Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Hannah Rosenthal is a friendly yet forceful communicator and one of those singularly committed public figures Wisconsin has a reputation for producing. A former director of the Wisconsin Women’s Council and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in New York, she left a post at the U.S. State Department in October – where she served as the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism – in awe of Hillary Clinton and the grueling lives led by political appointees. (“It’s really exhausting,” she says.) Equal parts activist and administrator, Rosenthal is the new president and CEO at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, which just underwent a two-year “reimagining” of how it serves the city and the local Jewish community.
What keeps bringing you back to Wisconsin?
Wisconsin is home, no matter where I’ve lived, whether it’s been in the State Department in Washington or in New York where I headed a national Jewish agency. When someone would say, “Where are you from?” it was always Wisconsin.
Did they want you back for a second term as special envoy?
We don’t know who the president will be, to know whether or not there would be a second term. Most of the political appointees will be leaving. We call it the “time of transition.”
What’s it like transitioning from such a fast-paced, international platform to one in Milwaukee that is very local and community-centered?
I will not be going to foreign ministers in Milwaukee and shaking my finger and saying, “How can you say such outrageous things?” I will be working with this incredible Jewish community here to make it even more incredible and engage more and more people who have different ways of expressing their Judaism.
We have a number of neo-Nazi and National Socialist groups in Wisconsin. Do these groups have an impact on general society?
Kristallnacht was Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when the Nazi’s came and burned down the synagogues and broke the windows of all the Jewish businesses. It’s kind of the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust. On Nov. 9 and 10 here in Milwaukee, the National Socialist movement is having its gathering. That is nothing to be ignored.
How was it working under Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration, versus when you were working for the Department of Health and Human Services under Bill Clinton?
My jobs have been so very different, but both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been very supportive of things I wanted to do that are not the normal diplomatic tools. An example would be that I took eight imams from around the United States – two of them were Holocaust deniers – to Dachau and Auschwitz in Poland. I was very transparent, and I said, “If it is at all possible after this experience, I would love it if you could find it within yourselves to issue a statement unanimously condemning Holocaust denial.” And they did. Each of them at a different point in that tour completely fell apart. The power of having eight leading imams condemn Holocaust denial has been profound.
You talk a lot about the importance of remembering history and validating it.
A fundamental Jewish value is memory. My sister and I in mid-July were treated to something pretty incredible in Mannheim, Germany, where our father was a rabbi. They presented us with a stolperstein, this bronze cobblestone. It said, “Here worked Rabbi Franz Rosenthal, his birth date, his death date,” and it says he died in the United States but that he had been taken at Kristallnacht to Buchenwald. They’re going to place it in the street where the synagogue was. While we were there, we also went to Bytom, Poland, to visit the roots of our father and family.
What was that like?
I’m still trying to get my head around it. In Bytom, everything Jewish was destroyed. We saw these people’s graves whose names we had heard of in the family lore. But as soon as we leave, it’s going to get overgrown again, and who’s to come back? What do we do with that memory? This is a huge philosophical dilemma I’m in. And the answer I come to is: It’s storytelling, and it’s community-building. And that’s what the Federation is about.
What is the Federation’s future, after coming through these two years of reimagining?
You’re going to see programming that is new and different and a community that is so welcoming to diverse thought, diverse people.