This is an umbrella project for all projects related to Jews from Wisconsin.
Jewish immigration to Wisconsin occured in three basic segments. The first few Jews to settle in Wisconsin were of English or Canadian background and came in the mid- to late 18th century. The second group came from Central Europe, primarily Germany, between the 1830s through 1880. The third and largest group came from Eastern Europe, beginning in the late 1880s and continuing through the early 20th century.
The history of Jews in Wisconsin began after France surrendered the Northwest Territory to the British in 1759. Prior to this time, any professing Jew was subject to France's Black Code of 1724 which outlawed Jews from the French colonies. The first known Jew to come to Wisconsin was fur trader Jacob Franks, who came to Green Bay around 1794 and became one of the area's most influential white settlers of his time here. Until the 1830s, few Jews lived in Wisconsin but their numbers increased substantially with the influx of approximately five million German-speaking immigrants between 1840 and 1880. Many who eventually came to Wisconsin first arrived in New York City and remained there until they accumulated enough money to move west. Generally, this group of Jewish immigrants were successful in assimilating in the relatively open and expanding social and economic structure of the period, often working in retail and wholesale trades. Included among this group were a minority of Jewish intellectuals and professionals who became influential in Wisconsin and beyond.
The first organized Jewish community emerged in Milwaukee, where the anti-Semitic tendencies of Imperial Germany did not seem to take root. Jews dominated in the manufacture of clothing and footwear and by 1895 nearly all of Milwaukee's clothing factories were Jewish-owned. Others Jewish immigrants speculated and invested in real estate, founded factories, and provided public utilities for the growing city. The Emanu-El Cemetary Association, formed in 1848, was the foundation for the state's first Jewish congregation. Wisconsin's first synagogue building was built in 1856 in Milwaukee. Milwaukee synagogues promoted Jewish integration into American life by holding regular Thanksgiving Day services and by celebrating Washington's birthday. After synagogues were organized, further communal activities, particularly charitable, emerged among Milwaukee's Jews. In the mid-1850s, women's groups, such as the Benevolent Society of the True Sisters, began to organize. Jews also created a network of specifically Jewish fraternal societies that served as integrating forces in the community. Wisconsin's second Jewish community emerged in Madison in the 1850s, followed by La Crosse in the latter decades of the 19th century.
Between 1880 and 1920, millions of eastern European and Russian Jews came to the United States. This group differed in many ways from the German Jews who had tended to come from an urban, secular environment: the Russian Jews were more traditional and rustic. Russian Jewish communities began to emerge in smaller Wisconsin towns in the 1880s though the majority remained in Milwaukee. In 1880, 2,559 Jews lived in Wisconsin; by 1889, 10,000. These Russian and Polish Jews tended to live separately from Russian and Polish Christians, unlike German Jews who had settled among other Germans. Early 20th century immigrant Jews earned their living in a variety of ways, usually retail-related or industrial work. Russian Jews also revitalized Jewish orthodoxy which had almost disappeared in Milwaukee by the 1880s. To deal with the tremendous numbers of Eastern European Jews entering the U.S. in the early 20th century, the Industrial Removal Office was created in 1900 to disperse Jews from their immigrant quarters in cities to the countryside. In 1904, the Industrial Removal Office helped move 18 Russian and Romanian families from Milwaukee to Arpin in Wood County to establish a farming community. Arpin's settlers did not adapt to the farming lifestyle and many moved back to Milwaukee. After several failed attempts to establish Jewish farm colonies, the Industrial Removal Office redirected its efforts to move Jews from large cities like New York to smaller urban areas. Approximately 3,700 Jews were placed in 74 Wisconsin towns and cities: most settled in Milwaukee. Most congregations in Milwaukee coincided with immigrants' countries and regions of origins but these regional concentrations diluted as the 20th century progressed. The needs of immigrants in the early 20th century reinvigorated Jewish charity groups such as the various relief societies that distributed aid and taught classes to new immigrants.
After World War II, about 1,000 Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust settled in Wisconsin. Between 1974 and 1981, archivists interviewed 22 of these survivors about their lives and experiences, including pre-war childhoods in Europe and post-war immigration to Wisconsin. The interviews contain a wealth of detail on Wisconsin Jewish communities during the second half of the 20th century. The complete audio recordings and typed transcripts are available at the Wisconsin Survivors of the Holocaust online collection.