukee. Last year he served Tikkun Ha-Ir as an intern and he is now a member of its board.

Brostoff plans to continue to amass knowledge and experience in the various branches of social and public service. “Providing a supportive atmosphere for someone who really needs it; solving the systemic problems [of our society] and making policy — all of these things are needed,” he said.

Brostoff enjoyed a power bagel with peanut butter and a glass of water at Einstein Brothers Bagels on Downer Ave.

By Andrea Waxman