Milwaukee's Jewish Community
My inspiration for writing about the Jewish communities in Milwaukee, and more specifically, in Sherman Park, came from my interview with Abie Eisenbach. During this interview, I got an opportunity to observe the cultural landscape of the Orthodox Jewish community in Sherman Park. This experience led me to further explore the history of this concentrated cultural space.
German and Bohemian Jews were among the first people to settle in Milwaukee. Even before the first synagogue, Emanu-El with Solomon Adler, was founded, there was a small Jewish community settling in what is currently known as the Historic Third Ward. By 1850, there were at least seventy Jewish families in Milwaukee. By 1852, there were one hundred families, and by 1856, the numbers had risen to two hundred. Among these families were the prominent Shoyers, Adlers and Weils. These immigrants were primarily grain dealers, Great Lakes shippers, peddlers, merchants, manufacturers, tradesman, craftsmen and professionals.
By the early twentieth century, most Milwaukee Jews lived in predominantly German communities and spoke both German and English in their homes. In 1905, the Jewish district lay between 3rd Street to 13th Street and from Vliet Street to North Avenue. The district spread westwards and northwards over time. The area experienced severe overcrowding. As a result, they neighborhoods were considered to be one of the "problem areas" of the city. By the 1920s, there was a large migration from the Jewish district further northward above Galena Street.
Today, there are upwards of thirty thousand Jews in Milwaukee, approximately two percent of the city’s population. There are nine synagogues in the city, two of which are in Sherman Park. There are also seven Jewish schools, five adult education centers, and multiple other Jewish-owned organizations and businesses including social services, kosher shopping and dining, and senior living facilities. Large organizations such as the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) offer multiple services and support for Jewish residents of Milwaukee.
In the late 1960s, Rabbi Michel Twerski of Congregation Beth Jehudah in Sherman Park challenged reformed Jewish life. This led to the settlement of a new Orthodox Jewish community north of Burleigh Street between N. 48th and N. 56th Streets. The community consisted of a few dozen families. The area was attractive not only because of Beth Jehudah, but because the area had many fine brick and stone homes from the 1920s and 30s. This neighborhood is now home to Abie Eisenbach.
This neighborhood was racially and economically diverse. John Gurda describes that "[b]earded men wearing yarmulkes shared the sidewalk with young African-Americans listening to rap music and the Kosher Meat Club occupied a storefront next to Safee’s African Hair Braiding."
In 1989, the Twerskis established the Yeshiva Elementary School on a lot on N. 51st Street and Keefe Avenue. Mr. Eisenbach attended this school for a while. By 1998, Beth Jehudah’s congregation had grown to over one hundred families. The congregation required a new home and decided to move to a new site on N. 52nd Street and Burleigh Street. This location was closer to the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community.
In the 1970s, Abie Eisenbach’s parents moved to Sherman Park and opened their grocery store called Kosher Meat Klub. The business was located on N. 48th and Burleigh Street. By the late 1990s, Mr. Eisenbach’s father, Rabbi Dovid Eisenbach, started his own congregation, Bais Dovid on N. 54th Street. Abie Eisenbach is the executive director of that institution.
In Mr. Eisenbach’s living room, there are framed photos of many holy rabbis. During the house tour and interview, he pointed out one to me. This photograph showed Rabbi Twerski holding his oldest son. At the time, I did not know the significance of this image, but I now know the historical importance of the photo.
Swichkow, Louis J., and Gartner, Lloyd P. The History of the Jews of Milwaukee. Regional History Series of The American Jewish History Center of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1963.
 John Gurda, One People, Many Paths: A History of Jewish Milwaukee. (Milwaukee, WI: Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 2009).
John Gurda, Map of Jewish Milwaukee circa 2009
Golda Meir, originally Mabovitz, grew up in the Jewish immigrant ghetto of Milwaukee’s north side. In 1969, she was elected the fourth prime minister of Israel, and is still the only woman to ever hold the position. She has been memorialized in Milwaukee by the Golda Meir School (formally Fourth Street School) on N Doctor M.L.K. Dr., UW-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir Library, and the Golda Meir House for the low-income elderly.