A true product of the Twin Cities, Ben Saxon returned after four years at UW-Madison to his roots in St. Paul. This week, TC Jewfolk had a chance to catch up with Ben about growing up in a rich Jewish community, working for his family business, and how he continues to stay connected to the community as a recent grad and, wait for it … real adult?!
Are you originally from the Twin Cities area?
St. Paul area, yeah. I’m from a suburb of St. Paul called Sunfish Lake, but it’s right by Mendota Heights.
Why did you end up here?
I grew up in Mendota Heights area and I went to Henry Sibley High School. My sister went to Madison, and I went there, too. Then I worked at Macy’s downtown Minneapolis. I was going to either live here or Chicago because that’s where my older sister lived. I decided that — I work in a family business now, so I thought it’d be best if I came right back. I worked somewhere else first and then I’ve been working for my dad since about October of 2015, so about 3 years.
I’m actually from Madison.
I know; I saw the 608 [area code] so I was going to ask you.
I did the whole reciprocity thing, too… I just wanted something new, and I’m sure you understand that.
Yeah, yeah, I understand that … I wanted something different just like you did.
You said you’re in a family business. Can you tell me more about that?
My family’s been in the car business for about 80-plus years, so we have a couple different stores around town. As I said, I worked for somebody else before I worked for them so I worked at Macy’s downtown Minneapolis, that sadly closed, but I worked there for about a year. Then after that, I felt like I got enough experience and decided to work for my parents. I’ve been doing sales for about 2 years and I’m moving into another department here fairly soon.
It’s been a lot of fun. A big thing for me is being involved in the community as much as I can, and obviously, you have to work a lot, but I grew up and my parents were always really involved in different things throughout the Jewish community. I wanted to learn from my parents and be involved in that, and also be involved in the business, too.
Did you always think that was where you were going to end up or did you have other career plans?
No, I thought I was going to end up there. I’ve wanted to work with my dad since I was about eight years old.
What did you see college as for you then?
I felt like it was helping prepare for that. I did a degree called consumer affairs in business; I did an entrepreneurship and a leadership — in Madison we call them certificates, but minors. And I’ve always wanted to do that. I worked for Macy’s first because I wanted to get experience in a different industry from a different perspective.
You said growing up, your parents modeled an example for you of being involved in the community. Can you talk about how that’s impacted you and if that’s pushed you to become more involved?
What I really liked is that my parents were involved, as I said, and whether that was with the synagogue, or whether it was with the Sholom organizations or JCCs. I did USY as a kid, so I always just I felt like what I learned there gave me skills and introduced me to what it would be to be involved in the Jewish community here. It’s important to me, and I always like to be a part of something bigger than myself. I always like doing different things, too. I’m the type of person where I want to be involved in as much as I can, just because I see the influence of it, and I have a lot of friends who are involved. When more people are more involved, I think it makes it more fun, too, because we’re all trying to do things for the greater good of the community. I did Hillel when I was at school, and I was in a Jewish fraternity, those sorts of things.
I was going to say, I know the Jewish community at UW-Madison is huge on campus… it seems a lot different here, at least from what I’ve noticed.
Definitely. I think there are a couple different things going on. The community there, I think the campus community down in Madison is a little bit different because a lot of the people are from all over. And I think in Minnesota, whether you look at the University or you look at the actual community post-university, a lot of the people involved are from here, and have a lot of family here. And so, I’d like to believe people are a little bit more invested because even if you’re from somewhere like Madison and you live here now, I would hope that you feel a sense of belonging here.
Versus, I think in Madison, I think the only small thing I’d say is a lot of the people aren’t from there. So, people are invested in the community, but after the 4 years, they kind of do their own thing. So that’s why I like being up here and being able to sort of be involved in the Madison community and the community up here, it kind of bridges that gap.
It’s interesting, and I’ve thought about it a lot so it’s interesting to talk to someone who has experienced both of the communities.
I think at the end of the day here, I’d like to believe the people that are here, and are involved, are involved because they want to be involved. I think it’s the idea of being a part of something and giving back to a greater good. And I think a lot of the parents in this community have really put that out there, which I see as a good thing.
Whereas my sister in Chicago, which has a very big community – there’s so many Jewish people there that it’s not always as tight-knit. Just because there’s so many more people. Which, it’s not a bad thing, but I think here, you have a nice size of a Jewish community, where people want to be involved, and people know other people. Like, the NextGen events are really fun because there are similar groups of people that are going to these events, and those are the people who want to be involved. Whereas, as an example, I have friends in Chicago, and I’ll say, “Hey, are you going to x, y, and z, and are you going to do this and that?” and a lot of them — and obviously this is a small generalization, but a lot of my friends in Chicago have their group of friends and they’re good. Whereas here, we have our group of friends, but people do generally want to meet other people and be a part of this greater good.
And I don’t know how that is in Madison, too. I know the university, student perspective, and my own experiences…
I also don’t know the student perspective there. I think there is a bit of a disconnect between the university and the city of Madison, but I don’t know.
I think one thing, for example, which Benjie Kaplan has done a good job of, is he’s really–I’m on the Hillel board here, so I see the Hillel perspective of a post-grad, I guess if you want to call me an adult, a young adult, view of what’s going on on campus, versus a student’s perspective on campus. And I think people are involved in their own different ways, here and in Madison, and it just depends on their perspective and what they do, but I think both communities have a good opportunity for students and people to get involved. I think what the difference is here, is that some people that are from here, or near here, the adults or the parents, or leaders in the community, like Benjie, have done a really good job getting the students involved and people involved, to understand why it’s important to be a part of the community here, whether you’re here for four years, or whether you’re going to be here for a long time.
Right… And I think it requires effort on both sides.
And I think that’s true, whether it’s of Minnesota or Wisconsin. I know of parents at the University of Minnesota, and they do a really good job of kind of guiding their kids, but trying to let them know why being involved is a good idea, and not trying to push them too much. For me, it’s interesting to see both perspectives. I would never change anything I did at Madison; I absolutely loved it. I think there are good opportunities for both sides. They’re just different.