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Waukesha Jewry data challenges challenges assumptions
May 1st, 2012
This is the first article in a two-part portrait of the Waukesha Jewish community, which the “Jewish Community Study of Greater Milwaukee 2011” showed to be a larger than expected proportion of the Milwaukee-area Jewish community.
Some long-held assumptions about the Jewish community of Waukesha are now likely to change.
A fresh look reveals that Jews’ decisions to settle in Waukesha County says little, if anything, about the strength of their religious identity or the depth of their commitment to the community.
Mary Schuman, chair of the membership committee of Congregation Emanuel-El Waukesha, in a telephone interview April 12, succinctly stated what had been the traditional presumption: “If Jewishness is high on your list of priorities, you go to [Milwaukee’s] North Shore.”
Accordingly, when she and her husband, Phil, moved from Milwaukee to Waukesha in 1989, they continued their membership in Milwaukee’s Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun for about 13 years.
Around 2002, however, they joined CEEW, and their participation in the Waukesha congregation soon “vastly exceeded” what it had been at CEEBJ. In addition to Mary’s position, Phil is CEEW’s current president.
Mary attributed their involvement to the intimacy and friendship a small congregation engenders, and to the fact that “you’re needed more here.”
“When you’re living in a larger community of non-Jews, and you want to participate in Jewish life, you don’t get lost in the crowd,” she said.
Elly Kraines and her husband, Nate, came to Waukesha in 1966 from out of state. “Some people from Milwaukee criticized us for moving out here,” Elly recalled in a telephone interview April 12. “They said, ‘How can you live so far away from the Jewish community?’”
A top reason for choosing Waukesha, she said, was that both she and her husband had jobs located there. Elly worked for Waukesha Memorial Hospital as a medical technologist for 26 years. Nate, an engineer, worked for various firms in the area.
The Kraineses have been deeply involved in CEEW’s congregational life for 46 years, and see its smaller size as an advantage.
Elly said, “We’re friendly and welcoming, and that attracts people. We’ve had people from large congregations on the East Coast who really appreciate this about us. We don’t let people fade into the woodwork.”
Mark and Cindy Levy were both single when they came from different out-of-state locations to work for GE Medical Systems in Waukesha. They continue to live in Waukesha County and challenge the notion that this diminishes their Jewish commitment.
“We did not have that ghetto mentality — that we had to live on the North Shore [to be part of the Jewish community],” Cindy said in a joint telephone interview with her husband April 15.
The Levys are active members of CEEW, and acknowledge that it shares some of the attributes of “small town” Jewish congregations.
“Our synagogue is the center of Jewish life in Waukesha,” said Cindy. “It’s a social center. [The members] tend to be close; we know each other. In that respect, it’s ‘small town’ — but by design.”
She pointed out, however, that CEEW has “a fairly young congregation,” and in that respect is different from other “small town” congregations, which tend to have an older demographic.
CEEW’s Sunday School is relatively large, as well, she said, exceeding the size not only of religious schools in small town Jewish communities, but also of some of those attached to Milwaukee congregations.
Many members of the Jewish community in the Greater Milwaukee area were recently surprised to learn that a significant portion of the area’s Jews live in Waukesha, and that the community there seems to be growing.
According to data reported in the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s “Jewish Community Study of Greater Milwaukee 2011,” of the total 30,098 Jews living in the Greater Milwaukee area, 5,016, or 17 percent, make their homes in Waukesha County.
It is difficult to say how much actual growth this represents. The 2011 study covered all of Waukesha County — rather than the small slice of the county covered by the prior study in 1996 — and likely captured Jewish residents who were living there all along but were not previously counted.
Jane Avner is the Milwaukee Jewish Federations’s Jewish community study consultant. In an interview at MJF April 10, she said the methodological differences between the 1996 and 2011 studies, and the differences in the areas they covered, do not allow for direct comparisons.
She described the 2011 study as “a snapshot of our community’s Jewish population at this moment in time using the best methods [of data collection] available to us.”
