The owner of Chicago’s newest, hottest kosher restaurant isn’t in the kosher restaurant business at all.
Milt’s Barbecue for the Perplexed was awarded one of the best new restaurants of 2013 by Chicago Magazine, and ranked runner-up in Time Out Chicago’s reader contest to find the best new barbecue joint in the city. (Both restaurants noted Milt’s is kosher only in passing; it’s not just a great kosher restaurant, it can go head to head against its non-kosher competitors, as well.)
But being kosher isn’t the only thing that sets Milt’s apart from other Chicago barbecue places. Owner Jeff Aeder donates all of his hip new restaurant’s profits to charity.
We donated $50,000 to community causes.
“We just completed our first year,” he said in a recent exclusive interview with Aish.com, “and we donated $50,000 to community causes.” (Milt’s might be the world’s only restaurant to employ a community director, whose job is to scour the city, finding meaningful new organizations to donate profits to.)
“Milt’s was always meant to be about much more than food,” Jeff explains. He yearned to promote Jewish continuity in his urban neighborhood, to create a spot that would be like a fun community center for young people living downtown that hosted speakers and events, giving young Jews a place to meet and socialize in a Jewish context.
“I feel very Zionistic, I’m a big believer in the importance of Jewish continuity, the beauty of Jewish culture, and the history of the Jews, and also having the world know all the good things we in the Jewish community do for the world. Our goal as Jews is always to make the world a better place.”
Jeff with his family
So far, Jeff knows of one couple – and hopes to meet many others – who met at Milt’s. (The restaurant is named after Maimonides’ Jewish philosophy work, The Guide for the Perplexed, and also for Jeff Aeder’s uncle Milt who was, Aeder recalls, “irreverent, funny, perplexed.”) Milt’s hosts daytime speakers and organizes a monthly Jewish discussion group in downtown offices. It sponsors a kickball league where young Jews can meet, and partners with Jewish organizations to open the restaurant’s doors to guests on Shabbat for Friday night dinners.
“We’ve brought in very inspirational speakers,” Jeff says, “and it’s been educational, and also inspiring, encouraging people to do more with their lives.”
Doing more with your life could be Jeff Aeder’s motto. “I have no quit,” he explains.
After college Jeff moved to Chicago and opened his own real estate development company. He studied Jewish texts with local rabbis, and cites Pirkei Avot, a compilation of sayings of great Jewish sages, as a particular influence on his life.
If there’s one line in this work that captures Jeff Aeder’s activities in his new city, it might be advice from the famous thinker Rabbi Hillel, “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader” (Pirkei Avot 2:5).
Jeff quickly became a leader in his new city. During the second Intifada – the period of intense terrorist attacks in Israel that claimed hundreds of lives in the first half of the 2000s – Jeff wanted to help. “The King David Hotel was empty,” he recalls. “I wanted people to see what life was like for people living there, for people to go out to Israel during the Intifada.”
Jeff started recruiting friends, colleagues, business associates and acquaintances to go to Israel with him. He talked to everyone, everywhere, encouraging each person he met to go. “They were guy’s trips,” and he eventually organized six of them, bringing between 10 and 16 men with him each time to visit the Jewish state, staying in the King David Hotel. For many of the participants, this was their first trip to Israel. “Each one,” Jeff notes with pride, “has been back to Israel since.”
“The first trip was a tough one – it was in 2002, right during a bleak time in Israel.” Jeff recalls. “But I didn’t want the terrorists to win. I wanted people to realize that we needed to keep on supporting our brothers and our friends, and Israel needed our support financially and otherwise; it needed to realize we hadn’t forgotten them.”
On one trip, in 2003, Jeff arranged for Michael Oren, the noted author, and later Ambassador to the United States, to meet with his group. The night before, a suicide bomber attacked the popular Jerusalem coffee shop Café Hillel. Seven people died, including Dr. David Appelbaum, the head of Emergency Medicine at Shaare Tzedek Hospital and his daughter, Nava, who were enjoying a rare outing together the night before her wedding. “Michael Oren’s office was in same building as that café,” Jeff says. “He came to speak to us the next day. He said he considered not coming, but then decided to carry on. He said that once again we can’t let the people who want to destroy us win.”
Ask yourself: How can I give back?
Around the same time, Jeff also started a monthly series of lectures back home in Chicago, bringing experts on Middle Eastern politics to address groups of business leaders.
Jeff’s latest project is a family affair. When their daughter Molly was in first grade, Jeff and his wife Jennifer Levine realized Molly had visual processing problems. They enrolled her in a specialist elementary school, but there was no high school that was appropriate for her in Chicago. Jeff and Jennifer got to work, fundraising and recruiting professionals to help them start a high school for intelligent, college-bound children like Molly who require different learning strategies.
Beginning in 2010, they raised $13 million in two years, and in 2013, the Wolcott School opened in Chicago, educating students with learning differences. In fact, Jeff says it was his experiences building the school that gave him the courage to go ahead and open Milt’s. After working so hard to create a school where all different types of learners would feel welcome, he wanted to extend that same feeling of welcome and inclusiveness to his own Jewish community, too.
Jeff Aeder clearly is a doer and a leader, but he insists his inspiration can apply to everyone. “The best way is to ask: How can I give back? Look back at your life, figure out who you are what you’re good at... Find your talent and your passion, and pursue that.”
Even though Jews have been persecuted, “we’ve never hated. We’ve always asked: how can we make the world a better place? We should always be proud of that.”