Members of local Jewish community churning out masks from home

The bumble bees on Cecilia Parkes’ handsewn masks are a child favorite at Children’s Wisconsin. The Jewish sophomore at Nicolet High School is voluntarily making and donating masks for workers in essential services like those at the Children’s Wisconsin hospital.

“The bumble bees are her signature,” said Jenni Goldbaum, who works in occupational therapy at Children’s Hospital. “They look so special, sweet and pediatric, which is great.”

A sewing whiz with a machine, 16-year-old Cecilia is hunkering down with her family during the state’s “Safer At Home” order to combat the novel coronavirus. She studies during the day and stays up late at night cutting fabric and stitching masks with a pocket in the middle for filters. She completes three or four a night.

“To tell you the truth, I’m terrified and making masks gives me a sense of control in the situation,” said Cecilia, whose family belongs to Congregation Sinai. “The feeling that people are going to be safe with these masks, it’s helping me feel calm and safe.” The need she fulfills is also close to home. She has stitched masks for her brother, a supermarket worker, her aunt, a nurse at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital, and her sister, a day care worker.

Cecilia is no stranger to service and participation in the Jewish community. She’s a madracha for the kindergartners and first graders at Sinai, where she also attends after-bat mitzvah classes. She has been a camper and then joined the staff at Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute for eight years and a volunteer for the Jewish Community Pantry. She has also worked at the Rainbow Day Camp of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.

“It was OSRUI that really got me deep into my Jewish identity because they made it fun,” Cecilia said. “We had fun ways to learn Hebrew. We talked about how to be members in our community and to hold Jewish values in ways that aren’t so restrictive.”

She believes in tikkun olam, repairing the world. “The ways I can help, I really pushed it, as in ‘you can do this.’ You know how to sew, you have the materials, you’re smart enough and you have the time and you have this ability to uphold tikkun olam.”

Cecilia said her mask-making is a wartime effort. “In the world wars, the women would be sewing things for the troops,” she said.

And just like the war efforts decades ago, Jillian Marx-Wenig has converted an online business making headbands and Mickey Mouse ears to a volunteer shop turning out hundreds of masks to community organizations, including Ovation Jewish Home. “I’ve gotten donations from people who are obviously trying to help in some way so I can buy more fabric, elastic and other materials,” she said.

Marx-Wenig has made 500 masks since March 21 and has 716 orders to date. She decided to do this because “it was something I knew I could do. I have the ability and the supplies to do it. I knew there was a need and I’ve always just been one of those people that wants to help where I can.”

Marx-Wenig is the administrative operations manager for the University of Milwaukee Child Welfare Partnership. A member of Congregation Shalom, she is also a George Weinstein Fellow with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, a young leadership development program. She actually returned from Israel just as the United States started the shutdown.

She is working at home during the day and teaching her children. Yet she still finds the time to make hundreds of masks with a fusible interface. “It’s a great feeling to help people I know, friends of friends, people I’ve never met but are so appreciative. I can’t imagine going to work and not having what I need to do my job.”