From Footballs to Fields of Dreams: How One Chicago Resident Impacted an Entire Kibbutz

By: Aaron Scheer

What does it take to create real change?  For Chicago resident Jeff Aeder, the answer started with a basketball.


On a visit in 2014 to a small kibbutz named Kerem Shalom located on the border of Gaza and Egypt during Operation Protective Edge, Jeff saw kids playing without basketballs or footballs, so he later came back with sports equipment for them and thus began what has become an incredible partnership and friendship.


“When I came back last May, I met 13 new families who chose to move here this year, and I wanted to let them know that the Jewish world was supporting them,” said Jeff, standing proudly next to the group.


For Jeff, contributing sports equipment was just the beginning. He has organized several volunteer and fundraising initiatives When terrorism destroyed 10,000 acres of farmland and forest in the region this past summer, he knew he had to take further action. He did so through Jewish National Fund-USA. Mobilizing quickly, Jeff raised over $400,000 dollars to help repair the infrastructure, while also investing in landscaping and renovating living quarters for the kibbutz’s teens.  But he was not done yet. 


“I’ve been on the kibbutz for 9 years and serve as head of security, so I was the first guy Jeff met,” said Ofer Kissin, one of the kibbutz leaders. “He came over at a crazy time for us in 2014 yet he became our friend, and it’s been so very heartwarming.”


On a recent sunny December afternoon, Jeff and his family returned and, joined by over 100 volunteers from JNFuture Volunteer Vacation (for young professionals ages 25-35), other organizations and students with special needs studying in Israel, they spend the time breaking open the soil and laying down squares of grass. Before long, what was once a barren field was all green and the volunteers finished it off by planting trees. 


Kerem Shalom is no exception. Jeff’s entrepreneurial spirit and determination is evident in everything he takes on. He and his wife Jennifer Levine were Chicagoans of the Year in 2013 for founding the Wolcott School, Chicago’s first College Prep H.S. for students with learning differences. The couple founded the school after learning that Chicago did not have a high school for kids with learning disabilities who wanted to go to college. In 2013, Jeff opened Milt’s BBQ for the Perplexed, a kosher BBQ restaurant that donates 100% of all profits to charity. A few years later, Milt’s Extra Innings was opened to operate under the same profit donation model while also offering meaningful employment to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.


“How can you relate to people? What are you good at?” Jeff asked the circle of JNFuture volunteers. “Whatever it is: share the kindness. For me, projects like today make me the happiest guy in the world: to work with my wife, my kids, and my friends. This is a unique part of Israel located so close as it is to those who would do them harm. Yet the people choose to live here because they feel a special connection to the land and to fulfill a dream. If people want to be here, I want to let them know that the rest of the Jewish world is here to support them.”


As the sun began to set, the BBQ was lit, the kids played soccer, and the sprinklers watered Kerem Shalom’s lush new field of grass. Everyone smiled, inspired and awestruck by the can-do attitude emanating from the man from Chicago.


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