Miryam Rosenzweig, MJF President & CEO, in addition to other community leaders, will be providing their thoughts on the Israel crisis in a weekly Shabbat message. Check back each Friday for the latest message to the community.
With Thanksgiving just a week behind us, stores are filled with holiday decorations. As I walked by Metro Market’s blue stand with obligatory menorah plates, blue decorations, and, of course, Chanukah socks, I began to wonder. How do we celebrate such a happy holiday this year? Can we celebrate while our brothers and sisters in Israel are suffering? When there are hostages? When we are worried about antisemitism? Am I even in the mood for a Chanukah party? Latkes? Sufganiyot? (Yes. I was ready for sufganiyot.) Everything else? I wasn’t sure. So, I had to do some Jewish learning.
What is this holiday about? The story of Chanukah tells us of the Maccabees’ victorious struggle against the Greeks, granting the Jewish people in Judea the freedom from Greek rule and the ability to practice their religion once again (to learn more about this, Google – “Why do we play dreidel?”)
Yet, the enduring symbol of this holiday is not the Maccabean sword or some battle cosplay, but the menorah or chanukiah. The menorah moves the focus from the miraculous war to another miracle that occurred — an ordinary jug of pure olive oil, meant to last for only one night, burned brightly for eight nights. This allowed the Jews to celebrate their Jewishness once again.
The beauty of Chanukah lies in the symbolism of the menorah itself. When one candle lights another, its light is not diminished; instead, the two candles illuminate even more from the darkness. This is precisely how our community functions as well. Each of us is like an individual candle, but together, we can banish the darkness that surrounds us.
Since our world shattered on Oct. 7, our community has come together in unprecedented ways to banish the darkness together.
Our first community gathering on Oct. 9 drew 1,000 people in person and 2,500 online, representing all segments of Jewish Milwaukee. Subsequent events, including music nights, mitzvah days, Tehillim gatherings, and mindfulness sessions, have allowed us to come together with intention, offering many avenues for connection and spreading light throughout our community.
Our community came together with incredible philanthropy. Close to $5 million has already been raised for our brothers and sisters in Israel through our Israel Emergency Fund. Countless individuals and foundations have stepped forward, offering additional direct support to programs in Israel. In addition, increased funding for local needs, such as enhanced security measures, campus needs, and local programming, has been invested. These dollars are beacons of light to the lives of displaced families in Israel and our local community at home this Chanukah.
One of the most powerful expressions of unity was the historic March in Solidarity For Israel in Washington, D.C., on Nov 14. A group of 250 Milwaukeeans joined 300,000 Jewish Americans as we stood united together. This diverse assembly represented every part of our community, from various denominations and age groups to different political leanings and backgrounds. In that moment, we realized that unity is our greatest source of light and strength.
We don’t have to wait for another massive gathering for this feeling. Now is the time to participate in the many opportunities to be Jewish together through what Jewish Milwaukee has to offer. Take a class, go to your synagogue, have a bite at Hannah’s Kitchen, walk down Main Street at the JCC, invite others for Shabbat dinner or come to Shabbat Sing. Lean into those things that make you feel most Jewish and do them (even sufganiyot!). As we light the Chanukah candles this year, let us do so with a profound sense of purpose and unity. Let us remember that by coming together, we can be the light that dispels the darkness in Milwaukee, Israel, and around the world.
Happy Chanukah, Shabbat Shalom, and Am Yisrael Chai – The Jewish people live on.
Guest Shabbat Message
Rabbi Wes Kalmar – Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah
At the funeral for Rose Lubin, the lone soldier from Atlanta who was murdered guarding the entranceway to the Old City of Jerusalem, someone said that you are not a real Israeli until you know someone who has been killed. Perhaps in the current situation that harsh assessment could be updated to say that you don’t really feel the pain of the nation unless you know someone who is being held hostage. That feels real for all too many Israelis who do know someone who has been killed or taken captive.
