MILWAUKEE – Here they are, the top local stories we reported on over the course of a newsy year, from the summer of 2015 through the summer of 2016.
These stories were selected in a vote of Chronicle readers, by way of the Internet and social media. We asked readers to select stories not based on whether the news is good or bad, but based on impact and importance for the Jewish community.
You chose the new Walk for Israel in Downtown Milwaukee for first place, with the JCC Maccabi Games coming in at a close second. Here are our story recaps, with more available at JewishChronicle.org.
- Walk for Israel’s new path sees more walkers
The Walk for Israel had more walkers than in prior years at the event on Sunday, May 15, 2016 despite moving from the North Shore to Downtown Milwaukee.
About 700 people attended the event, which is typical, but usually only about 250 do the walk, said Rabbi Hannah Greenstein, vice president of outreach, Israel and overseas for Milwaukee Jewish Federation. This year, most attendees walked, she said.
The walk, for Yom HaAtzmaut, also known as Israeli Independence Day, started at the Milwaukee County War Memorial, 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive. It became a long, winding column of baby strollers, chatting groups of walkers and their Israeli flags meandering down Prospect Avenue and back into Veterans Park. The walk stopped for a flash mob presentation outside the Chai Point Senior Living Center, 1400 N. Prospect Ave., and at least one onlooker offered to use a walker’s phone to take pictures of their group.
“There were quite a few churches represented and a lot of amazing Christian volunteers (about 25) setting up and breaking down the event,” Greenstein said. “I think we really achieved all of Milwaukee – not just the Jews – celebrating Israel.” Mayor Tom Barrett spoke at the war memorial, which also hosted music and entertainment, and various faith leaders participated.
“I think the fact that we held our numbers steady after a dramatic venue move is awesome,” Greenstein added.
- 2015 Milwaukee JCC Maccabi Games
In the Jewish Community Center’s 2015 JCC Maccabi Games, the winner was Milwaukee. Nearly 1,000 teen athletes and others from around the world visited Milwaukee in August, bringing an estimated $3 million in revenue to the Milwaukee area.
The event was a five day athletic competition and community event, opening at the BMO Harris Bradley Center on Sunday, August 2, 2015. Over the course of the week, athletes from around the world competed in sports ranging from soccer to tennis to swimming and more.
Along the way, participants experienced rachmanus (compassion) during the competition, tikkun olam (repair the world) during the community action projects known as “JCC Cares,” and amiut yehudit (Jewish peoplehood) during unique experiences that strengthened their connection to each other, their communities, and Israel.
This was the first time in 18 years that the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay had hosted the Maccabi Games, which are billed as the largest Jewish youth event in the world.
The Maccabi Games brought together 26 delegations of 12- to 16-year-old athletes from across the United States, as well as Poland, Israel, Mexico and Canada. The teen athletes were housed by more than 500 local host families. Roughly 1,000 Milwaukee-area volunteers were involved in making the games a success.
- Local audit finds anti-Semitism at school
There were a concerning number of anti-Semitic incidents among local high school students in 2015, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
“As far as we’ve come, anti-Semitism continues to show its face in Wisconsin and in the United States,” said Michael Pollack, Council chair. “In these days of nasty political rhetoric, people are falling back on ethnic- and faith-based bigotry intolerance. We must be better than that.”
The Council had recently completed its 2015 audit, showing a preponderance of anti-Semitic incidents among high school students. The audit also reports anti-Semitism at the college level and beyond the educational system.
“We are particularly concerned about the disproportionate number of reported incidents in schools,” said Ann Jacobs, chair of the Council’s Anti-Semitism and Constitutional Law Task Force. “It’s clear that we need to do more to ensure that our children learn to embrace the richness of our diverse culture.”
- Federation projects campaign increase
The Milwaukee Jewish Federation had been projected to raise $5.8 million through its annual campaign in 2015, up by more than $150,000, an increase for the first time in five years.
As a result, the Federation board voted to approve increased allocations in many areas. Local agencies and programs received almost $2.5 million, an increase of 4 percent.
All local agencies and programs received a minimum increase of $1,000. Dollars allocated to Israel and overseas needs also increased by 4 percent, totaling about $1.5 million. Allocations to Federation operations stayed even at about $1.3 million.
“It’s not often you get a good news story these days,” said Hannah Rosenthal, Federation’s president and chief executive officer, back in June of 2015.
A turnaround in the economy and hard work among Federation fundraisers deserved much of the credit, she said. Credit was also due to donors who recognized the Federation was taking on big issues and needed more help than ever, she said.
- Jewish student enrollment drops
Overall enrollment in Milwaukee-area Jewish schools continued to drop, though it’s considered part of a national trend.
Student enrollment has been dropping most significantly for part-time evening and weekend Jewish religious schooling. There was a period of little movement through the 1990s, where for example 1,401 were enrolled in 1992-1993, followed by 1,403 in 1997-1998. But since the early 2000s, part-time religious school enrollment has dropped considerably to its 2015-2016 level of 641, according to a Coalition for Jewish Learning census.
