By Rachel Pope
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Jewish people lived in the Wisconsin town of Sheboygan, located along Lake Michigan, 58 miles north of Milwaukee. The Sheboygan Jewish population reached its peak at around 150 to 175 families.[i] Most of them immigrated from the same area of Russia, and they often went into commercial and industrial businesses when they reached Wisconsin.[ii] Most lived in concentrated areas in the northern side of Sheboygan, a neighborhood some called Little Jerusalem. [iii]
The Jews living in Russia had a variety of reasons for moving to the states, and specifically Sheboygan. Like many other racial and ethnic groups in the years previous and following, Jews came to America for the opportunities it provided. Furthermore, direct accounts from grandchildren and children of first generation immigrants to Sheboygan, indicated that a few came to America to avoid being drafted into the Russian Army. [iv] Additionally, there are other stories of people that settled in Sheboygan after financial hardship in their home country.[v] Since most of the Jews who went to Sheboygan came from the “Pale of Settlement” [vi] in Russia — a small territory within Russia where Jews were legally allowed to live, — it is evident that many followed each other to the same area, most likely to avoid persecution from pogroms that were taking place throughout the course of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Jews who lived in this area of Russia faced local authorities who were unafraid to be brutal with them, limitations on where they could live, and restrictions on what jobs they could do.[vii]
Along with having different reasons to move to Sheboygan, they also had diverse jobs in town, although they all typically stayed within the commercial businesses. As the source from 1944 described, “They started as peddlers and gathered enough funds to become small business owners. They were small storekeepers, tailors, shoemakers, money lenders, and dealers in grain, cattle, furs and hides.”[viii]
A majority of the Jews in Sheboygan started out as peddlers, selling small items for meager profits. Once they were able to earn and save enough money, some opened up their own businesses or stores within their homes. One of the most common trades for Sheboygan Jews was in the grocery business. Joseph Bensman, a Jew who was born in Russia, moved to Sheboygan, and later died there, was part of the grocery store business in the town. As his grandchild later recalled and told, “[Joseph] built it up to around 9 small stores, in which he would put relatives or other Jews as managers. The Jews played an important role in the food business in Sheboygan due to my grandfather.”[ix] Jews were an important part of running and managing the grocery stores in Sheboygan.
After starting out peddling, others turned to the mercantile businesses, as tailors, shoemakers, and even owning their own shops. As one grandson recalled, his grandfather was the sole shoemaker and repairer in town.[x] There were others who owned their own clothing manufacturing factories and companies, and one who even invented industrial machinery. [xi] Others still found employment working and owning furniture factories. [xii]
One man was especially exemplary of the different jobs in various industries the early Jewish immigrants held. As Buchan wrote, “Herman J. Holman… [together] with his uncles worked as a tailor. He later opened his own tailoring, cleaning, and pressing shop. He then became a peddler and earned enough money to enter the dry goods business. His wife owned the dry goods business and he owned the junk business. He started multiple small tailoring factories, with some success.”[xiii] Herman held a job in just about every area he could, which shows the resourcefulness and ability Jews had to try new lines of employment, which was can be attributed to the fact that they were assimilated well into the Sheboygan community. Gustave William Buchen wrote the Historic Sheboygan County, which is a detailed account of Sheboygan county since its founding years and is one of the main source historians have on this time in Sheboygan history. However, it is important to take his writing with a grain of salt, since some of his account is false, most specifically the fact that he states Jews did not face anti-Semitic persecution in Russia, when there is clear evidence to state otherwise. Therefore, it is possible that this statement regarding Herman is altered in favor of the Jewish people and their assimilation into Sheboygan, or that he was downplaying their success in the same vein — to have the Jewish community been seen as more “white” like their Wisconsin neighbors. As there is little information about Buchan himself, it is difficult to determine where exactly his bias came into play.
