‘What Unites Us’ brings Jews of all stripes together

Orthodox families, secular families and everyone in-between gathered in September 2019 for a “What Unites Us” art program. About 50-60 kids attended and more are welcome to the next event, on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.

“What Unites Us: Bringing Jewish Families Together Through the Arts” will have kids and families working on art projects at a total of three events, culminating in a joint art installation. It’s not yet decided where it will be displayed when done, but part of its purpose will be to represent the unity that organizers hope to create.

What the art installation will look like is evolving. “It depends on what the materials will look like when I get them all together. It will be a mixed media collage,” said Sally Duback, the local artist-in-residence for the project.

“I think the imagery will be sort of like a Chagall piece. You’ve got people and buildings and objects sort of floating, but they all integrate somehow.”

The “What Unites Us” project is funded by a $7,000 Innovation Grant from Milwaukee Jewish Federation. The Federation offers $20,000 in Innovation Grants annually, which are supported by the Federation’s Annual Campaign.

“What Unites Us” is an effort of several organizations:
– Ruach, the local Jewish arts and music organization;
– The Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and its PJ Library, which provides free books to Jewish children;
– Yeshiva Elementary School, the Orthodox-founded Milwaukee institution, with its Yes Connections project, which is aimed at building bridges between the school community and the greater Milwaukee Jewish community.

Beyond bringing families together, “What Unites Us” has brought planners together from different walks of Jewish life. It’s not typical for a Reform rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi and an Orthodox nonprofit chief to work together, but the collaboration has been working really well, they said.
“There’s so much respect and so much intentionality,” said Reform Rabbi Shari L. Shamah of PJ Library. “This is really a truly collaborative partnership.”
“The cooperation has been just amazing,” agreed Rabbi Hillel Brody, director of community outreach and YES Connections for Yeshiva Elementary School. He said he looks forward to the planning meetings.

But the point of the endeavor is something well beyond unity among professionals. The project is inspired by the notion that we shouldn’t all get together only for times of trouble, as with a rally after a tragic attack against Jews. Instead, the project seeks to bring Jews who might never see one another together at the ground level ¬– such as from the West Side that trends more Orthodox, and from the East Side and North Shore that lean more secular.

This reality of geography creates a challenge. “We need to do things to actively get people to come together,” Brody said.

Josh Richman, executive director of Ruach, noted the psalms. “King David composed in psalms, ‘Hinei mah tov u’mah nayim sheves achim gam yachad’ – ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’,” he said. “‘What Unites Us’ is facilitating my and others’ pursuing and living that lesson ….”

The idea of unity is more than just we don’t argue, but rather that we engage with one another and we have a relationship, Brody said. He feels we should have “one large community” instead of different Jewish communities, acknowledging that we don’t practice the same ways.

“The Jewish people are one unit,” Brody said. “Being separate is not really the way that God wants us to be.”

 * * *

How to go

What: “What Unites Us: Bringing Jewish Families Together Through the Arts” is an art-making event for families from all walks of Jewish life. Intended for families with children ages 0-9. This will be the second event in a three-event series – you don’t need to have attended the first event to attend the second. You’ll create some art to take home and other art that could be combined in a final art installation.

When: Sunday, Feb. 23, 3:30 p.m.

Where: This event is a collaboration of Ruach, Yeshiva Elementary School and the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and PJ Library. It’s held at the JCC, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay.

Cost: Free.

RSVP to one of the three organizers:
– Rabbi Hillel Brody at RabbiBrody@YesMilwaukee.org or 224-247-8233.
– Josh Richman at Joshua@RuachMilwaukee.org or 414-367-4891.
– Rabbi Shari Shamah at SShamah@JccMilwaukee.org or 414-967-8229.