Melting Pot in Milwaukee

Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum, 32, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her husband, Joel Berenbaum, 31, is currently studying to be a special education teacher at Alverno College and runs the Spiritual World of Nature program at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. He is also co-chair of the Jewish Wisconsin Initiative for a Sustainable Environment. Tiferet completed her rabbinic training at Hebrew College, in Newton, Massachusetts. Tiferet is one of the few African American female rabbis to be ordained in the U.S. The couple has been living together since 2012 along with Clint, their eight-year-old Lemon Beagle.

How did you meet and come to live together?

Tiferet: Well, that’s quite a story. We met when I was working at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT. He was working for the Teva Learning Alliance. We have different perceptions of who pursued who, so we’ll just stick to the facts (meaning, my version). I was on my “basearch” (searching for my bashert) and he appeared. This was three weeks before I went off to Israel for seven months. It was an intense three weeks.

Joel: Keep it short!

Tiferet: It’s true, this story could be a book! We talked for hours every day of those seven months on Skype and he picked me up at JFK at the end of my stay. But, we were still long distance because I was in Boston and he was in Philly, but he drove up on weekends. My final year he decided to move to Boston and we got our first apartment together. Finally. It was a long time coming.

How did you find your home?

Tiferet: Craigslist! That’s how we’ve found every apartment we’ve lived in and all of our furniture. One person’s trash is the next person’s upcycled shabby chic. So, we took to Craigslist and found this wonderful apartment in Shorewood.

Joel: Shorewood’s like Brooklyn. It’s the old melting pot. Everyone’s here. It’s not quite the city, but it’s not quite the suburbs.

Who takes out the garbage?

TIferet: Joel does. The real question though is who puts the trash bag in the can after the trash is taken out.

Joel: The real question is who thinks she puts the trash bag in better after the trash is taken out.

Tiferet: I usually take out the recycling and Joel brings the compost to the community pile.

How are household chores divided among you?

Tiferet: Well, Joel waits for me to either do it myself or freak out about it before he does it. . Joel: I do it when it’s appropriate.

Tiferet: We have differing definitions of “appropriate.” I do most of the chores, though.

Joel: I do them and she redoes them.

Who makes breakfast?

Tiferet: Well, Joel doesn’t eat breakfast usually and if he does he makes it. I make my own breakfast when I get up. Breakfast is my favorite meal and I do it very well.

Describe your typical week.

Tiferet: I love my schedule. I wake up when I want and set my own hours. Sometimes that’s a blessing because I need to sleep in or do errands. Sometimes I sit in one spot and work from morning to night. But, I’m happy with it. Sunday is a community day, usually with music rehearsals for Friday nights or some community event. Mondays are my day off, I usually learn with my Rabbi Sarah Bracha, my chevruta sister in Boulder, CO. I’ve started a Jewish after school program here called Yavneh. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays are crazy because I’m usually putting the finishing touches on Shabbos services. Joel knows to stay out of my way.

Joel: Live, love, learn, repeat.

What’s the most unusual thing we’d see on your household budget?

Tiferet: For a few months we were spending inordinate amounts of money on kombucha. It’s like $4 a bottle and we’d maybe have a bottle a day each. It was crazy. So, I started to brew it myself and it’s much cheaper.

What do you love the most about the space you live in?

Tiferet: Funny you should ask, we just inherited half a house load of used furniture from congregants that moved across the country. Joel loves our counter height table. It seats 8-10 people and he loves when we have Torah study or meetings or big meals around the table. I love that we have so many west facing windows. We’re on the 5th floor and we see such beautiful sunsets.

What’s the one story that gets told and retold in your home?

Tiferet: When we moved to Milwaukee, our moving pod got into an accident and all of our furniture was destroyed. All of it. So, we spent our first few months getting to know Milwaukee’s finest resale stores and cruising Craigslist regularly. It got so bad that sometimes I was up at 3am checking new furniture postings. But, we’re pretty settled in now. It taught us to not be attached to things. We give away a lot of stuff. Take it in, try it out and pass along what we don’t like.

What would you serve at your ideal Sunday brunch?

Joel: Lox and dairy free cream cheese on gluten free homemade bread with all the fixings.

Tiferet: You can see what his dietary restrictions are. I’m a fan of Grow and Behold’s beef bacon, so that would be on the menu. Of course, some fresh kombucha, the elixir of life. We make excellent gluten-free waffles and banana bread, so that’s a must.

Do you have an ideal Shabbat dinner?

Tiferet: Anything Joel cooks. He’s the best. His Shabbos lunch is great, he makes wonderful “Joel-ent.”

Joel: I don’t. I enjoy food that I feel good about eating: local fresh vegetables, local fresh fish or meat, things that I know where they come from and feel healthy eating.

Who’s your favorite Jewish comedian?

Tiferet: I am totally into Rashida Jones right now because I just finished binge watching Parks and Recreation.

