It is not every day that hundreds of Northwestern Mutual employees gather for an event that moves many of them to tears while pulling them closer to their colleagues and their community.
But that is exactly what happened months ago when Holocaust survivor Eva Zaret told her moving story about her childhood in the Budapest Ghetto, and her family members being killed by the Nazis, to 800 employees of the local corporate giant.
“Witnessing someone who had come through all the adversity that she and her family had come through and having that in a communal environment where everyone is feeling and experiencing her story together and potentially finding parallels in their own life around adversity, feeling excluded, feeling discriminated against, around feeling what hatred and bigotry feels like, was extremely powerful,” said Amy Hanneman, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Northwestern Mutual.
The Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, brought Zaret to speak to Northwestern Mutual as part of the organization’s new corporate engagement and education initiative.
The motivation behind the initiative is “an increased awareness within our state and nationally that antisemitism is achieving new heights, unfortunately,” HERC Executive Director Samantha Abramson said, noting that many corporations are creating diversity, equity and inclusion programs. “A lot of companies are realizing that antisemitism is a national problem and there is space to talk about Jewish identity and Jewish history.”
Northwestern Mutual, along with Harley-Davidson, were the first two corporations to collaborate with HERC through its new initiative, both choosing their engagements during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day in April.
HERC and the local Jewish Community Relations Council guided a conversation with Harley-Davidson employees about the history of antisemitism from Medieval times to the present. The training also included a conversation with Harley employees on how to be more accommodating to their Jewish colleagues in terms of more inclusive calendaring around Jewish holidays and having food-related programs during Passover.
“We really went way back and really just explained who the Jewish people are and that they come from all sorts of different backgrounds, races and nationalities,” Abramson said. “With a core emphasis on the Holocaust as the world’s best example of what antisemitism can do.”
Northwestern Mutual opted for a different type of program, one that featured a Holocaust survivor who would come and speak to a large group of employees about their experience. During the same week that Harley held its event, Northwestern Mutual held its own with Zaret, who spoke about her experience and answered questions from audience members, some of whom were in tears as they heard about the horrors of the Holocaust and her courage and fortitude.
“It’s the sharing of our common humanity that works when you’re trying to do what we’re trying to do here,” Hanneman said, noting that it was the first time that Northwestern Mutual has done a formal event around Holocaust Memorial Day. “Expanding on what matters to our people just helps us drive our purpose, which is really to create a world class culture of inclusion and support the communities that we serve.”
Hanneman said the event fit neatly into Northwestern’s charter to bring people to a table where they can sit, share, listen and learn in order to create a more inclusive culture, adding that the feedback after the event has been overwhelmingly positive.
“A common theme was that this was one of the most moving and impactful events in my entire time at the company and I was so moved by it that I shared it with my department, or I shared it with my team,” she said. “We’re trying to move hearts and minds back in the day job so that we can create a better, more successful place for all of us.”
Abramson looks forward to collaborating with more corporations in the future through the initiative.
“We have activated a whole new audience of people who are now going to understand why Holocaust education is important, why they need to be really mindful and proactive in combating antisemitism today,” she said. “We are developing alliances. Every person we reach to the programming has the potential to be an amazing ambassador ally for us.”