Meet Hannah Rosenthal, CEO of Milwaukee Jewish Federation and Local ‘Mensch on a Mission’

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Hannah Rosenthal felt a call to action from a very young age. Now her good deeds extend well beyond her role as leader of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.

The Torah is wrapped in a blue velvet sleeve. Hannah Rosenthal, presiding over High Holy Day services as she’s done very year since the early 1980s, cradles the sacred scroll in her left arm as if it’s a newborn. She sways to the Hebrew song being sung by a congregation of family, friends and strangers packed into Gates of Heaven in Madison, a part-time synagogue that dates to the 1860s and is about the size of an old one-room schoolhouse. On the other side of campus this balmy Saturday morning, the Badgers are soon to kick off against Northwestern. A few blocks away on Capitol Square, one of the nation’s largest farmers markets bustles with veggie and flower exchanges. But here, all eyes are on Rosenthal in her black shirt and purple vest, her short, light-brown hair flecked with highlights. Her job description as president and CEO of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation doesn’t include this annual duty. It’s a passion project that started small, as a kind of tribute to her father when he passed away, and quickly grew into a national standby, a familiar rite for all, be it the older man who runs a honey farm, in his white dress shirt and black yarmulke in the back row of the balcony, here for about the 20th straight year (he’s lost count), or the baby fussing and fidgeting in the front row by a door left open for the service, sunshine and cool breezes streaming in. For Rosenthal, it’s like a reunion, with people from her long and distinguished career in Wisconsin joining her on Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish holiday.

After the song, Rosenthal unpacks the scroll and announces that she needs a Torah reader. “Who better than my Hebrew teacher, from 44 years ago?” she says to laughs and sighs of appreciation. After her sophomore year at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Rosenthal came to Madison for a summer Hebrew class taught by Nira Scherz-Busch. What Rosenthal thought would be a diversion turned into a lifetime in Wisconsin, with occasional detours that have always led home. Back then, she fell so deeply in love with the frenetic energy and arts opportunities on Madison’s campus that she never returned to Mount Holyoke, finishing her studies a Badger. Five years ago in October, she returned to Wisconsin again from a diplomatic job with the State Department to lead the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, the largest and oldest organization of its kind in the state’s biggest city.

Rosenthal and Nira Scherz-Busch, her years-ago Hebrew teacher, during a Madison Yom Kippur service in September. Photo by Andy Manis

Congregants sit rapt as Scherz-Busch, bearing a slight resemblance to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, carefully recites lines in Hebrew, holding a wooden yad, or reading stick, to guide her across the text right to left. Rosenthal stands beside her teacher, eyes trained on the text.

Musicians Ben Sidran and Lynette Margulies lead the congregation into a Hebrew blessing of the Torah, followed by the upbeat “Tree of Life,” sung in English. Rosenthal rolls up the Torah and carefully returns it to the ark in a wooden stand behind the altar. Like many things in Rosenthal’s life, this Torah carries layers of meaning, both personal and historical. Its occasional scorch marks come from being read by candlelight, and moldy spots hearken to being hidden, by necessity, beneath the soil. It’s one of about 2,000 Torahs rescued from concentration camps. She procured it with the help of her father, Rabbi Franz Rosenthal, a survivor of the camps who later developed a specialty in rescuing and rehoming Torahs from that era.

Rosenthal did not follow her father and 16 generations of forebears into becoming a rabbi, although she did complete two years of rabbinical school in Los Angeles and Jerusalem after college. “I took a leave of absence, and I am still on a leave of absence,” she says with a smile. Her facility with the rituals of Jewish services match her obvious comfort in front of a crowd. The service alternates between celebratory and solemn, serious and lighthearted. The same world-class musicians – the aforementioned Sidran and Margulies – have accompanied Rosenthal through the decades, and the programs get re-used year after year. Rosenthal mixes in personal stories that draw laughs with more solemn readings and songs.

“Feel free to take a knee,” she jokes before the musicians start into the Israeli national anthem, which Rosenthal explains is played in reverence to the world’s only Jewish-majority country but not intended as a blanket nod of approval for all its policies. This year, the warm community feeling that pervades the service had to confront the ugliness of the outside world. A little more than a week prior, on the morning of Rosh Hashanah services, a rock shrine outside the synagogue, maybe 50 feet from where the service occurs, was tagged with red swastikas and spray-painted messages: “Trump rules” and “antifa sucks.”

