MUNSTER — Building bridges between people and communities, improving the quality of life, repairing the world and having fun together.
The Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana fulfills many roles with programs and services that “come out of the history of our people, turn a negative into a positive and help dispel the stereotype,” said Michael Steinberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation. “All are children of God.”
Originally formed in 1941 in Gary by several influential Jewish business owners, the federation helped resettle European refugees escaping the Nazi regime. That same social welfare network geared up in the early 1980s when Jews were allowed to leave Russia.
Since moving into its current location at 585 Progress Ave. in 2003, the federation has grown and its mission evolved, said Barbara Waxman, president of The Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana board of directors. Yet some programs, such as the K’Ton Ton preschool span the decades.
Established 56 years ago, the K’Ton Ton program currently has an enrollment of 56 children from ages 2 through 5. There’s always a waiting list, and it’s the only preschool in the area accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said Erin Nowakowski, preschool director.
“We have more non-Jewish than Jewish children,” said Nowakowski, whose oldest child just completed the program. “For me, K’Ton Ton was the first step into the Jewish Federation professionally and personally. It’s home.”
Waxman said K’Ton Ton, which means “small,” has always been “like the United Nations” in its enrollment.
It’s also a place and program where the joy of helping others can create understanding and acceptance, Nowakowski said.
“It’s amazing for young children to be raised that way,” she said.
K’Ton Ton students get involved in other programs including putting donations on the food pantry shelves, adopting a family in need during the holidays and making bookmarks for the federation’s Adult Friendship Club, said Aida Nozick, director of Jewish community services and programming.
The Adult Friendship Club offers adults aged 55 and older an opportunity to socialize, enjoy a Kosher meal together twice a week and participate in a variety of activities including chair yoga exercise sessions, talks by speakers, watching movies and taking day trips to such spots as The Art Institute in Chicago and Morton Arboretum.
Those twice-weekly lunches, prepared by Chef Ken Shepard, typically attract 30 to 40 guests. Between 8 to 10 women act as hostesses, setting up the tables, making coffee and serving guests. Transportation is provided, and the meal is subsidized for those who are unable to pay. The same Kosher meal is also delivered to those who are unable to attend.
At a recent AFC lunch, Esther Rothstein of Munster said the meals provide more than nourishment.
“Being with people when you’re a widow is important. It breaks up the day,” Rothstein said. “It’s like a big family. They’re concerned about other people.”
And “I don’t have to make (the food).”
Just completing in its 13th year, JCY Day Camp for children from kindergarten through age 12 encourages socialization, teamwork, learning and fun, said Rachel Sieffert, director, who also teaches third and fourth grades with the School City of Hobart.
As with K’Ton Ton, children enrolled in the JCY Day Camp come from both sides of the state line and represent the diversity of the Calumet area.
JCY Day Camp’s programming is designed to foster team spirit, Sieffert said. A different theme each week allows campers to explore their potential, build skills and self-esteem as they work together with community peers.
Located on an expanse of ground surrounding the Jewish Federation community building, the grassy areas allow campers to enjoy team sports, outdoor lunches and other large group activities. Arts and crafts, baseball, basketball, volleyball, hiking, singing, fishing – it’s all part of the 70 campers’ experience.
The Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana is part of the Jewish Federations of North America. This nationwide humanitarian network serves millions of Jews and non-Jews everyday around the world and includes 155 communities across the North American continent, Steinberg said.
As part of the Federation community, the mission of the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana is to enrich Jewish life here, in Israel and around the world through service, programming, advocacy and fundraising.
“Although the name is the Jewish Federation of Northwest, it is open for everybody, irrespective of their religion,” Steinberg said.
“Repairing the world is an objective of the Jewish Federation. We want to educate ourselves and have fun,” he said. “We are part of a greater community.”