You might say Senator Herb Kohl’s breathtaking record of service to Jewish Wisconsin, and beyond, started when he was a boy.
In 1948, the Chronicle reported, in the tiniest of tiny articles, that a teenaged Herb Kohl “turned over the money he recently received as Bar Mitzvah gifts … to the campaign for the Milwaukee Jewish Welfare Fund.” He gave $230, all his bar mitzvah money.
In the decades to come, his love of Judaism and philanthropy would lead him to historic support for the Milwaukee Jewish community. His path, lauded by so many, would bring his tzedakah and clear commitment to tikkun olam to the whole state and the world.
Senator Herb Kohl, 88, died Dec. 27, 2023, after a short illness.
Kohl came from a steadfast Jewish family, embraced his Judaism in his youth, and later served as an irreplaceable builder of Jewish Milwaukee, a rock for the Jewish people of his hometown. He cared deeply about where Jewish Milwaukee was headed.
“Whenever I would meet with Senator Kohl, he would always ask me about the future. He would always want to know about young adults,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, president and CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “He was really invested in understanding and ensuring that the legacy of Jewish Milwaukee lives on.”
With humility, a giant for Jewish Milwaukee
Herb Kohl and his family have been one of the giants for the Milwaukee Jewish community, said Richard (“Rick”) H. Meyer, who worked for years with Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s major donors. Meyer, a former executive vice president and campaign director for the Federation, said he knew Kohl since 1984.
“As long as I can remember and before, his family was one of … the pillar families, one of the anchors of the community. It helped set the direction because you always knew that when you started any kind of fundraising to build community, that the Kohl family would be there.”
There was no pretense, no ego getting in the way, Meyer said. “He just knew that he had the ability to make an impact. And he was happy to do it,” Meyer said.
Robert (“Bob”) Habush, of the renowned Wisconsin-based law firm, Habush Habush & Rottier, has served as a Milwaukee Jewish Federation campaign chair and volunteer. He remembers how he’d sit down with Herb Kohl for a chat in the coffee shop of The Pfister Hotel, in downtown Milwaukee.
“For many years, he made the largest gift to the Milwaukee Jewish Federation,” recalled Habush, adding that “he was he was a hero, especially to the Milwaukee Jewish Community …. He was just a wonderful representative of the community, and particularly of the Jewish religion, and everyone was very proud of him because of that.”
Herb Kohl’s nephew, Dan Kohl, described the senator as humble and down-to-earth when he delivered a eulogy at the Milwaukee Bucks arena, the Fiserv Forum, on Jan. 12. Others interviewed by the Chronicle also noted Kohls’ humility, marveling at it.
The senator was offered, but declined, a statue of himself at the Bucks stadium, the stadium that would not have been there with him. It was to mark his devotion to keeping the team in Milwaukee. Instead, a lane there was named the “Herb Kohl Way,” to mark the humility that was his way.
“He wasn’t known for what things he acquired,” Rosenzweig said. “He was known for what he did for others, whether through public service or philanthropy.”
Early years, Jewish life
His bar mitzvah was at Congregation Anshai Lebowitz.
“I gave my speech in Hebrew,” Kohl once told the Chronicle, as an adult remembering his bar mitzvah. “It was about honoring my parents and the importance of being an observant Jew.”
“I was brought up in a traditionally Jewish home. My brothers and sister and I were into Jewish learning and Jewish culture and Hebrew, for years and years prior to the bar mitzvah.”
He was the child of Jewish immigrants, Mary and Max, from Russia and Poland respectively. Herb Kohl’s father, Max, arrived in Milwaukee in the mid-1920s, worked at a Schlitz bottle-cap factory, and saved enough to open a small grocery, according to the Jewish Community Archives at Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
“Herb often listened to tales of pogroms, antisemitism and poverty at the dinner table as well as his parents’ gratitude and appreciation for the freedoms and opportunities in America,” recalled Dolores Kohl, the senator’s sister, communicating last month with the Chronicle. “It was those values which always propelled Herb toward public service in practicing tikkun olam throughout his life ….”
His father, at various times, served on the boards of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, the Milwaukee Jewish Home, and Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue.
Max opened his first grocery store in 1929, on the south side, and opened the first Kohl’s Department Store in 1962. The family went on to develop Northridge and Southridge malls, among other properties.
At 31, Herb Kohl was appointed vice president and general manager of food retailing for Kohl Food Stores. At 32, he was named 1968 annual campaign chairman of the Milwaukee Jewish Welfare Fund, the predecessor to Milwaukee Jewish Federation. He told the Milwaukee Journal at the time: “The Jewish Welfare Fund is committed to see to it that those who leave lands in which they cannot live, and who emigrated to Israel … can begin life anew with a sense of freedom and hope.”
He was one of the youngest annual champaign chairs in the nation and the youngest in Milwaukee’s history at that time.
Devotion to Wisconsin, children
Kohl was deeply devoted to Wisconsin. He purchased the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985 for $18 million, a passion project to keep the team in the city he loved. When he sold the team in 2014, he promised to provide $100 million for the new Bucks arena. And he sent checks to his employees at the prior stadium, for $500 each, with a personal letter.
It was about pride in Milwaukee, if not for him, then at least for others who could take pride in Wisconsin’s great benefactor. Former employees talk of how well the senator treated them.
He was of the people of the Book, the Jewish people, who love education, and it showed. In 2015, he funded every Wisconsin teacher’s request – surprising hundreds of them – on a crowdfunding site. Funding continued in subsequent years.
Frank Gimbel, after a lifetime of friendship, describes Kohl as a man of the people, who would walk into a restaurant without security and be friendly with everyone. “I always felt a super sense of pride that Herb Kohl was a friend of mine, because of his great public service and what a good human being he was,” Gimbel said.
“In just over a year, our community has lost William Appel, Mark Brickman, and now Senator Herb Kohl,” Rosenzweig said. “Everything we’ve been able to do since Oct. 7 has been built on the giants who came before us. A clear reminder it is up to us to ensure that future generations are prepared as well.”
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