Madison police called Rosenthal early that morning to tell her about the attack. It left her crestfallen on an already busy morning of preparations to lead services that night. The police department went into overdrive scrubbing away the hateful messages, which were cleared in time for nighttime services and replaced by flowers and notes of love and solidarity from strangers.

The notes and flowers remain, 10 days post-attack. Rosenthal says the compassionate police and community response is one of many gestures of late that give her hope during what can seem like a historical tilt away from the tolerance that she’s spent her life promoting.

“I couldn’t get up in the morning if it was all darkness,” she says. “I listen and I try to find hopeful language, when people are speaking out against hatred.”

Rosenthal has spent her life fighting for causes she believes in, informed by the lessons she learned from her parents about history and the oppression of minority groups. Prior to working at the MJF, she spent three years as special envoy to fight anti-Semitism in the State Department. She’s also been a top executive with the Wisconsin’s Women Council, the Wisconsin Democratic Party, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Chicago Foundation for Women.

“I’m at heart an activist,” she says. “I’ve been a professional Jew, or a professional feminist, my whole life. I cannot change who I am. And that to me is the most fundamental Jewish value: You speak out when you see something wrong.”

Raise money and give it away. It’s where Jewish federations, of which there are over 150 in the U.S., typically focus their efforts. But Rosenthal made it clear from the start of the interview process with MJF that she saw her role extending beyond just money matters. She was going to start or expand programs and bring the vast sum of her experiences and contacts from around the world to Milwaukee – and bring Milwaukee to them. She keeps a handwritten to-do list, which she wrote upon arriving in 2012, in a notebook at her desk.

One item with a checkmark next to it: Beef up the MJF’s annual Economic Forum in Milwaukee featuring top local and national business leaders, for “straight talk” about the Milwaukee and national economy with a goal of strengthening both. This year’s event, on Oct. 31st, was the fifth since the event went “on steroids,” as Rosenthal describes it, and the fifth sellout.

“We can’t have a strong and vibrant Jewish community without a strong, vibrant Milwaukee,” she says. She calls the support for the event and its offshoots from within the Jewish community and broader Milwaukee “astonishing.”

Another checked-off item: Organize a trip for the federation staff to Israel, so young and old alike could experience the world’s only Jewish-majority nation and understand it beyond the thorny politics and wars.

And another: Lead groups of Milwaukeeans of all faiths to Lithuania and Poland, where Father Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest whom Rosenthal calls “one of my heroes,” has worked to identify and commemorate mass graves of Jews killed by soldiers or civilians far from concentration camps as part of the Holocaust.

“It tells a completely different story than the Auschwitz and Buchenwald death machines,” she says, stressing the importance of Americans learning the full history up-close. She also brought Desbois to Milwaukee to speak twice and host a traveling exhibit at the Milwaukee Jewish Museum based on his book, The Holocaust By Bullets.

This work speaks to Rosenthal’s core. Growing up in Flossmoor, a Chicago suburb, she dreamed of family reunions so full of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents that their laughter and stories could be heard in the next yard, the kind of family reunion her friends’ families held. What they had reminded Rosenthal of what she lacked.

“We could have a family reunion around a table, with some chairs empty,” she says, somberly. The few occupied chairs would be for her father, Franz, her mother, Harriet, and her sister, Debbie, who also now lives in Milwaukee.

Her father, a native of Beuthen, Germany, served as an Orthodox rabbi in Mannheim before the Nazis arrested him in 1938. He owed his release from the Buchenwald concentration camp a y ear later to a local Lutheran pastor, Hermann Mass, who arranged passage out of the camps for hundreds of Jews.

Her father’s family – the aunts and uncles and cousins who might one day have joined Hannah at family reunions – wasn’t as fortunate. Dozens of Rosenthals perished at Auschwitz. Her grandfather, Heinrich, and his second wife went to the gas chamber May 28, 1942.

“That happens to be my personal cemetery, where most of my family is,” she says.

