Zaret, lover of history, made history in Jewish Milwaukee

Melvin S. Zaret, former executive vice president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, loved history. He often quoted the observation by American novelist William Faulkner (in “Requiem for a Nun”) that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In the overall history of the Milwaukee Jewry, Zaret will be remembered as “a genuine visionary” and one of that community’s most enduringly influential leaders, said John Gurda, author of “One People, Many Paths: A History of Jewish Milwaukee” (2009).

When Zaret arrived in the city from Chicago after World War II, “he saw that Milwaukee was different from [other Jewish communities] in the country,” Gurda said in a telephone interview on June 10, about a week after Zaret’s death on May 31 at the age of 92.

Milwaukee Jewry “was more collegial than other Jewish communities. There certainly were enormous differences” between various groups and institutions, “but there was a willingness to talk to each other,” said Gurda.

And that characteristic “motivated him to carry it one step further and to make Milwaukee a model community, the kind of community that could be an example for others,” said Gurda. Zaret “had that vision, had the longevity [and] the political skills and contacts to make it happen.”

Indeed, during Zaret’s tenure at the MJF from 1955 to 1984, and even thereafter, “Milwaukee created more national and international Jewish community leaders than any community except New York,” said Eva Zaret (nee Klein), Zaret’s wife since 1978, in a telephone interview. His first marriage ended in divorce.

And Richard H. Meyer, current MJF executive vice president, said in a June 9 telephone interview, Zaret “deserves a great deal of credit for building the Milwaukee model of lay-professional partnership. It’s really one to be emulated around the country.”

While Meyer never worked with Zaret directly, “he loved to talk shop” and “regularly sought me out to discuss and share,” Meyer said.

“Mel was the archetypical lifelong Jewish community professional,” Meyer said. “He wore it on his sleeve. It was a badge of honor to him…. I learned a great deal [from him] about passion, dedication, and persistence.”

Indeed, Zaret was so successful that he received offers for many jobs outside of Milwaukee, said Jerry Benjamin, current MJF president, in his remarks at Zaret’s funeral service on June 2 at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun.

“But he always chose Milwaukee,” said Benjamin. “He loved Milwaukee and thought it was where he could do the most good.”

 
Lived history

Zaret not only made Milwaukee Jewish history, but lived through and with the effects of much 20th century Jewish history.

Born Shmuel Zalman Zaretsky in 1918, he was a native of Poland, once the largest Jewish community in the world. He was the son of a rabbi who had been trained in the Orthodox Musar (morality) movement.

His family fled Poland in the turbulent aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. They arrived in Chicago in 1920.

He earned a master’s degree in social work from Northwestern University, and, through the course of his education, Americanized his name. While still in college he became executive director of the Big Brothers Association of Chicago, and there learned that he was good at fundraising, according to Benjamin.

During World War II, Zaret served as a psychiatric social worker in a U.S. Army prison located in Milwaukee. According to his friend and former MJF president Mark Brickman, Zaret had rebelled against his Orthodox upbringing and had seen himself “as a humanist when he was young.”

But news of the Holocaust, in which much of his family in Poland had been murdered, turned him to Jewish communal work, and “once he decided [that], he never turned back,” said Brickman.

Zaret served as assistant to then-Milwaukee Jewish Welfare Fund director Elkan Voorsanger. He later worked in Chicago at the regional office of the then-Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds before returning to Milwaukee in 1955.

Zaret’s tenure witnessed additional historic events and processes, from the mass movement of Milwaukee Jewry out of the city into the suburbs to the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israel wars.

For a June 1, 2007 Chronicle article on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Six Day War, Zaret recalled how that had been “a sleepless time” for him as he led the community in raising $1.8 million for an Israel Emergency Fund.

Both Benjamin and Gurda acknowledged that the intensely passionate and dedicated Zaret could have the faults of his virtues. Benjamin at the funeral said he knew of nobody in Milwaukee Jewish communal work who “had not fought over something with Mel.”

“I think Zaret wanted the federation to be the voice, eyes, hands, and heart of the Jewish community,” said Gurda. However, “there’s inevitable tension between centralization and coordination.”

Nevertheless, through it all, Zaret maintained a large vision. “He wasn’t a politician, he really cared about what is good for the whole community,” and he sought to involve the whole community, said Eva Zaret.

And after his retirement from the Milwaukee federation, he did not stop working. With an office in the federation building, he served as a consultant to Jewish communities throughout the U.S. and the world.

In 2006, Zaret put together a book with the help of editor Gail Naron Chalew, “Community, Heritage, Legacy: In Pursuit of Progress: Selected Speeches, Papers, Essays,” that sampled 60 years of his speeches and writings. (See Chronicle, Aug. 25, 2006.)

In one of them, he expressed his attitude about retirement: “Retired people are frequently described as outliving their usefulness, and yet, how can a person live without being useful?”

The book also contains a preface by Rabbi Irving Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, who wrote: “This volume proves — as does Mel Zaret’s life — that as long as Jews care, as long as people of skill and commitment and Jewish spirit are prepared to step up and take responsibility for their time, their place, and their community, the promise of the eternal life of the Jewish people will be fulfilled.”

In addition to his wife, Zaret is survived by daughters Lisa (Jonathan) Bodner and Judy (Tom) Remington; sons David (Sheri) Zaret and Steven Zaret; sister Esther Sklar; six grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

After the funeral service, burial was in Spring Hill Cemetery.

The family prefers memorial contributions to the Melvin S. Zaret Endowment Fund for Professional and Community Leadership Development at the Jewish Community Foundation, the endowment development program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

Formerly op-ed editor, Leon Cohen has written for The Chronicle for more than 25 years.