First Person: Our dollars make an impact in Israel

Milwaukee Jewish Federation giving supports not just the Jewish community of Milwaukee but and around the world. Living here, it can be hard to feel connected to this philanthropy.

One of the responsibilities of the Federation’s Israel and Overseas Committee is to help our community feel the impact of these dollars. Each year, volunteer leaders visit projects in Israel and this year, Pnina Goldfarb and Jennifer Saber made the trip.

These volunteers see the projects in action and ask many questions to make sure they are fulfilling their commitments. Most times, not only are projects meeting their goals, they are going above and beyond to transform the lives of the people they serve.

Through the Israel Religious Expression Platform, we met with an Orthodox rabbi helping couples have Jewish legal weddings outside of the Rabbanut, or government-sanctioned ultra-Orthodox movement, and met with an organization which helps lend legitimacy to weddings performed outside the Rabbanut – for example, giving married couples credentials for purchasing a home. Stay tuned for an upcoming series of Chronicle articles that will go more in-depth on issues of religious pluralism and freedom in Israel.

Pnina, Jen and I spent most of our time in our partnership region, Sovev Kinneret. A significant portion of funds are invested in this region because so many in the Milwaukee community are connected to it through people-to-people relationships. These connections mean that we are more informed about issues the region faces and that we have many eyes and ears on the ground protecting our investments.

Projects we visited included the Einav youth hostel for teens struggling with drug addiction. Teens at Einav are active participants in a supportive community. They only leave the hostel for school when they are ready, and most times, go to another one of our partners, Branco Weiss High School. Branco Weiss is an alternative school for kids kicked out of their mainstream high school. Branco Weiss educates the whole person through an exceptionally caring staff, creative pedagogy and smaller class size. For years, Milwaukee has provided hot lunch to students at Branco Weiss, since hunger is one of the factors identified in students’ inability to focus in school.

We visited Youth Futures, a mentorship program where adult mentors work with struggling students and their families to get the child on track. Rather than fearing stigma, many families want to be part of Youth Futures for its proven track record of improving families’ and students’ lives.

Youth Futures mentor Shiran beams at her mentee who she helped through struggles at school and home.

We saw tremendous growth since our last site visit of the Tozeret HaAretz Student Community Tiberias, a group of college students living in Tiberias and working on projects that strengthen the fabric of society. The group was working on making Tiberias a viable spot for young people to live through the creation of a downtown gathering spot. Other initiatives included community-building holiday programs, after school programs, and latenight basketball with kids on the street.

We also visited Dror Israel’s flagship site at Kibbutz Ravid where they have a pre-army academy, an alternative high school, and a seminar center. We spent a lot of time in the high school, hearing from students about the student-driven project-based learning and seeing their makerspace. Dror Israel is a pioneering movement of educators who pool their salaries together in a counter-cultural economic system of “give what you can, take what you need” while working in formal and informal settings to educate and strengthen weaker populations in Israeli society.

Outside of the partnership region, we spent time in the Ethiopian National Project’s School Performance and Community Empowerment program. Through after-school assistance, Ethiopian Israelis whose parents may have weaker Hebrew skills, excel in their academics and get on a better path for army service and careers. The program has been so successful that it now includes Israelis of non-Ethiopian heritage.

A common thread through all these projects were the dedicated staff, truly loving and gifted people who support and build students’ confidence and by doing so, change the trajectory of these students’ lives. Another common thread is the early intervention in students’ lives to get them on a better path for the future. Though it can be hard to feel the impact of our community giving in places far away, Pnina, Jen and I can attest to the fact that our community is changing lives. If you are planning travel to Israel, please connect with me to learn how you can volunteer at or visit these projects and see our philanthropy at work.

Hannah Wallick is the vice president of outreach, Israel and overseas for Milwaukee Jewish Federation