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The Promising Land in Milwaukee, Rich Orthodox Life Grows from a Nucleus of One Shul

January 27, 2003
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Rabbi Michel Twerski, the soft-spoken scion of a Hasidic rabbinic dynasty, began 1988 as the victim of his own success.

His quarter century of teaching traditional Judaism to liberal Jews had resulted in approximately 100 local families becoming ba’alei teshuva, or newly observant.

A dozen of the families even had moved to the Sherman Park neighborhood, a five-square-mile area near Twerski’s Congregation Beth Jehudah on Milwaukee’s west side.

However, most had left for Israel, New York or other major Jewish communities to access the “institutions and programs they would need to preserve a rich, fruitful traditional lifestyle, which were not available in Milwaukee,” Twerski explains.

Twerski concluded that Beth Jehudah — founded in 1939 by his late father, Rabbi Jacob Twerski — had reached a moment of truth.

“I called the remnant together, roughly 35 families,” Twerski says. “I said, ‘You know what, folks? I have an aversion to presiding over a moribund community. It’s very frustrating not to be able to build.’ “

Twerski proposed the creation of a yeshiva-preparatory day school and a kollel, or adult learning center, to meet local needs and to attract and retain families from other cities.

Building two institutions simultaneously “was sheer insanity” for a congregation that “didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Twerski acknowledges. “But as an imperative for the continuity of the Orthodox community, I didn’t see any alternative.”

Howard Karsh, a Beth Jehudah leader, agrees.

“We couldn’t attract the kollel rabbis unless the school was in place,” he recalls. “Our goal, of course, was to have the kind of community that after the rabbis completed their two-year commitment to the kollel, they would stay.”

Fourteen years and nearly $20 million later, Twerski’s vision has been realized.

The community has tripled to 120 families. They worship daily in a refurbished synagogue purchased a decade ago from a congregation that moved to the suburbs.

The Yeshiva Elementary School opened in 1989 with 64 students. Enrollment has tripled, and the school building recently underwent a $3 million expansion.

The Milwaukee Kollel Center for Adult Jewish Studies employs eight rabbis who teach individuals and groups in its west side headquarters and in offices and homes throughout the city.

The community also founded a girls’ high school, Torah Academy of Milwaukee, which has a mostly local enrollment of 24. There also is a kosher grocery store, the Kosher Meat Klub.

Twerski’s community is the largest of four Orthodox pockets in this Jewish community of 22,000.

Beth Jehudah’s community is unique nationally for quickly reaping the seeds it had sown, says Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox organization.

“Rabbi Twerski is something of a legend in the Orthodox world for establishing an Orthodox community not from scratch, but from a small synagogue,” Shafran says.

Robi Borsuk, who moved to the neighborhood with her family in 1983, remembers Twerski’s plea for the two institutions.

“That seemed to me like an awful lot of work,” she says. “But my thinking was, ‘I don’t know anything about this but the rabbi does, and he seems quite sure of the need for both of these things.’ And I could see the need for the school. I remember there was discussion but that people felt this was a good thing to do, and went along.”

Borsuk has served on the YES board since its inception. Her husband, Alan, was a board president.

One of Twerski’s first steps was to create a fund-raising organization, the Torah Foundation of Milwaukee, in 1989.

The rabbi began traveling throughout the United States and Canada to meet with potential supporters. He and his wife, Feige, already had earned a national reputation for kiruv, or outreach work to non-Orthodox Jews.

Money flowed in, but the early days were difficult.

“Every time a Catholic school closed, I was standing at the front door” to buy the used equipment for YES, recalls Karsh, who was the school’s first administrator and who accompanied Twerski on some of the forays.

“What kept us afloat were barely concealed miracles from the Almighty,” Twerski says. “We saw the splitting of the sea many times over.”

He remembers when the community was $400,000 in debt, with no idea how to find the money. Unsolicited, a supporter of Twerski’s from Chicago “sat down with the few friends we had, and in two hours had generated commitments of $300,000.”

The Milwaukee Jewish Federation provides funds, but significantly less than go to the other two local day schools.

YES even has received help from non-Jewish sources. Parents Advancing Values in Education, a privately funded school choice program for low-income children, provided cash grants.

Then the Wisconsin Legislature expanded the Milwaukee Parental Choice program to provide vouchers to parochial schools in the city. Families earmark some $400,000 in these government funds to YES each year.

Still, Milwaukee wasn’t exactly a household word among Orthodox Jews. With Twerski’s support, Karsh founded the Sherman Park Jewish Initiative in 1995.

That non-profit organization is behind the “Think Milwaukee” ads that have appeared regularly in Orthodox publications. The SPJI also ensures that visitors receive hospitality and meet real estate brokers, and sends visitors’ resumes to potential employers.

Approximately 70 new families have arrived from throughout the country since 1989. Karsh cites factors such as the Twerskis, the community infrastructure and affordable housing.

Not only are most of the homes in Sherman Park well-kept and large enough for a big family, they cost half of what they would in larger cities, and thousands less than similar homes in Milwaukee suburbs.

The influx of Jewish families helped to stabilize the neighborhood, according to Steve O’Connell, executive director of the Sherman Park Community Association, an educational and social-service agency. The neighborhood is 60 percent African-American and just under 3 percent Jewish.

“With their school here, the synagogue, the kollel, people are walking around all the time in the neighborhood,” he says. “They’re purchasing houses. I’m very impressed about their willingness to be out on the streets, at block parties, at Sherman Perk,” a kosher caf that attracts non-Jews as well.

Primarily through Karsh, Beth Jehudah participates in the Sherman Park Area Religious Congregation, which has published three fund-raising calendars featuring photos of the diverse neighborhood population.

The newest cooperative endeavor is the Burleigh St. Community Development Corp., a non-profit organization spearheaded by Twerski; his son, Rabbi Benzion Twerski; and congregant Jim Hiller.

The CDC includes an array of religious and ethnic representation in an effort to spur economic development on one of the major Sherman Park roadways.

Its first project is a 12,000-square foot building, currently under construction. The CDC is negotiating for a kosher pizza restaurant, a non-kosher restaurant and a clothing retailer to occupy the first floor. Upstairs will be office space and a community hall.

A twin building, not yet begun, will hold retail businesses and Twerski’s planned family counseling center.

Discussion of the Beth Jehudah community always seems to return to the example set by Twerski, his son and their wives.

“The uniqueness of the community is because the Twerskis create a family-type atmosphere, a close-knit community where everybody is cared for and nurtured on their level,” explains Rabbi Akiva Freilich, who moved to Milwaukee to teach at the kollel in 1991 and moved on to a parallel outreach organization two years ago. “There’s a tremendous connection between people. People don’t fall through the cracks.”

Twerski points out that he and his wife simply try to carry on his father’s “very genuine love for people.”

But communities can’t live on love alone, and Twerski is the first to admit to the community’s ongoing fund-raising challenges. Yet he recommends his formula for growth to other mid-sized communities, regardless of their wealth.

“It can happen any place,” he says.

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