Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


MADISON, capital of Wisconsin since 1837. Madison's Jewish presence dates back to roughly 1850, when a merchant named Aaron Boskowitz clerked in a store. By 1863, about 40 Jewish households, mostly storekeepers from Bohemia and West Prussia, had established a synagogue, a burial society, and a women's auxiliary. Through the 1870s, most of the original members died, stopped practicing Judaism, or moved away. The synagogue dissolved altogether in 1922. From 1880 to 1910, a small Jewish community existed in the nearby city of Monroe, Wisconsin. Its members were merchants from Poland and Austria who had ties to wholesale houses in Chicago. Several of Monroe's Jews came to Madison, notably Solomon Levitan, who had run a store in nearby New Glarus. A Progressive, Levitan served seven terms as Wisconsin state treasurer during the 1920s and 1930s.

Madison's present Jewish institutions trace their roots to Jews who arrived in the Madison area in the 1890s from Minsk, via Milwaukee. Like Jewish immigrants elsewhere, they tended to work in the junk and grocery businesses. In 1904, they built an Orthodox synagogue whose members went on to found Madison's present-day Conservative and Reform congregations. Elias Tobenkin, who came from the shtetl of Kapule, Minsk, in 1899, wrote about Madison in his novels Witte Arrives (1914) and God of Might (1925).

Rachel Szold Jastrow, sister of Henrietta *Szold, founded Madison's chapter of Hadassah. Jewish men in Madison tended to affiliate with cliquish lodges, but Hadassah brought together women from all strata of Madison's Jewish community.

What distinguished Madison from other small Jewish communities was the presence of the University of Wisconsin. Jews had been students there since the early 1860s, and Joseph Jastrow, a psychologist and the first Jewish faculty member, was hired in 1888. In 1911, philosopher Horace Kallen began a chapter of the Menorah Society, an early Jewish student organization. Antisemitism in many university departments prevented many Jews, such as Ludwig *Lewisohn, Lionel *Trilling, and Milton *Friedman, from obtaining tenure-track professorships. However, economist Selig *Perlman, kinesthesiologist Blanche Trilling, pharmacologist Arthur Solomon Loevenhart, among others, held tenured positions at Wisconsin before World War II. In addition to the Menorah Society, some Jewish students at Wisconsin joined Avukah, a student Zionist society, a Reform student congregation, and Jewish fraternities and sororities. The Hillel Foundation, established in 1924, served as a clearinghouse for Jewish activities on campus. Scholars fleeing the Holocaust settled at Wisconsin. Some, like pharmacist George Urdang, escaped before the war; others, like historian George Mosse and poet Felix Pollak, came to Wisconsin afterwards. During the late 1940s and 1950s, departments across the university ended their prejudice against hiring Jewish faculty.

During World War II, the Madison Jewish Welfare Fund organized USO events at Truax Air Force Base, and many Jews who served there returned to Madison after the war. As antisemitism faded, Jewish families began to move to new subdivisions across the city. Increased access to graduate and professional schools, combined with the consolidation of traditional Jewish businesses, prompted more Jews to seek work in education, government, and the professions.

Although members of the state legislature hinted that "out-of-state radicals" were responsible for campus protests, vaguely antisemitic statements like these made little difference to most Madison Jews. Some student-movement leaders, such as future Madison mayor Paul Soglin, had Jewish roots, but many were gentile Wisconsinites.

Totaling roughly 6,000 people in the early 2000s, Madison's Jewish community has continued to thrive since the 1970s. Observant Jews attend local Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Lubavitch congregations, plus the Hillel synagogue on campus. The Madison Jewish Community Council and Jewish Social Services support local and international Jewish initiatives. Immigrants from Canada, South Africa, Israel, and the former Soviet Union continue to settle in Madison, often as professors, doctors, and other professionals.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.