As I write this from Israel, on a 3-day mission of RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) and RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Eichanan Theological Seminary, the rabbinic school of Yeshiva University) rabbis in conjunction with World Mizrachi, the plight of the hostages has taken the world stage front and center. With an agreement about hostage releases in exchange for prisoner releases and a pause in the fighting, I hope that by the time you read this, we will see some of the hostages returned home.
Yesterday we spent time with the families of the hostages in Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, now renamed Hostages Square. In the pictures here I am sitting with the family of Ofir Engel, a 17-year-old from Jerusalem who was visiting a friend in Be’eri on Oct. 7 when he was taken by Hamas. His parents, Yoav and Sharon, along with their two teenage daughters are living a nightmare that is unimaginably being shared by hundreds of Israeli families and families of people around the world.
One of the amazing things that we saw yesterday was the work of the Bring Them Home Now organization that materialized in response to the plight of the hostages. The Israeli software company Checkpoint has consolidated itself to offer three floors to the organization for its operations. Thousands of people are donating their time, some of them 24/7, on behalf of the hostages. They are working on media, social media, diplomacy, physical, emotional, psychological and other needs of the families in a coordinated and organized way which is incredibly impressive. Many people with high-powered jobs have dropped everything to assume roles in the organization. We met with the people there, including the organization Kikar Shabbat, a Charedi website in Israel that is partnering Chareidim in Israel with hostages and their families. We sang Acheinu with Yuval Haran, a resident of Be’eri whose father and aunt were killed on Oct. 7 and who has seven family members being held hostage, including his mother and sister and a nephew and niece.
Yael Danziger Sharansky, daughter of Anatoly (Natan) Sharansky, recently related a little to what it was like to grow up in the home of legendary refuseniks. She related her experience to that of Yitzchak, Isaac, who lives a life of upholding and imitating the path of his father Abraham.
In every great piece of literature or movie, there is an aspect of the leaving home story. The protagonist must leave home and make decisions about moving in a new direction which will affect his/her life.
In this week’s parsha we find Vayeitzei Yaakov – Yaakov (Jacob) must leave his home and go into the tough world of Lavan and Esav.
Yitzchak is someone who doesn’t really make any decisions in his life. He is an object in the Akeidah, he has his wife chosen for him. He is an example of Gevurah – strength – of keeping up the values of the previous generation.
Rivka however, does make decisions. She says aileich – I will go – with this servant of Avraham and marry this man I do not know – she decides for herself.
And then she decides to send Yaakov to get the blessing.
As Jews who live in the diaspora, we must ask ourselves – are we able to make decisions to step up and take on the responsibility for our fellow Jews in Israel? Can we be like a Yitzchak, upholding the ways of our forefathers and foremothers?
And are we also able to be like Rivka or like Yaakov and decide that we will take action when needed?
We are a nation that can create a sophisticated organization to save hostages in a matter of days.
What are we doing to support Israel in its time of need?
Which of the hostages have we taken the time to get to know about personally, so that we are invested in their freedom?
The Jewish people are at a crossroads. It is a time for action and decision-making.
What are you doing?
What will you do?
Guest Shabbat Message
Mark Shapiro – President and CEO Harry & Rose Samson Family JCC
My father had a lot of advice to share in his too short lifetime and every now and then something really stuck. “When you have the chance to do the right thing…Do it!” and just when I thought the advice was over he added this crucial second part, “and if you are going to do it…Do it the right way.” This week I had the chance to fulfill my dad’s advice in 2 very powerful ways that exemplify our amazing Jewish Community in Milwaukee.
Tuesday morning I, along with over 200 Milwaukeeans, joined almost 300,000 people in DOING THE RIGHT THING, THE RIGHT WAY! Through the amazing work of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation we boarded a plane and joined the global Jewish community in Washington, D.C. for the March for Israel. We carried the strength and the voices of our entire Jewish community with us as we marched from the Capital Jewish Museum to the Mall, we stood with Israel (literally and figuratively) as speaker after speaker, song after song, sign after sign stayed on point – that we stand FOR SOMETHING – not against something. Chants of Bring Them Home echoed off the Smithsonian walls, flags of blue and white and flags of red, white and blue waved together as we stood with Israel and her right to exist. We stood with the hostages and their families and demanded that they be free to come home. We stood with each student on each campus and demanded that they have the right to walk to and from their classes without fear and to feel safe in this world. We demanded that antisemitism be called out for what it is, hate speech, and for our universities and leaders to say that it is NOT OK.
