Jewish immigration to the United States was similar to that of other ethnic groups, but there were also some distinctions. Jews often were fleeing persecution in their native countries, and the United States, with its unprecedented religious freedoms, provided Jews with security and an opportunity to become fully engaged in civic society while maintaining their Jewish heritage.
Jews arrived to America in 1654, but the first Jews came to Milwaukee in the 1840’s. This group came from Germany and Central Europe. These immigrants left their homes in Europe, in part to escape prejudicial laws, but also to pursue economic opportunities. Through the process of “chain migration,” in which these early settlers wrote to family and friends in Europe, many followed them to Milwaukee.
In the 1880’s, another group of Jewish immigrants started coming to the United State from Eastern Europe and Russia. This wave of immigration left harsh persecution and physical danger to pursue a better life in the United States. In the forty years that followed, over 2.5 million Jews came to this country.
Although the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 stopped most immigration to the US, some Jewish refugees from Germany came to Milwaukee in the 1930’s to escape Nazi persecution. Following World War II, many Holocaust survivors immigrated to Milwaukee to rebuild their lives and form new communities. Both groups developed community connections and institutions to celebrate their Jewish identity and to connect to their new country.
At the end of the twentieth century, American Jewish communities worked to bring Jews from the Soviet Union to the United States. For many years, these Jews had been oppressed under the Communist regime. Between the 1970’s and 1990’s, thousands of Russian Jews came to Milwaukee and were settled in the community by Jewish Family Services. This group now makes up a quarter of the Jewish population in Milwaukee.
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