Franz Rosenthal was the family’s only survivor and came to the U.S. in 1939. Rosenthal’s mother, whose Russian-American family already lived on Long Island, met him while helping new immigrants as part of her job with the Jewish Federation in New York City. They eventually migrated west, where Rabbi Rosenthal presided over Temple Anshe Sholom, “People of Peace” in English, a Reform congregation near Chicago. Rosenthal says she wouldn’t acknowledge physical pain growing up, owing to the guilt she felt.

“How can I complain about a stomachache? My father was in a concentration camp,” she says.

Rosenthal’s latest initiative, Hours Against Hate, was officially rolled out in late October but has roots in a global program of the same name she started while with the State Department. In partnership with Farah Pandith, then State’s special representative to Muslim communities, she asked people around the world to pledge one hour in support of those who don’t look, pray, love or live like they do. In her State job, Rosenthal traveled to 54 countries, spreading a message of tolerance and inclusion in many ways, one of them Hours Against Hate.

“We didn’t get pushback anywhere we went,” Rosenthal says. “Young people don’t like the hate unleashed int he world and, regrettably, now in the United States.”

She immediately saw that Milwaukee, with its segregation and racial disparities, could benefit from the initiative. It has been running for three years but will now get a major boost, with new involvement from schools, businesses and churches, plus a bolstered online presence.

She’s ticked through the to-do list of programs and initiatives while also running a federation that serves the roughly 25,000 Jews in the Milwaukee area, takes in $6 million annually, donates about $20 million to various causes through its foundation and publishes The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, the monthly newspaper in print since 1921. Rosenthal sees her role as expanding the federation’s footprint in the community, and made no secret of her intentions during interviews for the job.

Rosenthal learned of the MJF opening while at State; a recruiter called her for recommendations. She missed home and family and saw an opportunity to bring her experience elsewhere to benefit Milwaukee. Jerry Benjamin, then the federation board chairman, says she separated herself from the pack of candidates immediately.

“It was like love at first sight,” he says. “She doesn’t fit the mold of a bureaucrat. She’s a leader that has the capacity also to manage, an unusual combination. In many ways, we were really able to punch way above our weight, because Hannah was qualified to be the head of the New York Federation or the Chicago Federation.”

He speaks also of her warmth: “She’s a genuinely nice person, quick with a hug.”

But her hiring was not cheered by all. Lorraine Hoffmann, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who ran her family’s shoe shine manufacturing business in the Third Ward, signed a petition asking the federation not to hire Rosenthal, citing her lifelong political activism in support of Democrats and her allegiance with left-leaning Jewish groups some see as hostile to Israel.

“When I contribute to the MJF, I do not expect to support political operatives, but needy people,” Hoffmann wrote in a letter to Benjamin. “Hiring a controversial person such as Rosenthal would damage the non-political image of the MJF and would cost it a lot of funds.”

When Rosenthal got the job, the Journal Sentinel published a story quoting Hoffmann and others critical of the hire. At her introductory party, at philanthropist Dan Bader’s house, Rosenthal met Hoffmann in person. The awkwardness lifted quickly.

“I collect sheet music, and I have some of your grandfather’s,” Hoffmann told her, referring to Heinrich Rosenthal, a German rabbi who arranged liturgical music.

“I knew we had a place to start,” Rosenthal says. The two worked out their differences, and became friends before Hoffmann passed away in July.

“I was devastated,” Rosenthal says.

The exchange reflects a long-held belief by Rosenthal that disagreements are inevitable and should be aired openly. A sign she made on her office wall lays out her rules:


In 2010, Alan Solow, then chairman of the Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, tested the limits of Rosenthal’s give-it-to-me-straight-approach. In a statement, Solow denounced her published criticism of the then-Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren: “It is inappropriate for the anti-Semitism envoy to be expressing her personal views on the positions Ambassador Oren has taken as well as on the subject of who needs to be heard from in the Jewish community.”

That was early in Rosenthal’s tenure, and Solow says the two talked about the public dust-up and put the issue to rest. “Hannah’s a mature person, and I like to think I’m a mature person … we [still] had a lot in common,” he says.

Overall, he says, “Hannah performed excellently [in that role]. She worked tirelessly, raised the profile of the position she held, and worked closely with communities around the world to shine a spotlight on the scourge of anti-Semitism.”