Thursday morning I woke up early again, and with a team of amazing volunteers and staff, we did the right thing and did it the right way at the Jewish Community Pantry. Our annual Thanksgiving distribution day was filled with sunshine, music, and hundreds of families coming to be treated with respect and given everything they would need for a complete Thanksgiving dinner. The “right thing” continued even after the last of the 125 Turkeys were given away when one of our amazing volunteers, seeing so many people still in line, went to the closest store and bought another 20 turkeys. Doing the right thing, the right way.
This week’s Torah portion is Tolodot and it shares the story of Esau and Jacob, one of the many conflicted relationships we learn about and from in the Torah. Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks (o.b.m.) shares in his book Lessons in Leadership, “…Parents and Leaders must establish a culture in which honest, open, respectful communication takes place, one that involves not just speaking but also listening. Without it, tragedy is waiting in the wings.” Even in the face of rising antisemitism, and calls for the destruction of Israel, our Jewish community finds a way to fulfill Rabbi Sacks’ vision through respectfully rallying for Israel and by treating all of our neighbors with dignity and respect. See dad…I was listening!
May this Shabbat be a Shabbat filled with peace, may the hostages come home and Am Yisrael Chai.
Guest Shabbat Message
Sarah Yonas – Regional Director BBYO Wisconsin
This week’s parsha starts with a curious description of the matriarch Sarah’s age when she dies. “Sarah’s lifetime – the span of Sarah’s life – came to one hundred and twenty-seven years.” Genesis 23:1
Rashi believed that the double mention is important. He shared that the first half of the verse described the quantity of her years, but the second half reflects the quality of her years. Similarly, at the end of the parsha, Abraham dies at 175, and he died “at a good ripe age, old and contented.” Genesis 25:7
Abraham secures land for Sarah’s burial, and helps Isaac find his partner in Rebecca. This will help fulfill the covenant of Abraham’s people multiplying in their homeland, but it didn’t happen without hard work. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, explained, “The Divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that God will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation, from God to Abraham and his children that they should act. God will help them. The outcome will be what God said it would. But not without total commitment from Abraham’s family against what will sometimes seem to be insuperable obstacles.”
The land and the people that Gd promised happened and continue to happen because of our hard work, and not just the work of adults. In my role with BBYO Wisconsin, I see daily the incredible work our teenagers do that help bring Gd’s promise to life. They find unaffiliated Jewish teenagers and invite them to meaningful teen-planned events. They raise awareness about issues that resonate with them over social media and in person. They stand up to injustice, and they stand together with each other in beautiful shows of solidarity.
It would be easy to crumble into a paralyzing state of mourning right now, but I am shown every day that the future of the Jewish people is strong because our teens are strong. The quantity of their years is not many, but the quality of the Jewish lives they are proudly living is exemplary. May we follow their examples to live joyfully Jewish and may we all have a Shabbat Shalom.
Sarah Yonas, Regional Director BBYO Wisconsin
On Saturday night I took a flight to Israel from Newark Airport.
Every seat was occupied. The plane was full.
Before the typical in-flight announcements, a special one was made. “Israel is enduring challenging times. At El AL, we’re committed to keeping the airways accessible. Our thoughts are with our soldiers, our loved ones and those missing, and we appreciate all who have come to assist. Am Yisrael Chai.”
We were a plane full of brothers and sisters who just never met each other. Conversations ensued. The passenger beside me, a music teacher, was returning to Tel Aviv. Some were on their way to volunteer, others to visit their children in Israel. One grandfather let me know that his daughter was being induced tonight in New Jersey, but he just had to go to check on the other grandchildren. I shared that I was on a mission to Israel with the Federations, and a few people clapped around me. They are proud of the effort we are making together.