The census also tracks day schools, which have fared better over a similar period. The day schools had 716 students in 1992-1993 and 595 in 2015-2016.
Total enrollment in all Jewish schools was 1,651 for 2015-2016, less than the 1,717 reported for 2014-2015.
There are various reasons for the overall drop in enrollment, said Tziporah Altman-Shafer, Jewish education community planner of the Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education department of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
Birth rates are lower and there are simply fewer children, part of a nationwide trend, she said.
“Part of it is that synagogue affiliation is also down,” she said. “The generation of adults now are not joiners.
6. Syrian refugees in Wisconsin
We saw them on TV and in photos – refugees, bunched up at border crossings like bushels of human beings, desperate for help.
Yet Islamist terror in Paris led some to question whether we should welcome Syrian refugees to Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker said the state will not accept any Syrian refugees, adding in a statement that “our first priority must be to protect our citizens.”
The Obama administration had previously announced – before the Nov. 13 attacks that killed 130 in Paris – that the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.
What should the Jewish response be? We are a people tied to chesed and tikkun olam (loving-kindness and repairing the world). We have at times lived the refugee experience, yet in this community we are also Wisconsinites and Americans, with all the same fears as our neighbors. And we, the Jewish people, have been locked in our own struggles with the Islamic world.
The Chronicle reached out to local Jewish leaders for their own, personal rulings on this issue. Most said America and Wisconsin should accept some refugees, carefully.
- Milwaukee Jewish Day School’s innovation hub
The Milwaukee Jewish Day School pumped up its ongoing focus on innovation, having named a new “director of innovation” and earmarking $200,000 for the creation of a new “innovation hub.”
The local Daniel M. Soref Charitable Trust gave $200,000 towards the hub project, which included renovating a cluster of classrooms into an ideation studio, an engineering lab, a maker space and woodworking shop and an upgraded art room.
Brian King served as head of school for five years. As of Jan. 1, 2016, he became the new director of innovation, with Sheryl Primakow, former senior director, taking over as head of school.
In the new role, King said he’ll be looking for more opportunities for innovation.
“We’re preparing today’s child for a future that doesn’t exist yet,” he said.
- JCC spent $850,000 on improvements
The Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center spent $850,000 on facility upgrades, an effort that included moving both a childcare program and a free-weights area, along with substantial changes to the main fitness entrance, among other improvements.
Work at the facility at 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd. began after JCC officials talked with both current and former members, taking into account the proliferation of competition in the form of small, boutique fitness centers and the organization’s strong inclination toward building community.
“We have a goal to not just be state of the art, but state of the heart,” said JCC President & Chief Executive Officer Mark Shapiro. “You may be purchasing this to be a fitness facility but you get much more.”
The improvement plan essentially had three components, the fitness center, the health center and the hourly childcare program.
- Poland mission to Krakow remembered
Richard Edelman has his work in a variety of public spaces, including in Poland, where his “Shofar Krakow” looms high as a 17-foot-tall stainless steel piece that naturally amplifies sound when a shofar is blown into it.
The piece was installed in Krakow, Poland last year, during a Milwaukee Jewish Federation mission. From Aug. 31 through Sept. 7, the Shofar Krakow mission visited sites related to the Holocaust. Those on the mission toured Auschwitz and met with the Forum for Dialogue and its Polish student participants in remembrance. The Forum for Dialogue later had a representative come visit the Milwaukee area.
The mission to Poland helped fulfill the mission of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, according to Hannah Rosenthal, Federation president and CEO. Rosenthal, whose father was a survivor, said, “I think this was a surprise to many people — especially that Holocaust remembrance was not only important to older American Jews but also to young people.”
Edelman has since received an award that has previously been granted to Elie Wiesel, Chaim Potok and Leonard Bernstein. The Frank L. Weil Award for the Advancement of Jewish Culture in North America has not been granted since 1992, but the New York-based JCC Association reinitiated the award for 2016.
- Holocaust Torah sees final repairs
In November of 2015, members of Congregation Emanu-el B’ne Jeshurun and local Holocaust survivors gathered for a special homecoming celebration to dedicate Westminster Holocaust Scroll #942 and fill in the last seven of its 304,805 letters.
The Torah is one of 1,564 gathered from destroyed synagogues in Bohemia and Moravia between 1939 and 1942. Czech museum workers convinced the Nazis that Torahs and other synagogue artifacts should be preserved and catalogued. In 1963, the Torahs were purchased and brought to London. From there, those that were usable were sent to synagogues and organizations around the world.
Along with the religious school students, teachers, congregants and survivors were three generations of the family responsible for first bringing #942 to Milwaukee in 1967. Congregant Eve Joan Zucker shared the story of her mother-in-law, Sarah, who belonged to Emanu-el until her death in 1985.
“Sarah grew up in a small Hungarian town that was almost around the corner from Czechoslovakia,” Zucker said. “She remembered that there was a sofer (scribe) living with her family for a whole year so he could write a Torah for her mother Rivka.”
From then on, Zucker said, Sarah had wanted to fulfill the mitzvah of writing her own Torah or having one written for her. When she found out about the Westminster Scrolls, she paid to have one of them restored.