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


MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin's largest city, located on the southeast tip of the shores of Lake Michigan. A few Jews are known to have lived in the area in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Ezekial Solomon, perceived to be Jewish, was one of 14 fur traders permitted by the British to come to the area in 1770. An 1820 newspaper account refers to a "Jew peddler who was a victim of murder by three Indians who committed the deed to obtain the goods he carried on his back, going on foot from place to place" – an incident in Kaukauna. Gabriel Shoyer arrived in 1836, followed shortly by his brothers, Charles, Gabriel, Emanuel, Meyer, Samuel, and William. Several of the brothers opened a clothing store, Emanuel Shoyer a tailor shop, and in 1851 Charles began to practice medicine.

Early settlers, in 1842, were the families of Solomon Adler, Isaac Neustadt, and Moses Weil. Other immigrants arrived shortly afterwards from Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Austria. From 70 families in 1850, the population grew to 200 in 1856 and to an estimated 2,074 in 1875. Intensive czarist persecutions in 1882 generated a flow of immigrants from Russia. By 1895, Russian Jews represented 39 percent of the Jewish population, then 7,000 people. The population grew to an estimated 22,000 by 1925. Several thousand Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and World War II came from 1938 on. The Jewish population was estimated at 23,900 in 1968 and 21,000 in 2001.

The earliest settlers from Western Europe settled on the near east side. Those settlers were soon vastly outnumbered by immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled on the near north side. There were two centers of Jewish population by the mid-1940s, the largest on the northwest side; the older east side settlers increased in number and moved northward into suburbs along Lake Michigan. By 1990, the majority of northwest side Jews had also moved to those suburbs; now a diminished northwest side community consists essentially of families desiring proximity to an Orthodox synagogue because of connections to its ḥasidic rabbi Michel Twerski.

The earliest Jewish settlers from Western Europe were involved in clothing manufacturing, grain, meatpacking, and had a substantial presence in the Great Lakes transportation business. Those who followed from Eastern Europe had less financial resources, working for their livelihoods as country peddlers, grocers, and clothiers. From 1895 into the 1920s Jews owned many clothing factories and retail shops. Wholesale dry goods, knitting goods, and yarn mills were developed with Jewish initiative. Jews had a substantial presence in flour milling, soap, and tobacco manufacturing and department store enterprises. Immigrants from Eastern Europe advanced from their roles as small tradesmen into larger retail and wholesale fields. In the 1920s, Jews became clerical workers and began to enter the arts and professions. By the early 1960s, the number of small storekeepers had substantially diminished; the peddler and small junk dealer virtually vanished; many of their sons were prominent in professions and in the business world.

A number of manufacturing, industrial, and commercial companies of national note were created and operated by Milwaukee Jews. The Master Lock Company, the world's largest padlock manufacturer, was founded by Harry E. Soref, an inventor, Samuel Stahl, and P.E. Yolles in 1921. The most extensive food store chain in Wisconsin was begun by Max Kohl in 1927. Kohl and his sons also founded the Kohl's Department Store chain, which by 2000 had grown to be one of the largest chains in the United States. Elmer L. Winter and Aaron Scheinfeld established Manpower in 1948; the company became the largest of its kind in the world with branches on all continents. In 1956, Max H. Karl founded the world's largest private mortgage insurer, Mortgage Guarantee Insurance Company. Clothing manufacturers of national note included Jack Winter & Company, Junior House, founded by William Feldstein and Sol Rosenberg, later becoming J.H. Collectibles.

Responding to the social, financial, welfare, and health needs of Jewish people, a number of communal agencies were created, the first of which was the Hebrew Relief Society (1867), now the Jewish Family Service. The Settlement, predecessor of the Abraham Lincoln House, now the Jewish Community Center, was begun in 1900. A Jewish-sponsored hospital, Mount Sinai, was organized in 1902. By the 1990s, it had become a non-sectarian institution in sponsorship as well as in service – the Aurora-Sinai Medical Center. The Jewish Vocational Service (1938) was created to help Jews find employment during the Great Depression, a time when substantial numbers fleeing from Nazism were coming as refugees. The Jewish Vocational Service became the largest organization of its kind in the United States outside of New York, financing coming from the state and federal governments and a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish sources with primary support from the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. In the early 1990s, it became non-sectarian in sponsorship as well as in service.

The Milwaukee Jewish Council, organized initially to combat antisemitism, and then xenophobia in all forms, was created in 1938. A Bureau of Jewish Education was organized by the Jewish Federation in 1944 to develop, strengthen, and coordinate Jewish education activity. The Milwaukee Jewish Home for Jewish elderly (1904) and the Jewish Convalescent Hospital (1950) merged in the late 1990s into one entity, which provides a variety of forms of assisted living, including intensive nursing home care.

All communal agencies came together in 1902 to create the Federated Jewish Charities in order to unify fundraising efforts and to help strengthen the work of all communal agencies. During the Depression, the organization foundered and discontinued operations. The pressing need to aid refugees in the 1930s resulted in the creation of a successor organization, the Milwaukee Jewish Welfare Fund, with a name change to Milwaukee Jewish Federation in 1972 to reflect its functions as a central communal organization for planning of services and centralized fundraising to meet needs deemed to be the responsibility of the total Jewish community. To coordinate work with refugees, the Federation created the Milwaukee Committee for Jewish Refugees in 1938 and in 1948 developed the Central Planning Committee for Jewish Services, its community-planning arm to avoid duplication and waste in efforts, etc. Orderliness in fundraising was served by the Committee on Unified and Coordinated Fund Raising beginning in 1957.

