Here are ten big local Jewish stories of the last 100 years 

 

Here, we bring you 10 of the biggest local Jewish news stories of the last 100 years. It’s part of how we’re celebrating our 100th anniversary. We’ve created this list looking backwards, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. 

Would you have picked different headlines? Let us know! We like to hear from you. 

Chronicle archives and other sources have helped us create this list. We cannot say that these are indisputably the ten biggest stories of the last 100 years of local Jewish history, but we can say that without any one of these ten, life in Jewish Wisconsin would be decidedly different. Here they are, roughly in chronological order. 

1. The first Jew in Wisconsin kicks off German-Jewish immigration 

Before Wisconsin became a state in 1848, there were Jews here. There was even synagogue life before statehood 

Gabriel Shoyer is believed to have been the first Jew in Wisconsin, according to the Jan. 30, 1925 Chronicle.  

Throughout the past 180 years, a stream of immigrant Jews has come from all over the world to settle in Milwaukee. The result is a robust Jewish community that in turn has helped grow the city in countless ways. But like anything big, it had to start small. In the case of the Jews of Milwaukee, it started in the mid-19th century with the Shoyer family some of the first Jews to settle in the city. 

In the 1830s or early 1840s, Gabriel Shoyer immigrated to the East Side from a small village in Germany and, a few years later, was followed by his brother Emanuel. Gabriel and Emanuel opened a business in Milwaukee, called E.M. Shoyer and Co., that sold and tailored clothing.  

Gabriel Shoyer became president of the congregation at Congregation Emanu-el in 1847, according to the 1925 Chronicle. Later, in 1848, the Shoyers along with the synagogue founded Milwaukee’s first Jewish cemetery. 

By 1875, there were 2,068 Jews in Wisconsin, according the book, “A History of Jewish Milwaukee,by John Gurda. Most of them are thought to have been the children of German-speaking immigrants, part of the foundation of a long line of Jewish-German heritage in Milwaukee. 

2. The Settlement Cook Book 

When the first Jews arrived in Milwaukee in the mid-1800s, they held religious services in a neighbor’s living room. Among them was the family of Lizzie Black Kander, an activist for immigrants and the author of “The Settlement Cook Book.”  It was billed as a guide for immigrants on how to run a household.  

Milwaukee’s Jewish immigrants came primarily from Germany and Poland, and they often shared the struggle of adapting to American life. Since her youth, Kander was vocal in her advocacy to help them. In the late 1890s, at a meeting of the Council of Jewish Women of which Kander was a member, she influenced the group to organize the Milwaukee Jewish Mission – a society that taught children English as well as sewing and cooking skills. By 1900, to meet a fast-growing demand, it merged with another group to found the Settlement House, an expansion of the Mission.  

Settlement Cook Book image courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Among other activities, The Settlement House hosted popular cooking classes for t Jewish immigrant girls of Milwaukee. Kander taught these lessons and recorded them in “The Way to a Man’s Heart,” later to be renamed “The Settlement Cook Book,” according to the Jewish Community Blue Book. 

The first edition of “The Settlement Cook Book quickly sold out. Future proceeds paid for construction of a new, larger Settlement House building on 9th and Sherman, named the Abraham Lincoln House.  It opened in 1911 and evolved into the Jewish Community Center.  

Thus, the March 23, 1945 Chronicle noted that the Jewish Community Center “had been founded by a cookbook.” The Jewish Community Center at the time was offering classes in ballroom dancing, conversational Hebrew and more. Also, 40 servicemembers of all faiths were given free Saturday night lodging at the Jewish Community Center, with Sunday morning breakfast, while 560 members of the JCC served in the armed forces, according to the 1945 Chronicle. 

The cookbook’s JCC is a predecessor to today’s Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay. 

3. Synagogues emerge, develop and change  

Like so many generations before them, the first Jews to settle in Milwaukee during the 19th century practiced Judaism despite having no house of worship. Before there were synagogues, they held services in the living room of Henry Newhouse. The following year, they gathered in the home of Isaac Neustadel, and later above a grocery store, according to Wisconsin Public Radio and Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.  

The services above the grocery store led to the first synagogue in Milwaukee, according to Gurda. In 1850, 12 men founded Congregation Imanu-Al, a predecessor to Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, now in River Hills. Then a mixture of Polish and German Jewish immigrants, the congregation disagreed about which traditions to follow. The original congregation bifurcated twice, leaving Milwaukee with three synagogues by 1859, according to Gurda. 

