Friendship Bakery, a new idea, teaches workplace skills | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Friendship Bakery, a new idea, teaches workplace skills


MILWAUKEE – You’ve heard of the win-win situation.

The non-profit Friendship Circle, which opened a bakery in July, appears to have come up with a win-win-win. Yes, that’s three wins, which is quite a bit more than a mere two.

Win #1: People with special needs are learning workplace skills at the bakery.

Win #2: The bakery items are sold to help fund the program.

Win #3: Friendship Bakery serves the kosher community, which organizers say is underserved.

“I love it,” said Sol Weingrad, 32. “My mom and my sister are both great cooks, but I never really learned how to. I like the kitchen and I like working with people.”

Weingrad works as a student baker at Friendship Bakery every Wednesday, from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Most other weekdays, he attends a special needs day program near his home in Port Washington.

A new idea

What’s this? A bakery? More than 80 Friendship Circle organizations around the world are more typically running other kinds of programs related to special needs, like Friends@Home (which also operates in Milwaukee). Friends@Home pairs teenage volunteers with children who have special needs, allowing them to form friendships and spend time together.

Rabbi Levi Stein’s idea to start Friendship Bakery here in Milwaukee is more unusual. Stein, the executive director of Friendship Circle of Wisconsin, recalled the genesis of the project. About a year ago, a parent said, “I wish there was an employment training opportunity for my son.” Stein started thinking: “I had to fill that void and make it happen.”

He was aware of a Friendship Circle bakery in Detroit, because he’s from Detroit and had volunteered for Friendship Circle there.

He started searching and found another Friendship Circle bakery initiative, in Sydney, Australia. Both Detroit and Sydney are focused on challah. Stein’s idea was to start it in Milwaukee with more than challah – birthday cakes, French eclairs, a lemon meringue tart and more.

“These chocolate cookies are almost like a brownie,” said student baker Jonathan Frank, 46, of Glendale, while scooping the crinkle cookies. He called the program “a great opportunity to learn new skills.” In fact, for student bakers like Frank, this is considered an employment training program; some of their time is considered work performance and they’re paid hourly.

Stein’s wife, Leah Stein, holds a master’s degree in special education and maintains an induvial curriculum for each participant. Written evaluations are used for targeting coaching. Participants are evaluated on dozens of specific workplace skills: Does the participant start work in a timely fashion? Do they put personal items in the appropriate place before beginning work? Do they appropriately greet other members? Can they measure? Are they carrying bags of product gently?

Meanwhile, Levi Stein watches to make sure the bakers are doing a variety of work that demands a fair amount of evaluating; they’re not just to be funneled to washing dishes. He coaches staff and volunteers to make sure they are “putting responsibility” in bakers’ hands.

Sol Weingrod of Port Washington and Connie Lopez, manager of Friendship Bakery, were baking together in September. Baking happens in the Chabad facility at the 3100 block of Lake Drive, but Friendship Bakery distributes from other locations.

Defining success

Pastry Chef Dina Menzl-Russo ensures customers get quality bakery. She’s had a long career, from Chicago hotels to serving as a pastry chef at the former Brynwood Country Club in the Milwaukee area.

“I’m very detail oriented,” she said, grabbing the crinkle cookies out of the oven. She believes in getting measurements exactly right.

Friendship Bakery opened over the summer after a couple months of practice. Now, through word-of-mouth and Internet promotions, it’s filling up to about 40 orders per week. It’s producing specialty cakes and dozens of challahs.

It’s parve, under the kosher supervision of Chabad of the East Side. Friendship Circle of Wisconsin, in fact, is affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch of Wisconsin. The local Friendship Circle, which has its own board, is footing much of the bill for Friendship Bakery. Stein hopes to someday break even.

“Success for friendship bakery is not defined by profits,” he said. “It’s defined by skills learned and lives changed.”

Leah Biller, 20, a junior at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, volunteers here weekly to help the bakers. She started because as a nursing student she needed volunteer hours. Now, she does it because she likes helping people “reach their fullest potential.”

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How to order

Place your order at weekly by 9 a.m. on Wednesday to have it that week Thursday afternoon. You’ve got three options:

  • Delivery to your home on Thursday between 3-8 p.m. for $4, if in Glendale or surrounding areas out to about 10 miles.
  • Pickup at Jewish Beginnings preschool on Thursday between 3-5 p.m., 6401 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Fox Point.
  • Pickup at Crown Judaica gift shop on Thursday between 3-4 p.m., 2233 W. Mequon Road, Mequon.