Imagine a small, close-knit neighborhood, a small town really, inside a big city.
It’s got a view of a huge lake that stretches to the far horizon; from the spring through the fall, sailboats glide by, powerboats leave white wakes, and massive ships throw everything else into startling perspective. It happens to be very close to a baseball stadium that houses a hapless, beloved team.
Imagine a multigenerational Jewish community in that small town where everyone oddly but honestly gets along; where synagogues across the range of Jewish life routinely share programming, agreeing in the most civilized way possible to agree on some things, disagree on others. A community, moreover, that opens up to the rest of the world as well.
Imagine that the kosher restaurant in that small town not only provides seriously good food, but also donates all of its profits to charity.
Yeah, right? And the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the kids are above average?
So maybe this is a little bit idealized, but when you talk to people who live in Lakeview, they rave. Chicago, the big city of which they are a part, is having a particularly hard time right now — its politics are seamy, its mayor, the picturesque, controversial, notoriously foul-mouthed (and Jewish) Rahm Emanuel, is reaching new lows of unpopularity, and gun deaths are terrifyingly, hideously up.
But Lakeview seems to be a little bit of heaven. (And the baseball team is the Cubs, and its stadium is Wrigley Field.)
Real-estate investor and philanthropist Jeffrey Aeder, who was born in Hackensack Hospital in 1962 and grew up in Upper Saddle River, has a lot to do with Lakeview’s Edenic affect. He’s the owner of the spectacularly named “Milt’s Barbeque for the Perplexed,” the restaurant whose profits go to charity.
Mr. Aeder’s roots in northern New Jersey are deep, even though some of his memories are hazy. His family lived in Ramsey until he was 6; he graduated from Northern Highlands Regional High School in 1980. The next year, his sister also graduated, and his parents, Arthur and Wilma, moved to Manhattan. “We belonged to a shul in Ramsey, right on the train tracks, that’s probably been closed for 30 or 40 years,” he said. Most of the year his family would drive to services, “but I remember the long walk from our house to Ramsey on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” he said.
“My parents were very involved in Jewish organizations,” Mr. Aeder said. “They were very involved in the federation, in AIPAC, and in many other groups.” (Once they moved to the Upper East Side, Arthur and Wilma Aeder joined Congregation Or Zarua, a Conservative synagogue whose rabbi, Scott Bolton, used to live in Teaneck. Rabbi Bolton’s wife, Rabbi Amy Bolton, comes from Lakeview. The whole Jewish world is connected.)
Mr. Aeder graduated from NYU, “and then I was unsuccessful in finding a job in New York, so I went to Chicago for a year,” he said. He got a job working for a big real estate company, one thing led to another, he started his own firm with a partner in 1988 — and now, in 2016, obviously immensely successful (as he absolutely does not say but his life makes clear), he’s still in Chicago.
Mr. Aeder always has what he calls “projects” going. One is the restaurant; another is a “college prep school for bright high school kids who learn differently,” founded so that his daughter would not have to go to a boarding school; yet another is the new website featuring Jewish baseball memorabilia, which might end up in brick-and-mortar form should it prove popular enough, and still another is his work for United Hatzalah, the Israeli emergency response network that has started a service in Jersey City.
Lakeview is “the heart of the city, where young single people and young families and more established families live,” he said. “It’s a very vibrant area, but it had a dearth of kosher restaurants.” Most of the observant community lives farther north, in West Rogers Park, where there are many such restaurants. “I thought that I wanted to open a community center, and the only way that people would come to it would be if I turned it into a restaurant, and it had good food.
“My principle is that if you are going to do it, do it well. I wanted to make it a beautiful, hip place, with great food, which you’d love whether or not you’re Jewish. We’ve been open about 3 1/2 years now, we’ve gotten great reviews, and it’s always packed.
“It’s also run for inclusivity. It’s CRC-certified kosher” — that’s the Chicago Rabbinical Council, the local Orthodox organization — “and it’s fleishig but with nut-free and gluten-free and vegetarian options. Everyone can eat here.