Synagogues sprung up in the late 1800s as Jewish immigration to Milwaukee was soaring. By the 20th century, there were synagogues of different denominations. Today, while some have merged or closed, many places of worship – like CEEBJ – continue to thrive just as they did a century ago. 

4. Russian influx changes Jewish Milwaukee 

History tells of a Russian and Eastern European Jewish influx in the years before and after 1900. Much of the immigration was to escape a hard life, antisemitism and broken government.  

The clothing magnate David Adler, an undisputed patriarch for the community, worked to help Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants of the late 1800s, according to Gurda. Trainloads of people arrived.  

Later, history repeated itself. In 1996, one in 10 Jews living in the Milwaukee area was born in the former Soviet Union, according to a study commissioned by Milwaukee Jewish Federation, “1996 Jewish Community Study of Greater Milwaukee.” The results reflect the immigration of 300,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States between 1965 and the time the study was published.  

Milwaukee Jewish Federation Junior Division, supporting Soviet Jews. Photo courtesy of Jewish Museum Milwaukee archives.

Of the 25,400 people living in Milwaukee-area Jewish households in 1996, 10% of them were from the former Soviet Union. A quarter of this population lived in the City of Milwaukee, while 11% lived in each the North Shore and Mequon areas. The summary of the report states that it was the first study to generate a sample population of FSU Jews large enough for an analysis. 

In 1989, the Chronicle reported on the resettlement effort led by Jewish Family Services and the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. At the time, the effort was overwhelmed with new Soviet immigrants and there was a call for new volunteers.  

These organizations provided caseworkers to help unite Soviet families with relatives already living in Milwaukee, to locate housing and to distribute loans to the new families. They also paired American volunteers with newcomers to introduce them to American life. The Federation provided other free social services including healthcare, English as a Second Language training courses, help in enrolling children in school, and coordination with employment counselors. 

5. When life revolved around Walnut Street 

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a high point for Jewish immigration in the city of Milwaukee. The Jewish population more than tripled between 1895 and 1925. Thousands of the Jewish immigrants, many of them Russian, settled downtown on Walnut Street. It was a place that would become a hub for the Russian and Polish Jews of Milwaukee during the 1920s and 1930s, according to “150,” a 1993 Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle magazine celebrating 150 years of Jewish community.  

East, west, north, and south of Walnut Street was the home of a lively community of Jewish immigrants. The average family was comprised of two immigrant parents and many children. The fathers were tradespeople. They were often carpenters, painters and tailors, and some ran “mom and pop” grocery stores and butcher shops, according to “When life revolved around Walnut Street,” in the “150” magazine.  

Walnut Street Jewish community members would gather at Lapham Park. Children gathered to play and compete with their Italian or Irish neighbors in sports games.  

Several notable professionals emerged from Walnut Street, including Joseph A. Padway, who became counsel to the American Federation of Labor, and Golda Meir, the first woman Prime Minister of Israel. Meir lived on Walnut Street at the south end of the Brewers Hill neighborhood, according to Gurda 

6. Prime Minister Golda Meir is from Milwaukee 

Before she became Israel’s only woman Prime Minister, Golda Meir lived in Milwaukee. She was born in Russia and immigrated here with her family when she was eight years old. She lived in the city into adulthood. 

Goldie Mabowehz, as she was known in her youth, spent her first few days in Milwaukee entranced by department stores, traffic, and soda machines – luxuries foreign to her old shtetl in Russia,  

When she first arrived in Milwaukee she was greeted by her father, who had arrived two or three years earlier. He immediately marched her downtown to buy new clothes to appear less “Old World,” according to her autobiography. Though her family could only afford to live in a two-room apartment on Sixth and Walnut, “Goldie” saw her new home as a palace.  

She became valedictorian of her class at Fourth Street School, which was eventually named after Meir. While attending North Division High School, she participated in several Zionist organizations such as Poale Zion. She attended Milwaukee Normal School, now the University of WisconsinMilwaukee. 

Poale Zion – Chasidim Pageant, 5-18-1919, with Charlie Schneider, Golda Meir and Judith Korngold. Meir holds the menorah.

Meir immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine with her husband in the early 1920s, where she first lived on a kibbutz. She became the kibbutz representative to the Histadrut, the General Federation of Labor, and served on its executive committee until World War II. 

During the war, she was a spokeswoman for the Zionist cause, lobbying to British mandatory authorities. On May 14, 1948, Meir was one of two women who signed the Israeli declaration of independence, and the following year she joined the Israeli parliament. She became Israel’s first woman prime minister in 1969 and served in that role during the Yom Kippur War. 

