La Crosse, with a population of about 50,000, may not be one of Wisconsin’s largest cities, but it has a synagogue with about 50 families and the city takes Holocaust education seriously.
Congregation Sons of Abraham is a Conservative synagogue in La Crosse, population 52,000. The synagogue is over 100 years old and a landmark for its Jewishness and its connection to the large Catholic community in La Crosse.
Rabbi Simcha Prombaum has led his congregation for 37 years. “It’s always been an interesting community … some very dynamic people come here,” Prombaum said. He said much of the congregation is comprised of highly educated people and their children.
The congregation is getting older, as the teenagers have left home and the majority of the children are now first and second graders and younger. “The people I raised my kids with are now in their seventies,” he said.
The congregation is made up of 50 families and young families are moving in, according to Prombaum. “The midlife women have become the backbone of the community,” he said.
La Crosse has a significant Catholic community and the synagogue has a strong relationship with local Catholic groups. The congregation does a series of programs related to social justice issues with the churches in the area. “We might be the first Jewish people they’ve ever met,” Prombaum said.
La Crosse is a medical hub with 400 doctors in the area, and about 125 are Jewish, according to Prombaum. “A Jewish physician is a goodwill ambassador for the community,” Prombaum said. According to him, oftentimes the Jewish doctors will take the Christmas and Easter shifts.
The La Crosse community is driven by a moral compass and a willingness to engage in open-conversation, he said.
Prombaum is impressed with the commitment to Holocaust education in La Crosse.
He noted that Richard Kyte and Darryle Clott, both not Jewish, organized an annual speaker event held at Viterbo University’s performing arts center. Holocaust survivors speak in front of more than 1,000 people; most of the audience is Catholic, according to Prombaum. Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, z”l came to speak one year.
Clott, a retired high school English teacher, teaches a course on the Holocaust at Viterbo University in La Crosse.
Clott, in collaboration with Kyte, the endowed professor and director of D. B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University, organized the Holocaust educators workshop, now in its twelfth year. Middle school and high school teachers from all different schools attend.
Prombaum said these events are able to universalize the Holocaust to be seen as an event in history that affected everyone. As the decades go by, Prombaum said, “the future of Jewish Holocaust education is in the hands of non-Jews.”