“We have speakers, we subsidize meals, we have pre-paid Friday night dinners for bar and bat mitzvah and wedding guests and other parties, and 100 percent of the proceeds go to tzedakah.
“We have a charity of the month — my wife is in charge of that — we pick a different charity, primarily local ones, either Jewish or non-Jewish, and we do some sort of project with it. This month we gave to a grade school in a low-income area, and we also did a school supply drive with them.
“And then there’s what we call Milt’s Night Out. We have people who donate tickets to sporting events or concerts or shows or other events, or they can get us comps, and we call social service agencies and they find people we can take as guests, after we have them to the restaurant for a free dinner.”
Why does he do this? “I get a lot more happiness out of it than it costs me,” Mr. Aeder said. “I love doing these things. They make me happy. That’s why I do them.”
He and his wife, Jennifer Levine, founded the Wolcott School in 2012. “I was not much of a student growing up,” Mr. Aeder said. “I struggled.” He didn’t want his children to have to feel out of place, as he did, instead of being able to attack their studies directly, as all students should be able to do. “I always say that if you are going to take on a project, you should do it first class. So instead of starting in some rented place, and growing slowly, we built what I think is a gorgeous school, with the best technology and the best faculty.
“The vast majority of the kids there have struggled in school. A lot of people say that they believe in the integration model, but I believe in what works. If they feel good here, they should stay here. If not, they should not stay.
“It’s not a school where students’ parents are pushing them to come. It’s a school where students say ‘This is where I want to be.’ We have attracted an unbelievable caliber of faculty and students — we have 35 master’s degrees and five Ph.D.s among our faculty, which is pretty amazing for a school with 88 students. And our first graduating class went to great colleges — to the University of Michigan, to Lake Forest, to the University of Denver.”
He was able to attract funding because “if you have a tremendous amount of passion, and you put your whole heart into it, then other people will sense that. They sense that you are a serious person, and that your vision is one that they can identify with.
“We have no more than 10 students in a classroom. We are very big on inclusivity — we admit students based on their ability to thrive in school, not on their ability to pay. We offer enough financial aid so that everyone who we admitted we enrolled.” In other words, the school was able to offer scholarships to everyone who needed one.
The school, built in the old Union League Boys Club building, which was gut renovated, is designed to “max out at about 150 students,” Mr. Aeder said. “We are building a new gym and theater.” It is open to everyone who needs it and it can help, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Why did he and Ms. Levine start this school? Partly to spare his oldest daughter, who is graduating in a few weeks, from having to choose between leaving home in ninth grade for a boarding school that would suit her needs or staying at home and going to a school that would be ill-suited to her. Partly because he knew that another two of his four children also would benefit from the school. And partly, he said, “because everything I do is based on the principles I learned from my Jewish heritage.
“You have to try to leave the place” — this world, that is — “better than it was when you found it.”
What about the baseball museum? “I happen to be a huge baseball fan,” Mr. Aeder said. A Cubs fan, of course, also “a fully converted from the Mets fan.
“I started assembling a collection of Jewish baseball memorabilia, and I did some research, and I started to become more and more obsessed. I decided that I should open up a Jewish baseball museum, because the history is so interesting. There were so many great Jewish baseball players, and so many Jewish baseball players who were great people. There were so many stories. I thought it would be a great thing to share. So, with help, I designed a museum.
“And then my wife said to me, ‘What happens if you are the only person who is interested in this?’ And I said, ‘That’s an interesting question.’
“So I decided that I would start the museum online. It launched about a month ago. You can spend an entire day on it. It’s huge! And you can sign up for updates. I had people do interviews and stories, and I will probably be almost doubling what we have on it. We’re probably only about halfway done with it. It’s just tons of fun.”
He will gauge the response to the virtual museum, at jewishbaseballmuseum.com, and use that information to decide whether to go real with it as well. Meanwhile, he continues to amass objects, which now sit in storage.