Hillary Clinton has been a longtime friend whom Rosenthal calls a “mensch,” Yiddish for a person with integrity. Rosenthal was director of the Midwestern branch of Health and Human Services when Bill Clinton was president, and has known both Clintons for decades. When Rosenthal underwent surgery to treat uterine cancer in 2009, she got a phone call just as she was about to be wheeled away. It was Hillary.

Hillary Clinton threw a party when Rosenthal arrived at the State Department. Photo by Kat Schleicher

“You’re going to get through this,” Clinton told her – reassuring words for Rosenthal, who lost both parents and both grandmothers to cancer. When Rosenthal started work at the State Department, Clinton, then Secretary of State, threw her a welcome party. The two women bonded over mother-of-the-bride wedding planning. She says Clinton’s life has been both inspiring and agonizing to watch. 

“I could survive cancer but I couldn’t survive what she’s been through,” she says.

Rosenthal has been political and often involved in Democratic politics her whole adult life. She was state Democratic Party chairwoman in the 1990s and ran campaigns for her then-husband, Democrat Richard Phelps, then Dane County executive. She’s never happy when a Republican wins, but she usually takes it in stride.

Nov. 9, 2016, was different.

Rosenthal’s post-election despair owed heavily to the winner, Donald Trump, and was less about partisan ideology than about what she saw as a shift away from basic American values. His bare-knuckle campaign featured calls for immigration, refugee and policing policies many saw as discriminatory, and his win had support from once-fringe figures partial to Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan. Rosenthal spoke against Trump and what she saw as his dangerous tactics, even though she wasn’t in Clinton’s campaign, and even though the federation is apolitical. 

“I felt I had moved the needle on hatred during my lifetime,” she says. “I was stunned at how much hatred I was seeing and how hatred had become normalized.”

When Trump won, her thoughts, and her tears, turned to Henry, her grandson.

“I think about where the country is going to go. …” she says. “Now he’s going to have to fight these battles, too. I thought we were past that.”

For seven days after the election, she sat shiva, the Jewish ritual of mourning after a loved one’s death, and tuned out the news, which normally she finds addictive.

In August, fears about a cultural shift toward intolerance became more real when the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought Nazi sympathizers bearing swastikas, carrying torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” Trump vacillated, at one point saying there were good people amid the neo-Nazis. Rosenthal’s thoughts turned to her father, his family’s only survivor of the Nazi death machine.

“It was one of the few times in my life I was happy my father wasn’t alive,” she says. “He would have died.”

Despite what for many Jews is a shocking new political landscape and an uncertain future, Rosenthal says she always looks for signs of hope. And these developments have made the federation’s work, which includes an annual report about local incidents of anti-Semitism, feel especially vital.

Rosenthal will keep doing her part to advance her life’s causes. She recently celebrated five years at the federation and has found a comfort zone, enjoying Milwaukee nightlife (she calls the city a “kept secret,” underrated for its arts offerings) with her sister and brother-in-law. Her hobbies are few – daily Sudoku is one – and she can’t imagine life without a job and a to-do list.

Despite her many accomplishments, none of the titles she’s held carry the same importance to her as mother and grandmother. Her daughters, Francie and Shira, are married and living in Madison. Shira gave birth to Henry, named for Rosenthal’s grandfather, Heinrich. He’s now 20 months old and sees a lot of his grandmother, “Nanna Hannah.” On her office door hang nine photos of the boy; playing piano with Nanna, getting face-licked by Brooklyn (Rosenthal’s grand-dog), wearing sunglasses bedecked with menorah candles.

“He is the light of my life,” Rosenthal says, oozing grandmotherly pride.

Her contract with the federation runs through 2020, and despite being 66 now she plans to stay at least through then. But she can imagine how things might change and priorities might shift.

“It depends on how many grandchildren I have by then,” she says with a wink. ◆

Dan Simmons wrote Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story, “The China Connection,” in November 2016.

Tune in to WUWM’s (FM 89.7) “Lake Effect” Dec. 11 at 10 a.m. to hear more about this story.

‘Mensch on a Mission’ appears in the December 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.