Orthodox Jewish community, area grow stronger together
By ALAN BORSUK
Posted: Sept. 8, 2007
I live in a village. My children and grandchildren live in this village. I’m deeply immersed in the life of this village. I know the daily habits, the joys and sorrows, of dozens and dozens of people in the village: Our lives are intertwined.
I go into the coffee shop in the village and Dave reaches for my standard order before I say anything – except he pauses, because he knows that occasionally I surprise him and ask for something different.
I go in the drug store and the pharmacists ask me, by first name, how I’m doing.
I go to the grocery store and I usually know everyone in the place. The woman running the cash register makes sure I’m up on the news of the village.
I am not reluctant to speak to my friends’ children when they’re acting out of line or unsafely. They’re my children, too.
If there’s a celebration or a tragedy among the villagers, you can count on people to pitch in and help with
whatever is needed, whether it’s baking, decorating a social hall, housing dozens of visitors, you name it. We’re all in these things together.
I like all of this. To say my village means a lot to me is an understatement.
I’ve spent huge wads of time trying to build up the life of the village. So have most of my friends. It takes a village to raise a village, or something like that.
But when I tell you where the village is, there is a strong chance you will wonder about me, at least privately.
That’s OK. I’m used to it.
“How are things going in your neighborhood? Is it safe?” I get asked this often, and the
real question people mean is, “Why haven’t you moved out, like so many other white people? How long are you
going to stay?”
I live in Sherman Park.
To be more specific, my wife, Robi, and I live in a small area generally north and northwest of what we in the neighborhood still call St. Joe’s hospital (officially, now Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare-St. Joseph) at N. 51st and W. Burleigh St.
My wife and I moved from Whitefish Bay to Sherman Park in 1983. Why? Religion was the No. 1 reason – we had become involved in the Orthodox Jewish community focused in the neighborhood, and the way to enrich what we were doing was to live there.
But we also liked the neighborhood itself – good houses, involved neighbors, a good location for commuting and other routines. We could get far more house for our money
in Sherman Park than in Whitefish Bay. (Thanks to the lower values on comparable property, we decreased our property tax bills while increasing our home size.)
The immediate neighborhood was just about all-white at that time, but changing.
Today, it is predominantly African-American, and that’s not changing.
At a crossroads in ’80s
A large number of white people left – schools, concerns about safety, the attractions of suburban communities and, let’s be honest, racism were all reasons.
The people in our synagogue stayed. We were a small group, so I suppose we could have left. But there were quite a few elderly people in our congregation then and moving wasn’t going to be easy for them. And a lot of us, elderly and not, didn’t have enough money to buy in Mequon or the North Shore or wherever.
By the late 1980s, the Jewish community in our neighborhood was at a crossroads.
We had grown a bit, but so had our expectations, especially in terms of the educational environment we wanted for our children and ourselves.
We needed either to create institutions to meet those needs (and we were a group with no rich members) or we needed to move on to cities where there were such institutions.
Thus was born Yeshiva Elementary School, a kindergarten to eighth-grade school with a strong Orthodox Jewish orientation, and the Milwaukee Kollel, a center with a half-dozen or so rabbinic scholars-in-residence who generally pursue their own advanced Talmudic studies during the day and work in the evenings one-on-one and in small groups with adults who are less expert but who want to learn more. Both opened in the fall of 1989.
Skip ahead 18 years. The school at 5115 W. Keefe Ave. has grown from 64 kids and 26 families to 207 kids and 75 families. We’ve invested several million dollars in improving and expanding the building we bought in 1989. The kollel has become an important catalyst for adult learning, and its small building at 5007 W. Keefe Ave. is packed nightly.
Our two daughters and their husbands now own homes within three blocks of ours. Our grandchildren must really think they are in a village: Their friends, their school, many of their relatives, almost everything they do in their lives – all are within walking distance.
We live close together because, in accordance with religious law, we do not drive on the Jewish Sabbath – from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. That means we need to be within walking distance of our synagogue (for most of us, that’s Congregation Beth Jehudah, 3100 N. 52nd St.) and of one another. We also don’t do our jobs, answer phones and a bunch of other things on the Sabbath.
The Jewish community has been a stabilizing force in the neighborhood. Not only didn’t we leave, we grew. Milwaukee can only benefit from having stable, racially integrated areas. Our neighborhood is one of the few that can make claim to that, and we’re a reason why.
