Wednesday nights - Rav Benzion's Tanya shiur..........Please continue to daven for the good health of the Rebbe (Yechiel Michel ben Devorah Leah) and Rebbetzin (Feiga bas Sarah).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Mission in Milwaukee

By D. Klein (From

Milwaukee, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, is the largest city in the state of Wisconsin. It has gained a reputation in Jewish America as a growing kehillah, under the vibrant leadership of Rabbi Michel Twerski and his wife, Rebbetzin Feige Twerski. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Twerski have not only led Congregation Beth Yehudah faithfully since 1963, they have spearheaded the development of Milwaukee into a well developed, full fledged, Torah community with their sincerity, devotion to Yiddishkeit, and deep, authentic ahavas Yisrael.

Roots of a Dynasty
The story of Congregation Beth Yehudah began in 1927, when Harav Yaakov Yisrael Twerski, zt”l, of Hornosteipel, a small town in Ukraine near Kiev, arrived in Milwaukee with his renowned Rebbetzin, Devorah Leah, the oldest daughter of Harav Benzion Halberstam, Rebbe of Bobov, zy”a. Having emigrated from Europe, Harav Twerski settled first in New York, but he could not tolerate the large, busy metropolis. He heard that Chicago was home to many Russian immigrants, and he decided to establish a kehillah there for those who would recognize the illustrious name of the Twerski dynasty.

However, as he was preparing to settle in Chicago, Harav Yaakov Yisrael heard that a distant relative had settled there and was trying to establish a kehillah. Not wanting to compete, he moved to nearby Milwaukee and became Rav of Congregation Anshe Sfard.

Twelve years later, Harav Yaakov Yisrael opened his own shtiebel, Congregation Beth Yehudah, and won the admiration of the residents there. Religious, not-yet-religious, Jew, and non-Jew alike had tremendous reverence for the rabbi from Europe, and secular judges even brought cases to him for review. He became a legend in Milwaukee history. In 1952, the shul relocated to the Sherman Park section of Milwaukee, where it is still located today.

The Challenge
Harav Yaakov Yisrael sent his five sons - Harav Shloime, z”l, Reb Mottel, z”l, and, ybl”c, Rabbi Dr. Shea (Avrohom Yehoshua), Rabbi Aaron, and Harav Michel - to learn in various Litvish yeshivos. Harav Michel learned in Beis Hamidrash LaTorah in Chicago, Yeshivas Ner Yisrael, and Beis Medrash Govoha, where he studied under Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l. In 1963 he returned to Milwaukee, where he found an aging  kehillah totally devoted to his beloved and revered father.

Rabbi Twerski wanted to do more. There  was  little chinuch for the children. Many parents were shomrei Shabbos, but they were incapable of transmitting the mesorah to the next generation or protecting them from the “American experience.” The shul was overflowing on Yom Tov but was not very well attended on Shabbos.

Seeking Solutions
Harav Michel Twerski and his dedicated Rebbetzin, the daughter of the Faltichaner Rav of Bensonhurst, zt”l, realized that there would be no renaissance unless they led it. Building on the foundation his father had laid for over thirty years, the Twerskis took a first step:  establishing chinuch for the children. In 1968, together with Rabbi Dovid Shapiro, another Rav in Milwaukee at the time, they established the Hillel Academy of Milwaukee to provide chinuch for Milwaukee’s Jewish children. The day school began to grow, and its pupils influenced their families to come closer to Yiddishkeit.

Subsequently, in the late 1960s, Harav Twerski founded The Orthodox Perspective, a group dedicated to publicizing Torah viewpoints and espousing proper hashkafos. With this group, Harav Michel planted the seeds for a wave of baalei teshuvah; he became a pioneer in out-of-town kiruv when this concept barely existed. The combined effects of the day school and the Twerskis’ outreach efforts resulted in the slow growth of the community. By the late 1970s, a wave of young people had begun to abandon their beautiful suburban homes and were moving to Sherman Park to be closer to Rabbi Twerski and Congregation Beth Yehudah.

By 1987, as the community’s size and level of commitment continued to grow, Rabbi Twerski saw the need for more advanced institutions and tried to prepare the way to import a kollel.

However, he soon realized that in order to bring a kollel to Milwaukee, he would first have to establish a yeshivah-preparatory elementary school. With great mesirus nefesh, Rabbi Twerski traveled around the country to raise funds to establish both a kollel and an elementary school to maintain the Milwaukee kehillah. During his travels, Rabbi Twerski became known across America as a prominent figure.

With siyatta diShmaya, the Yeshivah Elementary School of Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Kollel were founded simultaneously in 1989. The presence of the kollel and school, followed by the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study, a yeshivah high school located in a different part of the city, and the Torah Academy, a Bais Yaakov-type high school that was established a few years later, transformed Milwaukee into a full-service Jewish community.

A Developing Kehillah
In the late 1990s, the shul received a grant from the Daniel and Linda Bader Foundation to develop the community. The Sherman Park Jewish Initiative was formed, and a national advertising campaign, “Begin Thinking Milwaukee,” was launched. In addition, the Yeshivah Elementary School became the first Jewish elementary school in the United States to accept tuition vouchers. These factors, combined with the fine reputation of the kehillah, encouraged many families to move to Milwaukee, and the community has grown exponentially since then.

According to Rabbi Aaron Gross, director of development at Yeshivah Elementary School, a recent survey shows that eighty percent of families living in Sherman Park have moved there since 1989. In addition to the core group of Rabbi Twerski’s baalei teshuvah, the 130 families in the community now include many families from other cities who have moved to Milwaukee in order to grow under the influence of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Twerski and to benefit from Milwaukee’s job market and low housing costs.

A Home to All
Rabbi Twerski represents the legacy of generations of Chassidic Rebbes combined with yeshivish learning and exposure to Litvish Gedolim. People with varied backgrounds feel comfortable in the shul because it combines the best elements of a yeshivah, a shtiebel and a shul. A Chassidic lifestyle is not imposed on anyone; most of Rabbi Twerski’s baalei teshuvah did not take on chassidishe minhagim and send their children to Litvish yeshivos.

However, Rabbi Twerski’s chassidishe hislahavus spills over into everything he does, influencing the kehillah in many ways. This enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit is especially evident on Yamim Tovim and special occasions, such as the beautiful hachnasas sefer Torah that took place last spring.

Rabbi Benzion Twerski, Harav Michel’s son and assistant Rav, commented, “The common denominator here is the tremendous emphasis on growth. If you are not looking to grow, you will not be comfortable here. My father constantly speaks about being a mevakesh, looking to grow from wherever you are now and avoiding complacency. And people find his message attractive because he does not stand on a pedestal and dictate orders. Rather, he is growing right along with everyone else.”

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