MILWAUKEE – Although just beginning a new future, former president and publisher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Betsy Brenner plans on looking to the past as she prepares to speak at The Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s annual meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 10.
Brenner, who has only been retired for about a month, had worked with the Journal Sentinel for twelve years. Her career found her navigating the paper through difficult times, such as the Great Recession that began in 2008, a period filled with obstacles and uncertainty for the future of newspapers throughout the country.
Then in October of 2015, Gannett Co. Inc., which owns USA Today and more than 100 local news organizations, announced that it would be buying the Journal Sentinel.
“I wanted to make sure that the new owners had the same commitment to the community and to journalism that we had,” Brenner said of the change in ownership. “After working with the Gannett people for about three months, I realized that they want what we want, so it felt like a really good time to make a change.”
Though satisfied with the change, Brenner noted that she would miss the people she worked with most of all.
“I had the privilege of working with incredibly talented people in every department every day,” she said. “They are the best of the best. I’m just not coming to work there every morning anymore.”
With the challenges of her career behind her, Brenner turns her attention to a different breed of challenge for the annual Milwaukee Jewish Federation meeting, one that involves identity and its connections to the past.
Last September, Brenner attended a mission with other members of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The group traveled to Krakow, Poland to uncover the atrocities of the Holocaust that have been lost and forgotten with time. For Brenner and others on the trip, the absence of any Jewish influence in the area stood as a poignant yet painful reminder of the horrors of intolerance.
“You think of average people living their lives, families raising children, going to school, going to work, who were targeted and exterminated just because of who they were,” Brenner said, adding, “All of us have a responsibility to steel ourselves and not tolerate discrimination or singling out of people for any reason.”
While on the trip, Brenner was also able to visit the community that her grandfather had emigrated from in 1903. Others on the mission recalled similar stories involving their own family members, some of whom weren’t able to escape the destruction and violence of the Holocaust. Brenner recounted some of these stories in an article published in the Journal Sentinel last October.
Brenner hopes to not only speak about the power of the mission in remembering and witnessing history, but also its significance in her own personal connection to Judaism, a connection that wasn’t always as strong.
“I am one of I think many four-day-a-year Jews, right?” Brenner laughed. “I’m there for two days on Rosh Hashanah, I’m there for two days on Yom Kippur, and that’s essentially it.”
After the trip, Brenner has put more emphasis on restoring ties to her Jewish heritage.
“It’s really kind of rekindled in me a sense of Jewish identity, and a sense of responsibility, and a curiosity about what happened to the people in Europe,” she said.
She also encourages those facing a similar struggle to attend the annual meeting. “There is an incredibly vibrant Jewish community here. If you have ever thought about getting involved or you want to know more, this is essentially a no-risk way of (learning) what’s happening in Jewish Milwaukee.”
The annual meeting will be held on Wednesday, August 10 at Congregation Sinai, 8223 N. Port Washington Road in Fox Point, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Those planning on attending should RSVP in advance to Ashleigh Lund at (414) 390 5741.
Brenner’s article recounting the trip to Poland can be found at: http://www.jsonline.com/news/religion/voices-of-ghosts-remembering-the-holocausts-mass-killings-b99587011z1-330519441.html.
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How to Go
What: Milwaukee Jewish Federation 2016 Annual Meeting
When: Wednesday, Aug. 10, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Congregation Sinai, 8223 N. Port Washington Road, Fox Point
RSVP to Ashleigh Lund at (414) 390 5741
More information can be found at MilwaukeeJewish.org/AM2016