Volunteers help power Jewish Museum Milwaukee

At Jewish Museum Milwaukee, volunteer docents are doing some of the most important work.

Renice Konik

One of many trained tour guides, Renice Konik shares information about the museum’s exhibits to visitors. But a docent’s job isn’t just about presenting information; oftentimes, a docent will share their own personal connections to the exhibit, too.

As a docent at Jewish Museum Milwaukee of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Konik feels she holds “a tremendous responsibility to present everything [Jewish], and ourselves, in an open and positive way” but at the same time sees her role as a “beautiful way to share our Jewish knowledge and Jewish history.”

To be a docent is a rare volunteer opportunity that satisfies a passion for speaking. “There’s many places to learn through volunteering, but few to be a transmitter and communicator,” said Ellie Gettinger, education director of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Before completing her docent training in the spring of this year, Paula Lorant said she “had not realized what a gem the Milwaukee museum is, but it is so packed with information and artifacts; I could just go on and on.” In fact, that is actually her trouble: “I have so much I want to tell, and I only have 35 minutes.”

In addition to the personal benefits, docents take pride in creating a positive experience for museum visitors. Jewish Museum Milwaukee currently accommodates around 3,000 group visitors per year, and without the time and effort of all the docent volunteers, the museum wouldn’t run as efficiently or to the same extent, according to Gettinger.

A lot of those groups are school children from across Wisconsin. Many children are exposed to the museum through a field trip with their class, and most have never met a Jewish person, according to Claire Fabric – a docent at the Milwaukee Art Museum for 30 years and at the Jewish museum since its inception 11 years ago.

“Many students may only know about the Holocaust, and while the museum tries to cover the Holocaust too, we also try to showcase a broader way of understanding the breadth of the Jewish experience,” Gettinger said.

Many times, docents find the reactions from children to be the most rewarding part of the job. “The children’s responses are incredible . . . Adults don’t always like to ask questions, but children ask so many questions,” Fabric said.

In fact, Konik, a teacher for more than 35 years, became involved with the museum seven years ago because of a trip to the Jewish Museum Milwaukee with her own classroom.

For Konik, her volunteer work as a docent has been “…one of the joys of my retirement. I feel very loyal [to the museum] and love the museum and people in it.”

New docent training begins Oct. 23, 2019. For more information contact Jewish Museum Milwaukee education director Ellie Gettinger at EllieG@MilwaukeeJewish.org or 414-390-5742.

“Ellie [Gettinger] is such a dynamo and so bright,” and she ensures that docents are well prepared to lead a tour group, “no one is just dropped in.”

Lorant, who just completed her training, encourages anyone who finds the work of a docent appealing to undergo the training process. “You will be extremely well trained, if you are coming to this with an interest but not background. And it’s exciting: you’re learning yourself and sharing some knowledge with people who have no prior connection or insight into the Jewish community.”