Avner said she believed that employment opportunities in Waukesha likely accounted for the decisions of many Jews to settle there.
In addition to General Electric and General Electric Medical Systems, Waukesha is also home to Quad/Graphics Inc., Kohl’s Department Stores managing offices, Target Corp., Wal-Mart, Waukesha Memorial and Community Memorial hospitals, and other businesses with 1,000 or more employees.
The 2011 study reports that 18- to 29-year-olds comprise 26.5 percent of Waukesha’s Jewish population; 50- to 59-year-olds comprise 26.5 percent; and 60- to 69-year-olds comprise 30.6 percent.
These data do not count Jewish children in the Waukesha community, which means that the younger portion of the Jewish population there is larger than these data indicate.
While “the actual amount of growth is a question mark,” said Rabbi Steven Adams in a telephone interview April 12, “there is no question that the community has grown.”
CEEW was established in 1939 and it is still the only synagogue located in the nearly 80-mile-wide region between western Milwaukee County and Madison.
Adams, the spiritual leader of CEEW, traced the recent growth of the Waukesha community back to the 1990s, and described two paths by which he thought Jews have arrived in Waukesha.
“Many came from out of town and settled here to be close to work,” he said, adding that he thought this had always accounted for the bulk of the influx into Waukesha County.
“And then, there were people looking to get more for their money — the cost of housing is lower here than, say, in the North Shore — and maybe also looking for a more relaxed lifestyle,” he continued.
Adams said he has seen significant growth in his congregation.
“Prior to 1999, when I came here, the synagogue was not seen as full service,” Adams said. “It has definitely evolved into a congregation that provides for all of one’s Jewish needs, and that has made it easier for people to move here.”
In 1999, The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle reported CEEW membership as 83 “membership units,” or about 250 individuals, including children. Today, between 120 and 130 families belong to CEEW, Adams said. This amounts to more than 300 individuals, 60 to 75 of whom are children.
Still, according to the 2011 study, 48 percent of Waukesha’s Jews belong to a synagogue — in Waukesha or elsewhere — while 52 percent do not.
Adams said the large number of unaffiliated Jews in Waukesha is “one of the biggest issues we deal with. Jewish identity is not a priority for many Jews who move out here, and we either never see them, or see them very infrequently. Some participate in life cycle events only.”
CEEW does, however, attempt outreach to unaffiliated Jews, Adams said.
“We have reinvigorated our marketing committee, and are attempting the get the word out, with more public notifications about programs both in and outside of the synagogue,” he said.
One factor that may relate to the apparently high rate of non-participation in Waukesha is the cost of synagogue membership. According to the 2011 study, the cost of membership was “very important” to 23.1 percent of the county’s Jewish population.
Mary Schuman said that in her role as CEEW membership chair, she has observed that cost has become increasingly important over the last few years, and this tracked with the economic downturn that has affected many in Waukesha during this period.
“When I sense that people applying for membership are having financial difficulties, I will sometimes suggest that help with synagogue dues might be available from our ‘Mensch Committee,’ which has some funds to help out in such situations,” she said. “We know that some people have financial issues now — some of our members haven’t paid their dues.”
Standard dues for a family at CEEW run $1,550 per year, and $775 per year for singles, Schuman said. Those in upper income brackets are asked to pay a little more, she said, “but we have very few in that category.”
Schuman noted that synagogue dues are practically the sole source of revenue from which CEEW staff salaries are paid.
Adams said that the number of paid staff members — including himself, Cantor Arlene Spanier, Religious School Principal Phil Musickant, and the religious school’s teachers — has not increased during his tenure at CEEW.
However, while all staff members continue to serve on a part-time basis, the number of hours for which they are compensated has increased — another indication of congregational growth. There is no paid administrative staff at CEEW.
To be continued in the June issue.
Lynne Kleinman, Ph.D., a retired teacher and journalist, is currently working with a group developing “Jewish Neighbors in Wisconsin: A Web-based Curriculum,” a project of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.