The population of Racine, WI grew from 90,217 to 94,047 people from 1930 to 1940, and to 109,585 people in 1950. This significant rise, by 15,538 people, was contributed to in part by the influx of immigrants looking for work during this time period. Many Russian, Italian, Polish, and German immigrants came to Racine, WI, throughout the 20th century, where they worked as industrial laborers. After Germans, Poles are currently the largest ethnic group in Wisconsin. They began immigrating in large numbers in the 20th century, pushed by political oppression and poverty at home. A large number of Holocaust survivors arrived in the 1940s, seeking political asylum.
Tom F. Brodek, author of We Remember… is a local Racinian, and his book gives us a little insight into what it was like living in Racine during the 1930s and 40s. In an interview he did with The Journal Times, he claimed that in Racine, “Neighbors would discuss current events and the goings-on of their families at local watering holes and cozy porches…We used to stop and talk to people sitting on the porch. It was so special. It was another way to get your news.” He went on to say that Racine was “a great place to grow up, and they were trying times.” During the war, many men left, and some never returned. But in Racine, Brodek explained, people not only spent time talking with their neighbors, but looking out for each other. He stated that Racine was diverse, with each ethnic group maintaining its own churches and eateries. Each neighborhood flowed into the next, although they often were marked by different languages, religions, and customs. There were Italian, Slovakian, and German blocks, and then they intermixed. The strength of the city came from the intermingling of all the different ethnic groups – they each brought the customs and traditions of their home countries and Brodek noted that the sheer diversity among the ethnic groups worked in the city’s favor.
But what was life like specifically for Jewish immigrants during this time period? Georg (George) and Marele (Mary) Stern moved from Leipzig, Germany, to New York, USA, in the late 1930s. They weren’t able to find work, so they moved to Racine, WI, in June of 1939. They had 2 children, Michael (1943) and Sandy (1949). From Sandy Stern’s Family History, we know that her brother went to Horlick High School. He did well there and was very involved. We know that Sandy went to Wadewitz Elementary School, and then Washington Junior High. The Stern family was very involved in the Racine community. From their obituaries, we know that Mary Stern served as a board member and membership chairperson at the Beth Israel Singai Congregation, which was started in 1925. George was also a member of the Congregation. Mary was a member of Hadassah – the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. She was also a board member of the Racine Jewish Welfare Board. George and Mary owned and operated Stern Wastepaper and Iron Company for 40 years, with George as president and Mary serving as vice president. George Stern passed away on March 19, 2001, at the age of 87. Mary Stern passed away on August 15, 2008 at 89. Both George and Mary are buried at Racine Jewish Memorial Cemetery.
According to their website, the Beth Israel Sinai Congregation came about in 1925 from a merger of the Sinai Congregation (created in 1915) and Beth Israel Congregation (created in 1921). It was organized as a Conservative congregation: mixed seating of men and women, services in Hebrew, no choir or instrumental music, and men would wear the traditional tallitot and yarmulkes. Rabbi Aaron Cohen became the Congregation’s first rabbi, and the first rabbi in Racine. With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, 143 members of the Jewish community in Racine joined the Armed Forces. Of those, four men died during the war. In 1953, Beth Israel Sinai built a new synagogue. From an interview done by the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, we get insight into how important the Congregation is to them. “Beth Israel…truly holds a special place from generation to generation in all our hearts and lives,” says Audrey Bernstein, the current president of the organization. A long-time member goes on to say that, “It has been a place where people come and learn. We have fostered programs to teach people about Judaism… Our rabbis have always been a part of the council of churches and we have always been taken seriously by the non-Jewish community.” Current Rabbi Martyn Adelberg claims, “Our commitment to maintaining a strong Jewish presence in southeast Wisconsin has been unsurpassed.”
In 1945, the Racine Jewish Welfare Board was founded to assist individuals and institutions in need. From the American Jewish Year Book, a directory compiled annually by the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds, the Board has responsibility for: the raising of funds for local, national, and overseas services; allocation and distribution of funds for these purposes; coordination and central planning of child care, health care, recreation, Jewish education, care for the aged, and community relations within the Jewish community; and sometimes, direct administration of local social services. It receives a substantial part of its support from a governmental unit or the general public. The Board is affiliated with the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds as their national association for sharing of common services, interchange of experience, and joint consultation and action.
The Beth Israel Sinai Congregation and Racine Jewish Welfare Board were just two aspects of Jewish life in Racine during this time period. There were obviously many other ways for them to get involved outside of the Jewish community. They came to Racine for work, and that is exactly what most of them did. The city was a large agricultural and manufacturing area and attracted immigrants from all over. When Jewish immigrants arrived in Racine, they were able to find ways to connect and stay close to the Jewish community, but many of them left their home countries to escape segregation and political oppression. They of course wanted to preserve their traditions and worked hard to do so, but they also just wanted to live normal lives, working and taking care of their families. Racine was a sufficient place to do just that.
Family Story by Sandy