Top 10 local stories of the year

From the summers of 2017 to 2018, the year was packed with news like a New York bagel with cream cheese.

From anti-Semitism to gubernatorial support for Israel, there has been plenty going on.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it represents an effort to bring you 10 of our most memorable local Jewish news stories from 5778. In no particular order, here are the top ten local stories of the year:

  1. Stitching History returns triumphant

What’s a museum to do when a whole roster of other museums want your exhibit to come for a visit? Make it even better and bring it back.

“Stitching History from the Holocaust,” a Jewish Museum Milwaukee exhibit that has traveled to other venues around the nation, and seen coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere, came home in April. The museum is a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

This time, two more true stories were added to the one about the dressmaker who sought to escape the Nazis. The new exhibit hinted at this shift by changing “History” to “Histories” in its title – now it’s “Stitching Histories from the Holocaust.”

“Stitching Histories From the Holocaust” returned to Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, at 1360 N. Prospect Ave., from April 8 – Sept. 16.

The dresses in the exhibit came back unchanged and are related to the story of the late Hedy Strnad. The Jewish-Czech dressmaker and her husband, Paul, attempted to immigrate to the United States on the eve of the Holocaust. They’d hoped their dress designs, sent to America, could somehow get them out of Nazi Germany.

“Stitching History from the Holocaust” was first displayed locally in 2015. It had since traveled to the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York; a gallery at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Human Ecology; the Jewish Museum of Florida at Florida International University; and the Holocaust Memorial Center of Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Other museums signed up to display it next.

  1. What happens when Hillel takes non-Jewish students to Israel?

In 2017, University of Wisconsin – Madison student Katrina​ ​Morrison helped lead an effort to criticize Israel on campus. She helped schedule a vote targeting Israel in student government, despite requests from Jewish students to not hold it over Passover.

But when you’re a college student, what a difference a year can make.

Katrina Morrison

“I would want to tell one-year-ago Katrina that she does not know everything and that she isn’t listening to the perspective of everyone,” a repentant Morrison said in a February 2018 interview. “I would want one-year-ago Katrina to really do her own independent research on the affairs of the state of Israel as well as the conflict and not just listen to the voices of people closest to her.”

Part of Morrison’s change of heart came over the summer, as she reconsidered and then apologized, but part of it is the result of a remarkable free trip to Israel. In January, University of Wisconsin­ – Madison Hillel brought five Jewish pro-Israel students and 19 non-Jewish students – all of them campus leaders – to Israel.

In the weeks afterwards, interviews with several of the non-Jewish students demonstrated a strong sense of gratitude for a free “trip of a lifetime,” pleasure in new learning and a newfound appreciation for just how very complicated a country that’s one-eighth the size of Wisconsin can be.

“I never really understood when I heard people say Israel is complex,” Morrison said, echoing sentiments expressed by other non-Jewish participants in separate interviews. “Complex takes on a whole different meaning over there.”

  1. Anti-Semitism audit finds rise in harassment, threats

A 2017 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents found a sharp rise in incidents categorized as harassment, threats or assault, according to the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

The JCRC audit focused on the greater Milwaukee area, but included incidents from across Wisconsin. The audit tracks the continuation of an increase in overall incidents, according to a JCRC statement.

Ann Jacobs spoke at the Jewish Community Relations Council annual meeting on June 15, 2017. Photo by Troy Freund.

The audit found a 30 percent increase in incidents overall, as compared to 2016. The JCRC saw “particular concern” in a year-over-year 150 percent increase in incidents falling under the categories of harassment, threats or assault.

“We’re seeing a shift in how anti-Semitism is expressed,” said Ann Jacobs, JCRC chair. “Until the last two years, the vast majority of anti-Semitic incidents involved verbal or written expression. But for the last two years, we’re seeing bold, direct and personal acts. The difference is stark and worrisome.”

  1. Israel’s Reform schools in crisis

New government rules in Israel closed down Reform-affiliated classes for children.

Rabbi Nir Barkin served as a Milwaukee community shaliach, an emissary from Israel, from 1999 to 2003. He returned to Milwaukee from Israel for a 20-hour visit on Wednesday, Nov. 1 as part of a fundraising trip to try to make up the difference for what had been lost.

Rabbi Nir Barkin is executive director and spiritual leader at Kehillat Yozma, a Reform congregation in Modi’in, Israel. Photo by Rob Golub.

“I could close the system, as did my friend in Tel Aviv,” he said, referring to The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, led by Rabbi Meir Azari. A Reform synagogue in Jerusalem also closed schooling, Barkin said.

For more information and for an update, see “Former Milwaukee emissary’s school cut staff.”

  1. Walker shows support for Israel

Gov. Scott Walker engaged in a flurry of pro-Israel activity over the course of the year.

Walker signed an anti-boycott executive order on Oct. 27, just before his trade mission trip to Israel and a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Then in April, he signed a bill also prohibiting state agencies from involvement with a boycott of Israel.

“We are committed to maintaining and strengthening our relationship with Israel,” Walker said. “We stand firmly against discrimination in any form, and we are making clear that our state government will not engage with those who boycott Israel.”

Governor Scott Walker met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on in October. The two, along with leaders from the Israeli government and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, discussed future collaboration between Wisconsin and Israel as well as political and economic issues in the region.

Wisconsin exports over $80 million annually to Israel and imports over $200 million annually from Israel.