But we’re definitely not the only reason why. There are lots of other people in the neighborhood, good people, my neighbors. We generally get along reasonably well and we share a lot of common needs and hopes.
We all root for the stretch of Burleigh Ave. from Sherman Blvd. to N. 60th St. to get stronger as a business district, a major effort in our neighborhood.
Concerts on summer nights in a little park at N. 50th and Burleigh attract a diverse crowd, and St. Joe’s hospital, the sponsor, remains a major pillar of the community.
The coffee shop I mentioned, Sherman Perk, 4924 W. Roosevelt Drive, is owned by a very community-minded guy, Bob Olin, and offers one of the fairly rare settings for genuine diversity in Milwaukee – people of different races, ethnicity, economic status, age hanging out together.
In many ways, that’s true for the drugstore, Burleigh Serv-U, 5300 W. Burleigh St., where owner Dave Draeger has been committed to being a hold-out against a tide of big chain pharmacies (Now Closed).
Our area seems to be reasonably stable. Compared with 25 years ago, a far higher proportion of my neighbors are African-American or from other minority groups, but the middle class, day-in-and-day-out life of the area really hasn’t changed much.
A labor leader, a couple of high-ranking police officials, an appliance saleswoman, a firefighter, a paramedic, a cab driver, a bank executive, a Christian minister – these are my minority neighbors.
My concerns with all my neighbors are the same, regardless of race, religion and so on: Do they keep up their houses and yards? Yes, quite well. Do they handle their garbage disposal properly? Yes, but not 100%. Do they disrupt people with loud music and such? Rarely an issue, fortunately. Do they pay their share of the tab for snow plowing in our alley? Yes, most of them.
There are quite a few for-sale signs these days and property is moving slowly, but I don’t think that’s unique to Sherman Park.
Safety is OK. It’s an urban neighborhood, and things happen – bikes can disappear if you leave them outside, there have been car thefts and garage break-ins occasionally.
Several people close to me have been held up on the street, but those incidents are pretty rare. I have had to call the police for crime-related reasons maybe three times in 24 years, and each was a minor matter.
I walk in the neighborhood. People don’t go about their daily lives acting as if they are overly concerned. Nothing terrible has happened around us lately.
But safety is a big issue to us – as is police response time, which is, frankly, not good on routine calls. If our confidence in either of those fell too low, that would be a crisis for our village. What’s too low? I don’t know and I hope not to find out.
Housing values were pretty flat through the ’80s and much of the ’90s, even as prices went up rapidly elsewhere. But starting in the mid-’90s, prices rose nicely. Lately, they have flattened out or maybe even fallen. Overall, my house is now worth almost triple what I paid for it in 1983.
But we didn’t buy our house as an investment. We bought it because we wanted a particular lifestyle – Orthodox Jewish in its specifics, an involved, caring neighborhood in its generalities. We’ve gotten that in rich and rewarding ways for many years.
As an Orthodox Jewish community, we go to lengths to insulate ourselves from some of the forces and trends in society that trouble us. This will shock you: The majority of my close friends don’t own televisions. (For the record, I do, but it’s rarely used.) Because we strictly keep the rules of eating kosher food only, there is exactly one restaurant in the Milwaukee area where we eat (not in our neighborhood either – it’s Café Osher, 333 W. Brown Deer Road, Bayside (Now Closed). We dress differently – “conservative” is a mild word for it. The list of things we do that are distinctive could go on.
But we are not immune to what goes on around us, or uninvolved. We want our village to grow and thrive. Some of us have become leaders in Sherman Park and Burleigh St. activities.
I am telling you more in this piece than I ever expected to discuss publicly. But frankly, I think our neighborhood is an asset to the city and I’m proud of our record in making that so.
The traditional Jewish toast is simple: “L’chaim.” To life. The letters in the root word, chai, have a numerical equivalent in the Hebrew alphabet of 18, so 18 is considered a number associated with the good things in life.
This month marks 18 years since we opened our school and our adult education institution and launched our efforts to build our community. So it’s time for a toast:
To my friends. My neighbors. My village. L’chaim.
Alan J. Borsuk was a reporter and editor for The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel since 1972. He and his wife, Robi, have lived in Sherman Park since 1983. Alan has been retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a number of years now.