A Q&A with Dina Weinbach

Striving to make Madison welcoming for all
A Q&A with Dina Weinbach
Dina Weinbach is executive director at the Jewish Federation of Madison.

The Jewish Federation of Madison and its previous iterations have been operating in Madison in some form since the 1930s. What is your mission there, and what do you do today?
The mission of the Jewish Federation of Madison, which is currently celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary, is to work toward building a strong and unified Jewish community in order to ensure the survival, well-being and continuity of the Jewish people in this area, in Israel and throughout the world. The Federation acts to develop the resources and create the initiatives required to support agencies, activities, services and programs that strive to fulfill this mission.

The 1930s was obviously a period of crisis for Jews around the world. How have things changed in Madison throughout the Federation’s existence, and what do you consider your biggest challenges today?
In 1940, the Madison Jewish Welfare Fund, the forerunner of today’s Jewish Federation of Madison, primarily focused on assisting displaced European Jews. Today, immigration services are still provided through Jewish Social Services, which we established in 1978 and is our largest beneficiary agency. In addition, we expanded our services and programs over the years to include Camp Shalom, established in 1954; a monthly newspaper, Madison Jewish News, began in 1969; the Hilde L. Mosse Gan HaYeled Preschool, which started in 1970; Midrasha Hebrew High School, established in 1975; along with the Yonim Israeli Dance Troupe, family education programs, community outreach, community relations, enhancing the quality of life for Jews in other countries, supporting the migration of Jews in peril, providing nonsectarian relief following natural and manmade disasters throughout the world and much, much more.

Did you grow up in Madison? What motivates your work?
Yes, I did. I am lucky enough to be a product of the Madison schools and participated in many programs in the Jewish community throughout my youth. My background is in public education and I never would have thought early on that I would be working in the Jewish community, but twenty years later here I am and very proud to work for the Jewish Federation of Madison. I work with fabulous, devoted, supportive people who volunteer endless hours of their time and a staff who share my passion for what this Jewish community is and can be. I work for an organization that responds to life-saving needs throughout the world, meets human-services needs in Israel and provides the education, programmatic and social service needs right here in our own Jewish community. In short, it is an organization that does a whole lot of good things–things that will make Madison and the world a better place.

Earlier this year there was a spate of vandalism on Madison’s west side, including a swastika and violent slurs directed at Jews. What did you hear from community members? And what is the Federation’s response to them, and to all of us?
Those incidents were disturbing and hateful, yet paled in comparison to the terror in Copenhagen, Paris and other cities around the world. Just as we expressed our outrage and heartbreak at those horrible incidents in Europe and elsewhere, we did so when graffiti and vandalism occurred in Madison in mid-February. History forcefully teaches us all that violence based on hatred begins first with words and vandalism. I invite everyone to be our partner to condemn such acts and help educate others–including our youth–to identify and appropriately respond to anti-Semitism and prejudice of any kind directed at any person or community. Such hateful acts are intolerable; when it affects one group, it affects us all. We all need to stand together to denounce all acts of hatred.

Many in the current generation know organized anti-Semitism only as the stuff of WWII history lessons, but the news of the past couple of years suggests a more timely threat. Do you fear a rise of anti-Semitism internationally, or do these heinous acts just have better media coverage now in the Internet age? What about closer to home, here in Madison?
Tragically, there is a very significant rise of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, violence against Christians, acts against people defined by the perpetrators as “other,” and, the most horrible of all, genocide, today. Here in Wisconsin, our colleagues in the Milwaukee Jewish Federation recently released an audit on anti-Semitism that did show it is on the rise in Wisconsin as well.

Can you describe some of the key initiatives JFM is working on locally?
Combating anti-Semitism. Raising scholarship funds for Camp Shalom. Camp Shalom is the oldest day camp in Dane County, serving children of all different backgrounds and cultures. Each year we raise and distribute over $100,000 to children and families who need financial assistance. Since we began the day camp sixty-one years ago, we have never had to turn a child away because of financial need; we are very proud of this tradition. The Jewish Federation of Madison has a partnership with the Sovev Kinneret (Galilee) region in Israel. This is a people-to-people partnership; we have some exciting programs coming up this year. We are planning a big gala on October 17, 2015, to celebrate our seventy-fifth anniversary.

There has been a lot of discussion lately in Madison about racial disparities, although generally framed around people of color. Do you draw any parallels between updated discussions about privilege, supremacy and majority culture and the work you do at JFM?
Our organization was among the founders of the Madison schools’ Superintendent’s Human Relations Advisory Council in the 1960s and we continue to be active in it today. The Jewish community and the African American community have a good and long history of combating racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of disparate treatment. Whether it is people of color, the Jewish community or any “other” group, we all need to stand in solidarity and work together.

Is there a mission statement, motto or creed that personally drives you?
Live life to the fullest.

What are the strongest attributes of the Jewish community here in Madison?
Our passion for tikkun olam, to repair the world, starting right here in our own community.

What are its biggest challenges?
As Jews, we learned long ago that we can never be complacent because we are keenly aware that we don’t know what’s coming. The challenge is to always be prepared for whatever that future is.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
You won’t know unless you try it (this applies to many things in life!). No one ever raised the perfect child. Take a chance.

What motivates you more than anything else?
My family and my friends. They help keep me balanced and in check and remind me of what’s important.

What do you most want people to know?
Madison is a fabulous community to live and raise a family, yet we need to do even better to make sure that is true for everyone who is privileged enough to live here. I love living here and having the opportunity to do my part through the Jewish Federation of Madison so that everyone can proudly say, “I love living here.”