FOX POINT – It’s another Thursday night and this suburban synagogue is again softly abuzz with children from urban Milwaukee.
A couple dozen Congregation Shalom volunteers are teaching, feeding and showing kindness to students from Milwaukee’s central city, including some Muslim immigrant children. Every week, for 42 weeks in an academic year, an anonymous donor’s gift helps cover the cost of busing 15 kids to Shalom after school, for tutoring and dinner.
Fifteen card tables are laid out neatly in a rectangle, in the synagogue’s Klurfeld Social Hall, with each student-and-volunteer pair discussing homework softly, to avoid disturbing the others.
“We did science,” said Kingston, 12, of Milwaukee, when asked what he and volunteer Matt Honigman were up to at their card table. “And then we’re going to do math.”
The Jewish perspective
“Some of these kids would never get out of their neighborhoods,” said Rabbi Noah Chertkoff, spiritual leader for Congregation Shalom, 7630 N. Santa Monica Blvd., in Fox Point. “There are kids that have never seen the lake.”
Chertkoff wonders if the American dream still holds water, if a child born under any circumstances can make it in America. “Truthfully, I’m not so sure,” he said.
“We the Jewish community have benefitted so much from that American dream,” he said, adding that Jewish immigrants “were able to achieve, able to thrive, with the help of others.”
Chertkoff feels the Jewish people have a responsibility to help others “just as we’ve been helped.”
The endeavor started with the last academic year, with support from the synagogue and an anonymous donor whose identity even Sylvan Leabman doesn’t know. Leabman and fellow congregant Arlene Wesson coordinate a roster of volunteer teachers and substitute teachers for the program. Shalom’s Executive Assistant April Harris also offers some administrative support.
Chertkoff keeps the donor a secret, noting that anonymous giving is considered a high form of giving. “I think they feel blessed and their blessing has made them compassionate,” he said, declining to discuss the donor any further.
The program is a partnership with Our Next Generation, 3421 W. Lisbon Ave. in Milwaukee, a nonprofit that provides academic support for children in central Milwaukee. The program is open to all kids, focusing on the “underserved” 53208 ZIP code, said Our Next Generation Associate Director of Programs Rukiya Alexander.
About 40 percent of the children served are Somali Bantu, coming from a Muslim background, she said. Many times, the parents don’t speak English, Leabman said. Somalia is one of the seven countries affected by President Donald Trump’s executive order barring citizens of those Muslim-majority nations from traveling to the United States for 90 days. The order also suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days. As of press time, the executive order had been suspended by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, with legal maneuvering expected to continue.
Our Next Generation works with hundreds of students at its Lisbon Avenue location and also at six off-campus sites, including Congregation Shalom.
At Shalom, each student is paired with the same tutor for 42 weeks. They come in on Thursdays, when the synagogue does not hold school. The students arrive with a chaperone from Our Next Generation.
This is not play time. It’s not a cultural exchange, though that happens naturally. It’s work and when the kids arrive at Shalom at 4 p.m., they come with their homework. At 5 p.m., while the students sit down to a dinner prepared by synagogue volunteers, the tutors write up reports on how things are going. At 5:30 p.m., the students return to Milwaukee.
It’s a herculean effort and everyone involved is with Congregation Shalom, from the 15 volunteers at the card tables, to the nine substitutes currently on Leabman’s roster, to the seven women who cook and serve. One high-school student who is good at math – congregant Shelby Kasinski, 18, of Oak Creek High School – is a floater tutor, going from table to table to help.
“We are a consortium of volunteers,” said Dee Dee Gelin, who coordinates the seven kitchen volunteers, all of them Shalom women. “We are very committed to this.”
Gelin said if they can help make a change in the life of one child, that’s a mitzvah.
Islam at synagogue
Last year, a tour of the synagogue was eye-opening for the kids, who often feel like outsiders because of their hijabs and their ethnic background, Alexander said.
“The light came on,” she said, as the kids learned, “it’s not so bad to be different.”
“They had so many questions.”
If you find young girls wearing hijabs and having dinner in a synagogue to be an atypical sight, try this. On Thursday, Jan. 26, Rabbi Marcey Rosenbaum was tutoring one of them, 14-year-old Namhina. The rabbi was helping her student with her social studies.
They turned a textbook page and the next lesson was on medieval Islam.
“The emirs were what?” the rabbi asked her hijab-wearing student. “The caliph was the really big guy, right?”
So went another Thursday at Congregation Shalom.
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