Milwaukee Bakery Transforms Lives, One Lemon Tart at a Time

by Tzemach Feller –

Walking into the kitchen of Friendship Bakery, you’ll find many things common to such enterprises: sacks of flour and sugar, stainless-steel commercial ovens, cartons of eggs and plenty of countertops. But you’ll also find items unique to this bakery: staffers trained in special education, a 50-point checklist on the wall reminding workers what they need to do to maintain food-safety standards, and most importantly, patience. And lots of it.

That’s because its workers are living with disabilities, and they’re not just punching a clock; they’re learning valuable life skills. Finding their niche in the workforce can be an overwhelming obstacle, with few employers willing to go the extra mile to train, equip and include them.

Enter Friendship Bakery.

Founded in July 2017 by Rabbi Levi and Leah Stein, who co-direct Friendship Circle of Wisconsin, Friendship Bakery is designed to fill that gap in vocational education. Its goal is to imbue its workers with skills they will need for gainful employment, and so far, the endeavor has been incredibly successful.

“The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—taught us that each and every individual has a unique role on this earth, a role only they can perform,” said Rabbi Stein. “The bakery is empowering people with special needs to make a meaningful contribution to society.”

Nearly two years after its opening, Friendship Bakery has transformed the lives of Milwaukeeans living with special needs and their families, as many bakery-trained individuals have gone on to secure full-time jobs, improving their own quality of life as well as that of their families and caregivers.

Neil Heller is a 46-year-old adult living with special needs. His condition had made it difficult for him to hold down a job in the frenetic, fast-paced and often hostile corporate environment. He says the welcoming environment at the bakery enabled him to learn new skills.

“I like the bakery. The people are nice and friendly,” he says.

His work there gave him the interpersonal skills he now uses each day at his new job at a local supermarket. While Heller enjoys his new job, as well as the independence and confidence it has given him, he still sets aside one day a week to work at Friendship Bakery, maintaining the skills he learned there that enable him to contribute to his current workplace.

“Once I work in the bakery,” he says, “I can work anywhere.”

‘A Place for Everyone’

While Friendship Bakery’s fresh items remain in high demand, sales only partially offset the expenses associated with this unique organization. Additional staff is required, and the tolerance for mistakes that is so ingrained into its ethos means that Friendship Bakery is at a competitive disadvantage, with higher operational costs than similar businesses of its kind. Generous donors have stepped into the gap, underwriting much of the establishment’s expenses.

Marissa Iancu, a board member of the Crain-Maling Foundation, which supports education and spiritual growth, cultural enhancement and medical research, is a key partner to Friendship Bakery’s success.

“What makes Friendship Circle of Wisconsin unique is that children with special needs participate alongside with children without disabilities, enriching both of their lives. It’s a huge plus for everyone,” she says. “It is that same model that makes Friendship Bakery so successful—enabling individuals with special needs to work alongside people without disabilities.”

What Marissa and so many others find extraordinary about Friendship Bakery is the inclusion that it facilitates for people living with disabilities, offering them opportunities they might not otherwise have to become self-sufficient and more independent.

“The Friendship Bakery gives the opportunity to everyone to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” she says. “It’s a place to belong for everyone, no matter the background.”

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