Ukraine native Julia Vainman, 22 and a student at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, got used to walking long distances during the nine years she lived in Israel.
So she doesn’t mind walking from MATC’s downtown campus to the Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee, headquartered near the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on the east side, to attend such programs as “Jewish Education Tuesday.”
Vainman has a busy schedule with her classes and her after-school job, and can’t get to the program much more than about twice a month. But the information she gets from it is “something for my life,” she said in an interview at Hillel House. “It helps me put things together in my life” and “makes me a spiritually stronger person.”
And this isn’t the only program she attends there. She also participates in the Wednesday evening Russian Club for area Jewish students from the former Soviet Union, and has attended Shabbat dinners and discussions.
“It supports me,” she said of Hillel. “I can feel relaxed in this atmosphere, more open to interaction.”
Vainman is not the only Jewish student from the FSU to find support at the Hillel Foundation, an agency that receives funding from the annual community campaign of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Hillel executive director Edda S. Post said that some 12 to 15 students participate regularly in the Russian Club, and they “are all very insistent” that it is important to them to be able to associate with other Russian Jewish students.
Hillel also hosts a program called “Russian Strings” that meets on Saturday nights. Here, area immigrants from the FSU — Jewish and not — “drink tea, bring guitars and sing Russian folk songs,” said Post.
But while a FSU Jewish student may start with these offerings, he or she often doesn’t end there. Post said the programs can serve as a gateway to other Hillel programs like the Shabbat dinners, at which students can take steps toward “trying to integrate in the Jewish community as a whole.”
Milwaukee student profile
Of course, the Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee is not just about reaching out to students from the FSU. It strives to serve the 700 or more Jewish students on 13 area campuses, said Post, while acknowledging the difficulty of finding the exact number of Jewish students in the area.
Milwaukee’s FSU Jewish students have some traits in common with other Jewish students and with the general college student population in the Milwaukee area, which differs in many ways from that of Madison, said Post. For one, they tend to be commuter students, often still living with their parents, rather than on-campus residents.
They also often are working their way through school, and they tend to be older on average than most college students. (The average age of an undergraduate student at UWM is 22.3, while at UW-Madison it is 20.5, according to statistics furnished by those universities.)
Vainman is a bit atypical among FSU students because she lived in Israel. Her hometown was Korosten, down the Uzh River from Chernobyl, site of the infamous nuclear reactor disaster, and her parents wanted to get out of the area.
They moved to Israel first when Julia was nine, partly because they have relatives there, partly because “Israel accepts all Jewish people.” After nine years there, her mother won a “green card lottery” enabling the family to move to Milwaukee, where her mother’s parents and her aunt now live.
In other ways, though, Vainman is typical of both FSU and general Milwaukee college students. She lives with her parents, commutes to classes and holds a job. She took about two years of English as a Second Language classes before she entered MATC.
She is not yet certain what her major or her professional direction will be. “It is tough to make a decision,” she said. “I have more than one interest,” including both social sciences and art/graphic design. She is thinking about transferring to UWM, but is “not 100 percent” certain about doing that yet.
But Vainman does know that although she describes herself as “not a religious person,” she feels “a connection with Jewish people,” and after she graduates she will be looking to “marry a person who has Jewish roots.”
Hillel Foundation-Milwaukee received $96,300 for fiscal year 2003-04 from the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Allocations are primarily funded by the proceeds from the Annual Community Campaign together with a portion from the unrestricted funds of the Jewish Community Foundation, MJF’s endowment development program.
For more information on contributing to Community Campaign 2004, contact the federation at 414-390-5700 or www.milwaukeejewish.org.