Curiously, I asked a few about their ancestral origins. Within just a few rows, we had roots tracing back to Russia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen. It was a beautiful tapestry of Jewish heritage, a manifestation of the biblical promise: Kibbutz galuyot, the return of the Jewish Diaspora to Israel. The man behind me said “I’m from England but originally France, does that count?” I let him know he was part of us too tonight.
He was flying to Israel because he was a reporter for Sky News.
As we descended, a realization dawned upon me: for the first time, I was on a flight to Israel with only adults. The absence of children’s voices, especially the cries of babies, created an unsettling silence.
Our descent into Tel Aviv took an unusual route. First, we flew north, turned around and flew south to Ben Gurion Airport. After landing, the pilot greeted us, shared the local time and weather, and closed with a heartfelt wish in Hebrew, urging us to keep ourselves safe and hopeful for better news.
Ben Gurion Airport was eerily quiet, with just our flight’s passengers. Clear signage guided us to shelters and safe zones at regular intervals.
The usually bustling roads of Tel Aviv were strikingly quiet at 5 p.m. on a Sunday (a workday in Israel). Signs on the roads made heartfelt pleas for the safe return of hostages. The radio aired news continuously.
I headed to hug my family. Reaching my sister’s place, I cherished being just family – a sister, aunt, and sister-in-law.
Naturally, the war was a recurring topic. Some insights I gathered:
• Avoid showering on the hour or half-hour – prime times for sirens.
• Sirens typically sound around noon and five, but a recent daylight-saving change caught Hamas off guard, shifting the timings.
• Driving post-sunset is avoided due to visibility challenges during emergency stops.
• My niece attended school for just two days since October 7th. The risk levels recently shifted, halting her preschool again.
Despite the tense atmosphere, there were heartwarming moments. I hugged my sisters and sang with my niece. Those hours rejuvenated my soul. The next day, the solidarity mission began and I knew my short personal joy was about to end.
The mission gave me a stark wake-up call that our utopian view of Israel has gone.
What I witnessed was that:
Our people are suffering.
Our people are crying out for help.
Our people live with fear and danger every minute of every day.
At this time of grieving and suffering what can we do or say?
Some of the words I heard from survivors in Israel still echo in my ears:
“I believed my home was safe. I no longer have a home.
“I believed my parents would keep me safe. They couldn’t.
“I believed I could keep my children safe. I couldn’t.
“I believed it would never happen again. It did.”
And yet, throughout the days, the absolute spirit of the Israeli people shined through. The collective responsibility they have taken for each other is the living embodiment of Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh. All Jews are responsible for one another.
One of the most striking experiences I had with that phrase front and center was my visit to Magen David Adom — Israel’s multifaceted hub for emergency medical response and blood donation. As we explored the expansive MDA facility, their prompt response during the crisis was evident, from managing 50,000 units of blood to the valor of first responders treating countless patients.
However, what struck me the most was MDA has a breast milk bank. Originally intended for NICU babies, the program has evolved under the current circumstances.
Tragically, 40 infants under the age of 6 months now rely on MDA’s milk bank. Their moms’ have been murdered, injured, kidnapped or are still missing.
Most will never know their mothers embrace again, but there are other mothers making sure these babies are being taken care of.
All Jews are responsible for each other.
I met many people who had family members kidnapped and taken to Gaza. Each story was heartbreaking. They begged us to help free them as if we had a direct line to President Biden.
All Jew are responsible for each other.
Hotel lobbies turned into distribution centers with hundreds of volunteers delivering supplies to anyone who needs them.
All Jews are responsible for each other.
There are thousands of stories and I bore witness to a few. Every story, every cry, every one of their emotions moved me and will stay with me forever.
We need to continue to support Israel and most importantly keep the 240 names of the hostages front and center.
I want to make it clear that MJF will never stop advocating both locally, statewide and nationally for their release.
We have raised over $4.4 million towards our $6 million goal. You can give to the Israel Emergency Relief Fund with the assurance that every dollar will go to help victims in Israel.
