Milwaukee and Madison Judaism after World War II | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Milwaukee and Madison Judaism after World War II

What follows in an excerpt from “Jews in Wisconsin,” published in 2016 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The book is available for $12.95 at

Here, author Sheila Terman Cohen writes a chapter on local modern Jewish history, titled “The Postwar Boom in Milwaukee and Madison.”

In contrast to the dwindling Jewish communities in small towns, Milwaukee and Madison maintained the largest Jewish populations in the state in the second half of the twentieth century. To accommodate the religious needs of the Madison community, two new religious buildings were erected to replace three smaller synagogues that included Beth Jacob, Adas Jeshurun, and Agudas Achim. In 1950, the Agudas Achim congregation changed both its name and its building to become Beth Israel Center. Twelve years later, Adas Jeshrun closed its doors to join forces with the new congregation. Although Beth Israel was considered less Orthodox than any of its predecessors, it did not officially join the Conservative movement until the late 1960s. As the first Conservative synagogue in Madison, it added yet another stratum of Jewish worship to the community. Congregants who sought out religious observance that fell somewhere in between the rigorous adherence to Orthodox traditional practices and the more modern approach of the Reform temples found their place there. Temple Beth El, which was founded in 1939, dedicated its new building the same year with a Reform service that included the singing of “Ayn Kelahaynu” (No one like our Lord) and “America the Beautiful.” These song choices reflected the congregants’ devotion to the Jewish faith combined with a desire to assimilate to the new world in which they were living.

As an example of the interfaith fellowship that existed, Rev. Alfred W. Swan of Madison’s First Congregational Church expressed the growing respect for Wisconsin’s Jewish population when speaking at Temple Beth El’s dedication: “To the Synagogue the world is forever indebted for the origin and inspiration of the Word of God. . . . May the days of our years and yours find us together in unbroken fellowship as citizens in our fair and fortunate land.”

The new, 121-page “Jews in Wisconsin” paperback is part of the People of Wisconsin series of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

The new, 121-page “Jews in Wisconsin” paperback is part of the People of Wisconsin series of the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

During the 1950s, the city of Milwaukee maintained varied congregations where Jews could express their religious faith in whatever way they chose, be it Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. However, Rabbi Louis Switchkow, who led the Conservative congregation Beth El Ner Tamid and coauthored the book “A History of Jews in Milwaukee” in 1963, opined that Orthodoxy in the postwar period was “a very tenuous affair.” In later years, in fact, the choices broadened in both Madison and Milwaukee to include Hassidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Humanist groups.

By 1951, physicians, lawyers, and successful businessmen had replaced the Jewish peddlers of days gone by. Although Jews made up only 3 percent of Milwaukee’s population, 20 percent of the doctors and 17 percent of the attorneys in the city were Jewish. Jews also provided significant contributions to other industries. The needlework trade of yesteryear was transformed into nationally known clothing lines such as Florence Eiseman children’s clothes and Jack Winter designs. Kohl’s corner grocery store in suburban Milwaukee’s Bay View became Wisconsin’s largest grocery store chain, and Aaron Scheinfeld and Elmer Winter founded Manpower, which provided millions of offices with temporary help. Harry Soref and Samuel Stahl developed a laminated padlock that has become internationally known as Master Lock, while Max H. Karl founded the Mortgage Guarantee Insurance Company (MGIC), the largest private mortgage insurer in the world.

As the Jewish community prospered, its members never forgot those less fortunate in their midst. The recent war had left plenty of reminders of those needing help in its wake. They were the soldiers who returned home with prosthetic hooks for hands and the shell-shocked who struggled with memories that could not easily be shaken. To meet their needs, the Jewish community of Milwaukee called upon the Jewish Vocational Service, first established in 1938 to help people who had lost their jobs during the Great Depression. In the postwar period this organization ramped up to help the wounded retrain and adjust to life with new disabilities. It was the first rehabilitation agency in the United States and by 1980 had become the largest in the nation outside of New York City. Its staff, which grew to include six hundred people, served not only veterans of the war but also the elderly, war refugees, and welfare recipients.

In addition, Milwaukee’s Jews who had been able to flee Germany before the war began had established the New Home Club to help themselves adjust to their lives in Milwaukee. The organization was infused with a fresh vitality as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust joined their predecessors. Like the many organizations that originated in the 1800s, the New Home Club offered civics and English classes to the latest group, who had lost so much and needed to start anew.

Many DPs were employed through their Jewish neighbors or relatives. Some, like immigrant generations who had come before them, eventually developed businesses on their own. Harri Hoffmann, who escaped Kristallnacht, founded Hoffco Shoe Polish Company in the late 1940s, after selling the polish from door to door that his wife, Herta, concocted in their kitchen. The Harri Hoffmann Company remains in operation on Milwaukee’s North Water Street as a symbol of the vital manufacturing entrepreneurship of the past.

Alfred Bader, who at age fourteen fled Austria via the Kindertransport in 1938, was interned in a Canadian camp with other European refugees suspected of being “alien enemies.” Such fenced-in encampments were scattered throughout the United States and Canada until after the war was over. Upon his release Bader studied chemical engineering at Queen’s University and Harvard. When he arrived in Milwaukee as a paint chemist, he cofounded the Aldrich Chemical Company in 1951. It eventually became the largest supplier of organic paint in the nation. As the list goes on, perhaps Joseph Peltz best articulated the can-do attitude that prevailed at the time. Having gone from a junk dealer to owner of a very successful recycling business, Peltz said in a 1956 interview, “There is no country like America. . . . If you have the spirit, nothing can stop you.”

“Jews in Wisconsin” was published in 2016 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. Excerpt used with permission.