After nearly half a century, one of the Milwaukee Jewish community’s most distinguished and influential members is leaving the paid workforce.
Then again, Dr. Steven Baruch’s previous retirement years ago only lasted two weeks.
After 32 years of work for Milwaukee Public Schools, he took a temporary position with what was to become the Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and he stayed as its executive director for 15 years.
Perhaps quitting work has taken him so long because he has had the rare privilege of holding jobs that are an extension of his own identity and values. A recurring theme throughout Baruch’s life has been working with diverse groups of people and bringing them together.
“Over time I began to realize what I was doing was not all that different from human relations work,” he said. “What I brought is that I could get people together to get things done, which came from the human relations background.”
Baruch was born and raised in multi-ethnic Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago, “a wonderful diverse community. It was a great experience.”
Even his family reflected diversity. He categorized his mother as a combination of Conservative and Orthodox, and his father, a Dachau survivor, as a “High Holiday Jew.”
Sharing their home were his devoutly Orthodox grandmother and Uncle Eric, an avowed atheist who “never entered a synagogue in all the time I knew him.”
Baruch studied history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We had some people there then that were just outstanding,” he said. “Professor [George] Mosse was still teaching, and he was a great instructor, and Professor [Harvey] Goldberg. Madison in those days was a great place to be.”
He became a U.S. history teacher in a few Milwaukee Public Schools, Walker Middle School, Rufus King High School and North Division. He then went into the human relations department.
He worked as a curriculum developer for 15 years, and worked with preparing people for desegregation. “When there were troubles, we were in charge of remediating them,” he said.
He managed the district’s curriculum library and wrote curricula, including manuals, a peace curriculum, and a multicultural education curriculum. He worked with people on communication skills, going to almost all the schools in the system at one time or another.
Over the years, he developed materials on stereotyping, prejudice, black history or the timely topic of the year: “One year it was violence, one year it was gangs, one year it was teenage pregnancy, and the district would want me to write a curriculum,” he said.
In 1982, Baruch finished his doctorate at UW-Milwaukee part time, writing a dissertation on change in the Milwaukee Public Schools. At the same time, he finished writing a four-volume history of MPS curriculum going back to 1845 that his mentor Professor Rolland Callaway had been working on before his death.
Meanwhile, Steve and his wife Judy became more involved with the Jewish community. When their daughter Laura was 3, they looked at a number of synagogues.
When Rabbi Bernard Reichmann of Congregation Anshai Lebowitz gave Laura a mezuzah necklace, she started telling everyone, “My rabbi gave me this.” The family joined his congregation. Baruch got involved with the board and eventually became the principal of the religious school and synagogue president.
When the congregation relocated to Mequon, the Baruchs made Congregation Beth Jehudah their spiritual home. They both remained active volunteers in Jewish education and urban issues.
Steve served on committees and the board of Milwaukee Association for Jewish Education, one precursor of the Coalition for Jewish Learning, and the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations. Judy worked with the Jewish Family Services and is the executive director of Tikkun Ha-Ir, an interdenominational organization that addresses urban problems.
The Baruchs remained in the Sherman Park neighborhood until 2006 when they moved to Glendale and joined Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah. Their son David and his wife and two children still live on the west side.
He decided to retire at 55. “I thought it was time to move in another direction. I really didn’t have any big plans,” he said.
Then Milwaukee Jewish Federation executive vice president Rick Meyer called him because he was on the CJL board as a volunteer. The founding director served two years, and Meyer asked if Baruch could fill in on a temporary basis.
During his 15 “temporary” years as CJL director, Baruch initiated many projects. They included the Congregational School Initiative, the Teacher Creativity Center, the Holocaust Education Resource Center, the annual Teacher Recognition program and the Teen Day of Social Action.
He received the Melvin S. Zaret Distinguished Professional Award from MJF in 2008.
Baruch and his wife have no plans to leave town. Their five grandchildren live in Milwaukee and Chicago. He said he might write a book about the history of his family in Germany.
Milwaukeean Susan Ellman, MLIS, has taught history and English composition at the high school level and is a freelance writer at work on a historical novel.