Major community buildings include the Max and Anita Karl Campus, which houses the Jewish Community Center, the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, the Coalition for Jewish Learning (previously the Board of Jewish Education), the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, the Hillel Academy, and the Children's Lubavitch Living and Learning Center. The Helfaer Community Services building houses the Federation, the Milwaukee Jewish Council, and the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. The Milwaukee Jewish Home, which is adjacent to the Helfaer Building, and a new additional campus of the Jewish Home created in the suburb of Mequon in 2004 serve the elderly. The Jewish Community Center runs a summer overnight camp situated in Eagle River, 300 miles north of Milwaukee, and a summer day camp.

The first Jew elected to the state legislature was Bernard Schlesinger Weil in 1851. Henry M. Benjamin, one of eight Jewish aldermen before 1900, also was acting mayor of Milwaukee in 1875. Three Jews sat on the Common Council after 1920: Arthur Shutkin until 1928, Samuel Soref until 1940, and Fred P. Meyers after that. Charles L. Aarons served as a county judge from 1926 to 1950; Max Raskin, a city attorney from 1932 to 1936, later was a circuit court judge. Maurice M. Spracker served in a similar capacity for many years, beginning in 1968. Charles Schudson served as a circuit court judge until 2004. Myron L. Gordon, who had served as a justice on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, became a federal judge for the Wisconsin Eastern District beginning in 1967.

Milwaukee Jews were in positions of note nationally and internationally. Marcus *Otterbourg was U.S. minister to Mexico in 1857. Newton *Minow, who was born in Milwaukee, but later lived in Chicago, was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to be Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. His description of television programming as a "vast wasteland" resulted in legislation enabling oversight by the government of television and radio advertising.

Joseph A. *Padway, who served as a State senator and then as a civil court judge, became the first general counsel of the American Federation of Labor. In that capacity, he successfully defended the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act before the United States Supreme Court.

Among those who became prominent nationally was Wilbur J. *Cohen, who served as secretary of health, education, and welfare beginning in 1968. Earlier, he had helped write the Social Security Act in 1935. Victor L. *Berger, principle founder of the Social Democratic Party, was the first socialist elected to the House of Representatives of the United States (1911–13 and 1919–29). From 1992 onward both United States senators, democrats from Wisconsin, were Jewish: Herbert *Kohl, who served continuously from 1988 and Russ *Feingold of Madison, first elected in 1992.

William *Haber was advisor on Jewish affairs to General Lucius Clay, commander and chief of all Allied forces in Europe after World War II. Haber also served as an economic advisor for several U.S. presidents and as dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. Prominent in Jewish organizational life, he was chairman of several national and international Jewish organizations.

The best known of all Jewish Milwaukeeans was Golda *Meir (Myerson), who emigrated to Israel from Milwaukee and became Israel's prime minister in 1969, leading the country through the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which threatened the very existence of the state. Her life has been the subject of numerous books, biographies, and her own autobiography. Baseball fans may dispute Meir's primacy and think of Bud *Selig, the long-reigning first Jewish commissioner of baseball, who was also an owner of the Milwaukee Brewers team.

The community's oldest synagogue, Congregation Emanu-el B'ne Jeshurun, organized in 1856, grew out of a merger of Congregation Emanu-el (1850), Ahabath Emuno (1854), and Anshe Emeth (1855). Its membership was of German and West European extraction. Synagogues organized by immigrants of Eastern Europe followed, e.g., Beth Israel, initially Orthodox – now Conservative (1886); Anshe Sfard (1889); Agudas Achim (1904); Anshe Lubavitch (1906); and Beth Jehudah (1929). Additional reform congregations are Sholom (1951) and Sinai (1955). Conservative Temple Menorah was organized in 1957. Orthodox Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah was organized in 1988; Agudas Achim merged with North Shore Chabad in 1993; Lake Park Synagogue in 1983; a Reconstructionist Congregation Shir Hadash was begun in 1990.

The primary public media instrument in Milwaukee is the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, established in 1921 by Nathan J. Gould and Irving R. Rhodes. Rhodes published the paper as sole proprietor after Gould's death in 1941. There had been several predecessor Jewish newspapers; the first, The Zeitgeist, was published in German by a Milwaukee rabbi for a few years, beginning in 1880. In 1914, a Yiddish newspaper, The Wochenblat, was created, published until it folded in 1932. Another Yiddish language paper, The Yidishe Shtimme, lasted for just one year, beginning in September 1930. Rhodes saw the paper as an advocate for the concept of community and consensus building. He simultaneously served as a board member of a number of agencies and was the only Federation General Campaign Chair to serve for three successive years. When Rhodes found publication burdensome, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation purchased the Chronicle to assure continuity of the publication and the Federation continues to publish the newspaper.


L.J. Swichkow and L.P. Gartner, The History of the Jews of Milwaukee (1963); American Jewish Year Book (1900–1, 1928–29, 1939–39); Jewish Community Blue Book of Milwaukee and Wisconsin, compiled by the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (1924); L.J. Swichkow, "The Jewish Agricultural Colony of Arpin, Wisconsin," in: American Jewish Quarterly (1964).

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