Click this link and help us reach our goal.
We all know that the weeks and the months ahead will be hard for Israel and hard for us as we see the rise in antisemitism around the world. MJF is committed to our security and to advocate for our community.
We will not be silent; we will never be silenced.
If there is one thing, I have learned from all of this, is that we are so much stronger together.
Am Yisroel Chai. Let the people of Israel live!!
In our lives, there are dates that hold special significance — birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and days of both remembrance and celebration. Today, we gather to mark such a date, not as a religious message but as a testament to our identity as a people.
Five years have passed since the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, a tragic reminder of the hatred that can strike even within our borders. We remember, and we mourn, for antisemitism touched us on American soil.
The last three weeks have been a period of mourning for all of us. We witnessed the worst day in Jewish history since the Holocaust, a day that shook us to our core – Oct. 7, 2023.
Amidst the overwhelming scale of these events, it’s easy to lose sight of the individuals affected. These tragedies didn’t just happen in Israel; they didn’t just happen to the Jewish people; they happened to innocent individuals.
This week, our hearts ache for Ohad Munder-Zichri, a 9-year-old boy from Kfar Saba, who did not get to celebrate his birthday with his family. He spent that day in a dark tunnel beneath Gaza, taken hostage during the invasion by Hamas terrorists while staying at his grandparents’ house in Kibbutz Nir Oz.
Ohad’s special day was stolen from him, much like the last 20 days were stolen from over 230 Jews who experienced one of the most brutal attacks against a peaceful population in modern history.
We have heard harrowing stories of survival and the painstaking work of medical personnel investigating each tragedy, totaling over 1,400 innocent lives lost.
In times like these, it can be challenging to find hope amidst despair, warmth in the face of coldness, or light in the darkest of times.
This Shabbat, I will be lighting an extra candle in honor of Ohad and all those held captive in Gaza, unable to join us in prayer.
How do we find comfort during these times?
We find it in each other.
Here in Milwaukee, our community has come together in solidarity with Israel. We have already raised nearly $4 million of a $6 million goal through our emergency campaign to provide hope and support where it is needed most, demonstrating the unity of Jews from diverse backgrounds coming together to support one another.
We have seen statements of support and resolutions passed in our state house assembly, condemning the Hamas massacre and standing overwhelmingly with Israel. Our JCRC tirelessly ensures those who stand with us are appreciated.
Landmarks worldwide have illuminated in blue and white, a symbol of communities everywhere standing with Israel. Including the Hoan bridge in Milwaukee. Our JCC has played an essential role in this effort.
Our JFS team has provided additional resources for counseling during these stressful times.
Our spiritual leaders have united us and offered comfort through services, both at home and within our community.
Last night, 200 women gathered for the Valor event, celebrating the strength of women and our community.
Our Shlicha, Noa Gerassi, shinshinim, and campus Israel fellows have shared their stories, connecting us personally to the people of Israel.
We have rallied, hosted speakers, and worked to ensure that Jewish students feel safe and supported in schools.
We have increased resources for our partner agencies and congregations to enhance security.
Here in Milwaukee, our community’s resolve remains unbreakable.
Our support for those impacted in Israel stands unwavering.
Over the past 20 days, I have no doubt that you have experienced a range of emotions, just as I and all the staff at MJF have.
In closing, please know that we will rise again. We will celebrate life cycle events, dance, and sing at joyous occasions once more.
For thousands of years, our enemies have underestimated us, wanting to wipe us out, only to fail time and time again, one after another.
They have never understood the Jewish zest for life, community, and peace.
Amidst these challenges, I want to share with you that I will be leaving for Israel as part of a JFNA Solidarity Mission. We go to stand with the people of Israel during these trying times, to bear witness to their experiences, and to share their stories when we return. I want to assure you all that I will be back in time for our community event next week, and I look forward to sharing the experiences and insights gained during this mission with all of you.
There will be dates we look forward to again.
Am Yisrael Chai.
The people of Israel live.