7. Wisconsin’s Jews make it happen 

The Jewish community has never been a major segment of Wisconsin’s population, but the amazing people of this community have left a decidedly outsized mark. We could never tell that whole story in this space. Here’s the slightest sliver. 

The names of extraordinary leaders and philanthropists in the community adorn Wisconsin’s buildings and institutions. The generosity of local Jewish philanthropists is renowned. That generosity has built Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Services, several local day schools and many other gems of the local Jewish community.  

Generations of donors and activists have worked to build and protect a vibrant Jewish life, both around the world and here at home. One example: Milwaukee Grocer Philip Srulolwitz sent tons of food to settlers in Palestine, before there was a State of Israel. Srulolwitz and so many others showed that everyone can make a difference. 

Bud Selig statue at American Family Field, formerly Miller Park.

Jewish professionals are professors, directors and legal scholars. We are at local hospitals, schools, businesses and nonprofits, improving life in Wisconsin for all.  

We live in a state that had two Jewish U.S. Senators serving at the same time – Russ Feingold, who served 1993-2011, and Herb Kohl, who served 1989-2013. Shirley Abrahamson served as the first female justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, then led the court. Bud Selig, founding owner of the Brewers and former commissioner of baseball, brought major league baseball back to Milwaukee. These are just a few examples. 

We are small but mighty. 

8. Strictly observant, committed to Judaism 

The Twerski and Shmotkin families lead very different groups, but both represent a strict level of observance, and both are significant parts of Wisconsin Jewish history. 

The Shmotkin family first brought Lubavitch of Wisconsin to town about 50 years ago. Today, the organization, which is also called Chabad of Wisconsin or Chabad- Lubavitch of Wisconsin, is the local arm of the worldwide Chabad movement.  

Lubavitch of Wisconsin is a Torah-observant organization that seeks to serve Jews of all varieties. Fifty years ago, it was just the Shmotkin family. In 1970, Lubavitch of Wisconsin was operating out of fewer than a half-dozen outposts, including Chabad of the East Side and Madison Chabad House, as reported in prior Chronicle coverage. Now, more than two dozen Chabad emissary families are operating synagogues, outposts and programs, including efforts in Waukesha and Green Bay.  

Congregation Beth Jehudah of the West Side is a beacon of Orthodox Judaism. The shul is an anchor for an Orthodox Jewish community living in the area, walking to services.  The synagogue was founded in 1939 by Rabbi Jacob Twerski, of blessed memory. Today, the community boasts three generations of Twerski rabbis. The shul and its community offer a vibrant place of learning and charitable work. 

9. The Shoah and the State of Israel 

During World War II, the pages of the Chronicle reveal a lack of full comprehension of what was taking place in Europe.  

The first reference we can find to the word Holocaust in the Chronicle in 1939 is in September. In that article, we refer to the holocaust World War II soldiers had to suffer through, just 25 years after the first World War.  

The cables and radio have told the harrowing tale of carnage in the predominantly Jewish towns and villages,” the Chronicle wrote a month later, in October 1939, in an article that did not have our hindsight, and perhaps did not fully appreciate the targeted and organized genocidal effort for what it was. The article frets that Jews in Poland will suffer under the Nazis because they allied themselves with the Poles.  

The article did add: Eyewitnesses have described the mass murder from the air of thousands of Jewish women, children and aged folk fleeing before the Nazi horde.” 

With time, things became clearer. The Chronicle in December 1946 reported a record-breaking $102 million raised nationwide for United Jewish Appeal.  

Locally, fundraising for Jews in need and the State of Israel broke records, too. Wisconsin was very much a part of that story.  

10. The rise of the West Side and the North Shore 

It’s a quirk of Milwaukee that the West Side of Milwaukee is not actually on the west side of Milwaukee.  

There’s a lot of Milwaukee west of 76th Street. But in local nomenclature, the West Side is an area around Sherman Park, which is at 41st and Locust streets. Surely, at some point in the past, it must have seemed like that neighborhood was to the west.  

In the 1940s, old Jewish neighborhoods around Walnut Street began an exodus to the West Side, according to a Congregation Beth Jehudah account. By the 1950s, the exodus was nearly complete 

In the 1950s, there were seven synagogues in the Sherman Park area, with several schools and community institutions, too, according to Gurda.  

Today much of non-Orthodox Judaism has moved out of the West Side, to the North Shore of Milwaukee, Mequon, or elsewhere, according to Milwaukee Jewish Federation surveys. Several of Wisconsin’s synagogues, including Congregation Shalom, the largest in Wisconsin, are today on the North Shore of the Milwaukee area.