Starting in the 1920s, and even later on in Sheboygan history, Jewish people started branching out even more in their career paths. As one obituary noted, “[Ethel Max Parker] joined the staff of The Capital Times in the 1920s as the newspaper’s first general assignment reporter.”[xiv] Some others became newspaper publishers, teachers, appliance and record store owners, and even started radio companies.[xv] After they had lived for several decades in Sheboygan, Jews were able to start taking positions in new and specialized industries, which shows they were able to integrate and assimilate into the community as time went on.
Orthodoxy within the Sheboygan Jewish Community
An aspect of their life that separated Sheboygan Jews from Jews in many other parts of America was their Orthodoxy. As Gustave William Buchen wrote that reform Judaism never really took off in Sheboygan, as the Orthodox community was deeply religious and stuck to their traditions.[xvi] However, in contrast to Buchan’s writings on the Jewish community in Sheboygan, the general trend of the Jews in the United States was to be lenient with some of the religious doctrines and rules. According to Raphael, “As while Orthodox synagogues maintained the traditional full liturgy… ritual requirements –with some notable exceptions—were lax during the immigrant era, as Orthodox worshipers could generally carry ritual objects to the synagogues, handle coins before and after worship, and head off to their shops to work after worship, all of which are prohibited according to Jewish law.” [xvii] The Jews practiced Orthodoxy, in that they were strict to liturgical rules, but were often more easy going on other laws, often due to their desire to assimilate into American culture. Additionally, the synagogues were so poor that they often lacked rabbis; therefore, laymen would lead Orthodox prayers. Therefore, it is possible that the Jews in Sheboygan were completely reliant on their Orthodoxy as they practiced back in Russia; however, they may also have become laxer in order to fit into their new community better and because they did not have a trained rabbi in Sheboygan to lead services.
Jews in Sheboygan Since Their Arrival
As many offspring of Jewish immigrants did after their parents’ arrival, the generations following moved towards reform and conservative synagogues. Today there is only one active Conservative synagogue in Sheboygan: Congregation Beth El, which children and grandchildren of the original Jewish immigrants established.
[i] Joel Alpert, “Sheboygan, Wisconsin,” kehilalinks.jewishgen.org, last modified September 18, 2016. https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Sheboygan/Sheboygan.html. This number varies depending on which source you look at. According to the Congregation Beth El website, which is the active synagogue in Sheboygan today, in the 1960s there were around 250 families who attended or were members of the synagogue. However, most of the sources tend to agree that there was a peak of 175 families, or around one thousand Jewish people living in Sheboygan. “About,” Congregation Beth El, accessed November 26, 2017. https://www.bethelsheboygan.com/new-page/.
[ii] Gustave William Buchen, Historic Sheboygan County (Sheboygan, Wisconsin: Publisher not identified, 1944) 307.
[iii] Jennifer L. Lehrke and Alissa Kuether, City of Sheboygan, Wisconsin: Architectural and Historical Intensive Survey Report (Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2002), 63.
[iv] Bensman Family,” kehilalinks.jewishgen.org, last modified February 16, 2004. https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Sheboygan/bensman.html.
[vi] DBD, “Window from “The White Shul”, a Sheboygan, Wisconsin synagogue, c. 1910,” Wisconsin Historical Society, last modified September 13, 2007. https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS2672.
[vii]“Modern Jewish History: The Pale of Settlement,” Jewish Virtual Library.org, Accessed April 23,2018, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-pale-of-settlement.
[viii] Buchen, Historical Sheboygan County, 307.
[ix] “Bensman Family.”
[x] Joseph Bensman, “The Sociologist on the Cutting Edge,” kehilalinks.jewishgen.org, accessed November 26, 2017. https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Sheboygan/cutting.html.
[xi] “Recollections of Mrs. Jennie Zion Max as Told to her Daughter, Ethel Max Parker, circa 1964, Before Mrs. Jennie Zion Max’s Death in 1964,” kehilalinks.jewishgen.org, last modified October 28, 1999. https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Sheboygan/max.html.
[xiii] Buchen, Historical Sheboygan County, 307.
[xiv] Recollections of Mrs. Jennie Zion Max as Told to her Daughter.”
[xv] “Bensman Family.”
[xvi] Buchen, Historical Sheboygan County, 308.
[xvii] Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 58.