Mr. Aeder is deeply involved in Israel. “Starting in 2002, during the Second Intifada, I would take groups of six to 16 guys to Israel for short trips every six months or so,” he said. “I did it because I love Israel, and I felt that it needed our support, and that people should go and show Israelis that they weren’t alone. I love the country, I love the spirit there, I love the energy.
“I’m also involved with United Hatzalah,” he added. “I’m very close with Eli Beer,” its founder. “Of all the people I’ve met, I think he’s the most impressive. He’s got a real game-changing organization, and at a time when Israel always struggles with how to tell the story of how special the country is — and there is an organization there that has 3,000 volunteers and 35 paid employees, Christians, Muslims, Druse, and Jews, and they are all about saving lives.
“They’ve taken it to Jersey City and to Detroit, and in the next 10 years I think it will be all over the world. It’s great for Israel, and it’s great for the world.”
“The good news is that I am 54 years old, and I am planning a lot of new projects,” Mr. Aeder said. “I don’t have a political agenda at all. I think that when you do something that’s good for everyone, and that makes everyone feel welcome, it just makes the world a better place.
“I don’t know what project’s next. I don’t look for them. They come to me.”
Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld grew up in Teaneck; her husband, Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, leads Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel, the modern Orthodox shul in Lakeview to which Mr. Aeder and his family belong.
“The Jewish community in Lakeview is almost like a throwback,” Ms. Wolkenfeld said. “Everyone gets along. It’s not just toleration — it’s more than that. People don’t feel labeled. It’s great.” In fact, she said, her shul and the local Conservative and Reform ones are joining forces for a tikkun leil Shavuot program.
She’s a big fan of Mr. Aeder’s restaurant, Milt’s, which opened just before she and her family moved to Lakeview. “They catered the Kiddush for our interview weekend,” she said. “It was really funny. Everyone said, ‘We really should be interested in meeting you guys, but we’re really interested in the food.’
“It’s a great meet-up spot. We post to Facebook, and we say we’re going to Milt’s, and if you want to meet us there, come over. Milt’s hosts community events; they had a speaker for Martin Luther King Day and they had a kids’ party for New Year’s Eve. They invited everyone to come at 5 p.m. — which is midnight in Israel — and for $10 a person everyone got hats and noisemakers, and food, and he put New Year’s Eve in Israel on the TV. It was great.
“My kids love it.” Sara and David Wolkenfeld have four children — Noam, Hillel, Akiva, and Sophie. “Sophie is 4, she and Jeff danced together at a bar mitzvah once, and she has a major crush on him.
“My kids love going there. It’s the biggest treat in the world for them. And Jeff is a major presence there.”
David Wolkenfeld moved to Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel to replace Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who is now in Riverdale, N.Y., heading Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.
“Jeff is really committed to the Jewish people,” Rabbi Lopatin said. “This restaurant is committed to his vision of a Jewish center.
“Understand that it’s not just about people filling their stomachs. The key is that kosher is not just about certain random laws that God told us. It is a way of connecting Jews.
“The restaurant is a vessel. It’s under impeccable rabbinic certification. It can be open on Friday nights” — always for prepaid, prearranged dinners — “and the shul has events once a month. It’s an amazing thing.” The food is as inexpensive as a kosher restaurant’s food can be, Rabbi Lopatin added, and “it is very classy. Not at all shleppy. Top notch.
“People go to Milt’s from the charedi world, the ultra Orthodox world, the modern Orthodox world, the Conservative world, the Reform world, the non-Jewish world,” he said. “It is an amazing gathering.”
One of the hallmarks of Mr. Aeder’s thinking is the way he values both Jews and non-Jews; his work bolsters all sorts of communities. “He is very community-minded,” Rabbi Lopatin said. “That is the ideal of the modern Orthodox Jew. You are a citizen of the world. Your family is the priority, but that doesn’t keep you from caring about the entire world.
“Jeff does it in the way that the rabbis talk about. The poor people in our city come first — so first Lakeview, then Chicago, then broader causes. He is very sensitive to that, and it comes from his rock-solid sense of his identity as a Jew and as a citizen of the world.”