MILWAUKEE – It was 50 years ago. Israel had just won the Six Day War and a young David Bader had just graduated from the Hillel Academy of Milwaukee.
David Bader, then at the start of ninth grade, walked into Riverside High School proudly wearing a T-shirt. It sported a Star of David on his chest. A white Catholic boy didn’t care for the shirt or David and he recruited a couple of black boys to help take the Jewish boy aside in gym class.
They beat up the future vice president of Bader Philanthropies. It was a moment that David recalls today as influential, having a lifelong impact on his relationship with the black community.
You see, for the Baders, the past matters. In fact, who the Bader brothers are and how they have lived are like brightly-colored highways on a map to understanding their continuing philanthropy.
In an interview, David, and his brother Dan Bader, CEO and president of Bader Philanthropies, said giving has always been very much a part of the family. In all, Bader Philanthropies has given away $265 million since it was founded as the Helen Bader Foundation in 1992.
The Bader brothers recall that their mother, the late Helen Daniels Bader, and their father, Holocaust survivor Alfred Bader, were lifelong givers.
But why? Why so much focus on giving? “I think the answer is it is tied to Judaism and it’s not tied to Judaism,” David said.
Judaism was always important to the family. The brothers say they grew up “conservadox,” with separate dishes, though not separate sponges for washing dishes. Helen was a Jew by choice who “actively practiced Judaism,” Dan said.
Alfred and Helen were married by Rabbi David Shapiro at Congregation Anshe Sfard and when Helen and Alfred divorced in 1981, Helen continued on with Judaism.
Alfred and Helen had founded Aldrich Chemical Co. together. “The factory always had a very diverse workforce,” said Dan, noting his father was supportive of diversity before the term was used. “He didn’t care. He just wanted the best people.”
Helen, who died in 1989, completed a master’s in social work at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (the social work program there is now named for her – the Helen Bader School of Social Work). During her studies, her field work with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee brought her close to family crises. She was deeply affected.
Helen’s first job in social work was at the Milwaukee Jewish Home, where she grappled with residents’ dementia. She sought to bring joy into the residents’ lives through dance and music. She was happy to run errands for residents or escort them to the symphony.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Dan said, adding that “we grew up in that, where giving and entrepreneurship was our lifestyle.” Bader Philanthropies, he said, embodies a combination of those traits – giving and entrepreneurship.
David spends about two weeks a year on foundation activities, while Dan as CEO essentially approaches the endeavor as a full-time job. He admits it’s different from many other full-time jobs: He recently visited Poland and Israel – such trips are often related to observing what grant-making is accomplishing.
“You can see things grow. A lot,” David said. “You come back in five years and it’s pretty amazing what happens.”
The Harambee impact investment
Bader Philanthropies got into “impact investing” before it became fashionable, Dan said. He explained impact investing with this rhetorical question: “How do you use your resources as a Foundation to have a bigger impact beyond just traditional grant making?”
The family’s Harambee neighborhood investment is the ultimate impact investment. The plan is to move the Bader Philanthropies headquarters from a trendy, restaurant-heavy spot in the Third Ward, to the struggling Harambee neighborhood, in an effort to jump-start development there.
The organization is to move in the summer of 2018 from its current location, 233 N. Water St., to its new site in the Harambee neighborhood, at 3318 N. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Dan imagines the organization engaging with the community there. To foster that, the building will include a conference center.
New meeting space there will double the Foundation’s current convening capacity. The maximum convening capacity in the new building will be 150 people. In all, with parking, the new headquarters will sit on about an acre of land.
Harambee is reminiscent of their lives at Riverside High School, 1615 E. Locust St. in Milwaukee, which was about half-black when the two men attended there so many years ago, they said.
“This really spoke to us, being in the Harambee neighborhood,” Dan said. David agreed, “We were comfortable in this community with people of color.”
While at the Hillel Academy through eighth grade, Bader had only met two people who were black in his whole life. One was his dad’s employee at the manager level and the other was a synagogue janitor. At Riverside High School, the diversity was eye-opening for the brothers. People gathered into racial and other groups in the cafeteria, but in the classroom and sports, students learned, played and got into trouble together. Dan remembers that fondly. “People were very much together and that was a fabulous experience,” he said.
What did he gain from that fabulous experience? At this point in the interview, chatting at the current Bader Philanthropies headquarters in the Third Ward, is perhaps when Dan turns most passionate. His voice is raw: “Skin color has nothing to do with anything. That’s what you gain from that. So whatever stereotypes society puts on us as people – is ridiculous.”
The brothers say they feel comfortable talking with anybody. “When I went to high school we all gave each other the nod,” Dan said. “That really comes from African American culture.” Years later, he found himself giving black men he doesn’t know “the nod” in the airport.
Yet the experiences at Riverside High School were not all positive, as when David was taken aside and beaten up in his gym class.
“I never really faulted the couple of black kids who went with this guy,” David said. “They were just sort of being led by him.”
“Ever since that moment I stopped wearing Jewish stars and T-shirts. I stopped marking myself.”
“I guess it made me have empathy for black people because I can stop marking myself,” he said. “I had a little bit more empathy for them after that experience.”
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Bader Philanthropies helps in Israel, avoiding politics