Walker met on Oct. 30 with Netanyahu to discuss future collaboration between Wisconsin and Israel as well as political and economic issues in the region, according to a news release.

The hour-long, one-on-one meeting in Jerusalem took place during the governor’s Oct. 27-Nov. 3 trade mission to Israel. He led a 15-member delegation on a trip aimed at boosting exports, increasing foreign investment in Wisconsin and developing new partnerships between the state and Israel.

  1. Israel ambassador in Milwaukee

Israel Ambassador Ron Dermer spoke to more than 250 attendees at the Rotary Club of Milwaukee lunch program, while in the state to attend meetings with legislators, Walker and others, largely organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Israel Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Among his points: The scuttled Iran nuclear deal was a threat to Israel, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was good for peace, Israel is an important ally for the United States and Israel is the historic Jewish homeland. These were among the key messages of Israel’s ambassador to the United States on June 5, at the Milwaukee County War Memorial.

Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States

Dermer has visited spots around the nation, he said in an exclusive interview with the Chronicle after his public speech. He said, “I’m Israel’s ambassador to the United States, not D.C. …. D.C. is not America.”

The ambassador said the elusiveness of peace for Israelis and Palestinians comes down to one issue: “Do you recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state in their historic homeland?”

The crowd gave Dermer its rapt attention, with applause at the end. Even a handful of attendees who have been publicly critical of Israel did not disrupt the speech.

  1. Award for the man who changed police

Herman Goldstein of Madison took his first steps back in the late 1950s toward a remarkable discovery, when he spent much of two years riding in police squad cars.

Specifically, Goldstein increasingly saw that police can be more effective when they aren’t just about solving crimes. They also need to solve problems and they need to look outside their own agency to do it.

Herman Goldstein in his home office, in front of three photos that tell a story he admires. First police remove a woman from a protest, then an officer talks with her and then she hugs him.

He named this idea “problem-oriented policing” and he went on to have a career that would influence the behavior of police departments everywhere. For this, Goldstein this summer won the Stockholm Prize in Criminology, which comes with an award of at least $114,000.

For Goldstein, the presence of Jewish values in his work has been “pervasive.”

“It’s respect for the human being. It’s respect for the stranger. It’s respect for equal treatment,” he said.

  1. Rosenthal to retire as head of Federation

Hannah Rosenthal, CEO and president of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said she would retire at the end of 2018.

Rosenthal made the announcement May 2, 2018. She said she was retiring to move back home to Madison, to spend more time with family there.

Hannah Rosenthal speaks at Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Economic Forum 2016.

“It was hard to make this decision, but I’m missing watching Henry grow up,” Rosenthal said, referring to her first grandchild.

She said she sees great strength in the Federation, which will conduct a nationwide search for a new leader. “We have a great staff and I’m totally confident that they will make the transition go smoothly,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal came to the Federation as CEO and president in October of 2012. She brought an international presence to the Federation and worked to increase the nonprofit’s profile while growing resources and capacity.

Rosenthal previously served as the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism at the U.S. State Department. She also served as executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Wisconsin Women’s Council.

“Together we have increased funding to the Jewish community, enhanced our connections with Israel, and renewed our focus on social justice,” Rosenthal said in a May 2 memo to Federation staff. “I look forward to continuing our work together through the end of the year.”

  1. Milwaukee Jewish Day School reworks tuition

Milwaukee Jewish Day School changed the way it handles tuition, with an eye towards creating more conversations with prospective families about affordability.

The school’s “Affordable Customized Tuition Program” eliminated the chart of family income that once resided on the MJDS website – it provided specific tuition numbers based on income. There was a concern that families would look at the chart, find their income and then conclude the indicated tuition is what they’d pay, without talking to staff about options for reduction.

Aaron Lippman

“We’re really trying to personalize it,” Head of School Aaron Lippman said. Without that personalization, he imagines how it can go for families who look at a detailed chart and find their tuition number: “That’s not going to work for me … you immediately cross it off your list.”

School staff and lay committees worked to replace the old tuition scheme with broad ranges of income and tuition numbers, with this kind of thinking in mind.

“We don’t want finances to be the reason why someone doesn’t send their kids here,” said MJDS Business Administrator Christy Horn. “We want to make it easier, not harder.”

  1. Author of ‘Evicted’ speaks in Milwaukee

Jewish Family Services hosted a Milwaukee talk with Professor Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, “Evicted – Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

The book followed families in Milwaukee as an example of nationwide issues.

The talk, part of the JFS 150th anniversary celebration, gathered 935 attendees at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino’s Event Center on May 16, according to spokeswoman Rachel Kern.

Jewish Family Services brought Professor Matthew Desmond to Milwaukee on May 16 for a luncheon event, “Home and Hope: A Community Call to Action,” focusing on the urgent need for safe and affordable housing in the city, and celebrating the nonprofit’s 150th year. Photo by Sarah Guerrero with SarahG Creative.

“Hosting this event was central to sharing our Jewish values and our desire to heal the world. The prevalence of evictions and the harm that it causes to families and children in our community is one of the most important issues to bring to light,” said Donna Triplett, vice president of development and communications for JFS.

“Jewish Family Services is committed to safe and affordable housing options and to work with others to develop real solutions. Matthew Desmond’s ‘Evicted’ has delivered the message and now we all must be committed to taking action.”