Before meeting Moshe Katz, I don’t know if I ever considered “American Jew” and “Jewish American” to be different identities. But Katz says Jewish people are often asked which label represents them. For him, he says the answer is both.
"There are days of the week, or hours of the day, or seconds I respond to something that says, 'I’m a Jewish American.' There are certain things that the way I live my life is 'Jewishly' as an American. There are also days where I live my life as an American, who happens to be Jewish," Katz explains.
Katz owns an outdoor gear shop in Whitefish Bay. It’s called Yellow Wood, and it’s on the corner of Silver Spring Drive and Berkeley Boulevard.
Katz is 59 years old. Both of his parents grew up in Milwaukee, and he’s lived here most of his life. He says part of being brought up by Jewish parents with Jewish values was learning, "There aren't others; others are what we are." This coming about through conversations during Passover, when the family would reflect on once being "strangers in a strange land."
Katz has also lived in, and continues to visit, Israel. His family moved there in the late 1960s when he was 10, staying for nearly six years.
"I loved it. I love learning a new language, I love seeing new cultures, eating new foods," Katz says.
Later, when he was in his twenties, Katz lived in Israel for about five years. He says that period was even more enlightening. He chose to move there and wanted to make his own life there.
"I believed then and still believe now, that for the most part there is something about a Jew deciding their own destiny in Israel; it’s easier to do than anything place else. You’re in a place where your roots are there, your historic background is there," he says.
Because Katz has a connection to both Israel and Milwaukee, what's his idea of home?
He says he likes how he feels when he’s in Israel — he appreciates the language, the social culture and the outdoors. But Milwaukee is home.
"I’ve got two spectacular kids. I’ve got an absolutely amazing wife. I’ve got two wonderful businesses that I really enjoy being a part of. I love my community, and I’ll even add multiple s’ to that," he explains.
Katz is a member of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, a reform synagogue in River Hills. He also attends other synagogues in the community.
"I love that I’ve got a Jewish community that I’m very active in, very involved in, but I love my business community, I love my friendship communities. I love my relationships with others in my community," Katz says.
He says love within the community has helped him get through some tough times. Like after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last fall that left 11 worshippers dead, which left him fearing for the safety of his family and friends.
The FBI’s hate crime data from 2017 show nearly 60% of religious hate crimes in the U.S. are committed against Jewish people. Numbers from 2017 show that hate crimes against Wisconsin Jews more than doubled from the previous year, rising from eight to 17.
But Katz won’t allow fear to change how he lives his life. And seeing how the Milwaukee community came together after the Pittsburgh shooting gives him hope for better days.
"The slaughter of Jews in Pittsburgh resulted in a gathering of about 1,800 people here at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid. At one point, a Christian minister got up and asked ... any clerics in the room to please come forward to join him on the dais. And people just started standing up, one after the other," says Katz.
He got emotional recalling that moment, but managed to continue: "The stage is filled with people. They told us, 'You’re not alone,' and they told the Jewish people in the crowd that were there that we’re not alone anymore. It was awesome … It was safe."
Katz works to create more of those safe spaces through community involvement, including as chairman of the board of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
According to the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, there are nearly 15 million Jews worldwide. Thousands live in Wisconsin.
Katz says lots of them would be happy to talk to people who don’t understand Judaism or who might be prejudiced against the religion. He says getting to know and understand people who are different from you might be key to diminishing hate.
Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.
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