Joel: Billy Crystal because he’s a man of many talents. We both agree on Andy Samberg, in fact, we are going to watch Brooklyn Nine Nine right after this.

Have you have ever experienced anti-Semitism in your life?

Tiferet: I haven’t really, thank God. People don’t know that I’m Jewish or they don’t get it.

What is your favorite room in your home?

Joel: Our second bedroom. It gets good sun in the morning and has different colors than the rest of our apartment and has an eclectic feel. From sports, to multiculturalism to our daybed.

What is your favorite piece of art or photograph in your home?

Tiferet: I’m torn between our awesome “Essence of Life is Love” 3-D Ketubah and the Ari Rosenthal “When Doves Cry” piece. If there was a fire, has v’chalilah, which one would I grab? I guess I’d grab the ketubah, so that’s my favorite. It’s 25x25 with each quadrant illustrating a different element and there’s a quote from Rumi on it. It also has beautiful stones. It’s really a work of art. We stopped in Toledo, Ohio to pick it up as we were road-tripping back to Boston for our wedding.

What is your happiest or saddest memory in your home?

Joel: We haven’t been in this place a year yet so I’m understanding home as anywhere we’ve lived together. I think our saddest memory together is the Friday when the city of Boston was shut down searching for the Boston Marathon bombers. We were living in Waltham, a town over from where he was found.

Tiferet: I know. I mean, it was so scary, I didn’t want to open the door and we were watching the news non-stop broadcasting from like 2 miles down the street.

Joel: Our happiest memory is actually in our new home here. When we came over here before we had fully moved in we always brought Clint, our beagle. He would run through the house and rub all over the carpets. We knew he was going to be happy in our new place.

Tiferet: He never ran in our other place because of the hardwood floors. The carpet makes him happy.

Describe your home life in three words.

Tiferet: I am right.

Joel: No You’re not

If you could change one thing about where you live, what would it be?

Joel: I want to live in the mountains of Appalachia. I want to live in the middle of nowhere.

Tiferet: I love Milwaukee. The Midwest is so much cheaper than the East Coast, I honestly don’t know if I’ll go back. There’s so much culture here, just today we were at the Public Market and I realized there was a piano there for anyone to play. Milwaukee’s like that. But, my heart also hurts for Milwaukee. It’s the most segregated city in the country. It’s got the highest black male prison population. There is serious poverty here and a lack of education. Of the many problems, I would work on eliminating the food deserts in the inner city and provide education and training on healthy eating and shopping. And, it wouldn’t be finger-wagging lectures, there would be discussions. I want to make sure everyone looks at the orange number on price tags to really understand the value of what they are buying. Not just people in the inner city, everyone! It’s my favorite smart shopping tip, helps dollars stretch.

If you could change one thing about your Jewish practice, what would it be?

Joel: I want learn more about the agricultural roots of our tradition and figure out how to apply them to today’s world. The reason the world is so messed up, in my opinion, is because we’ve gotten so far away from the natural cycles of our planet and gotten in the way of the Earth’s ability to sustain itself.

TIferet: The Earth will be fine, it’s us we need to worry about.

Is there an active Jewish community near you? If not, how do you create your own?

Tiferet: Milwaukee has an active Jewish community and it’s largely Reform. We are not Reform Jews. I don’t really classify myself as any kind of Jew in particular, but I prefer more traditional Judaism. So, on Shabbat mornings or chag, I might pop up in the Modern Orthodox shul near us. But, one of the best things about being a rabbi is that if there’s something I want to do, I can offer it and see who is interested in doing it with me. I love that.

What’s one Jewish thing you do that defines your Jewish identity?

Joel: I wear my antique gold Chai that has been passed down for three generations in my family on my mom’s side.

Tiferet: Just one? Well, here in the Midwest I’ve found it very important to wear a Magen David. I feel like Jews are such an afterthought (or not a thought) here so I take pride in announcing my Jewishness.

Does being Jewish distinguish you from others around you? If so, how?

Tiferet: I don’t spend money on Shabbos, I don’t drive frivolously on Shabbos, I keep Kosher, I dress modestly. I really miss being in a place where these things didn’t make me seem super frum.

Joel: No, being Jewish doesn’t distinguish me from others around me. I am human.

Tiferet: What? You go to school at a Catholic college. What do you mean? You’re like the only Jew there. You were just complaining about getting important emails from your teachers at a quarter to Shabbos!?

What one moment stands out in your mind of when you felt most connected to Judaism?

Joel: The moment my junior year roommate told me he was transferring. I stood up, walked to the international office at Binghamton University and filled out an application to Ben Gurion University of the Negev. I didn’t give it a second thought or worry about anything. I was going to spend the next seven months in Be’er Sheva.

Tiferet: I think my whole time living in Israel. It’s strange because it was so easy to be and do Jewish, and I never took that for granted. Each and every Shabbos was a gift. Followed closely by every moment I spend at Isabella Freedman.

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