From Izbiza to Mequon: Jewish Life Triumphs


by Fay Kranz Greene - MEQUON, WISCONSIN

October 17, 2004

A rock from the rubble of a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis in Izbiza, Poland more than a half century ago, has become the cornerstone for a new Chabad synagogue campus that promises to ensure Jewish life and continuity in America’s heartland.

The Joseph and Rebecca Peltz Center for Jewish life, a $4million, 37,000 square foot edifice on five acres of land in Mequon, Wisconsin, now in the final stages of construction, is evidence of the new Jewish energy and vivacity sweeping through this once sleepy community.

Rabbi Dovid and Faygie Rapoport are directors of Congregation Agudas Achim Chabad (CAAC). In 1988, when Lubavitch of Wisconsin bought the present property, they moved to Mequon, a city a few miles North of Milwaukee. At that time Mequon consisted of rows of cornfields and one solitary gas station. There were a few hundred Jewish families and anti-Semitism, though never overt, was just beneath the surface. Today there are approximately 1,200 Jewish families, and public schools are closed on the High Holidays.

“People thought we were making a mistake in moving so far out in the country” said Rabbi Dovid Rapoport “but with the Rebbe’s blessing we were sure we were walking on solid ground. There was a natural progression of people moving North and we have seen an unbelievable growth in new business and new homes. Our original synagogue and building quickly became too small to contain all of our programs.”

The new Peltz Center for Jewish Life will change all that, incorporating all of CAAC’s existing services into one location. The synagogue, pre-school, youth and teen center, seniors lunch program and lounge, chapel, library, kitchens, social hall and women’s mikvah, will maintain their separate status but be accessible to all on the magnificent campus due to be dedicated on April 10th.

Rabbi Moshe Rapoport, 33, program director for CAAC, says that “it’s not about the building, it’s about the people. We pride ourselves on being an institution that is dedicated to and built around the Jewish family.”

Family is also very evident in the CAAC organization. Moshe and two of his siblings have joined the staff in recent years. Rabbi Menachem Rapoport is director of development and his wife Hudi is the chief librarian at the Lipskier Judaic Library which bears her late father’s name. Rivkie Spalter, a sister, is director of the pre-school and youth division and her husband Mordechai is chairman of the burial society and in charge of special projects. Moshe’s wife Dini is the women’s programming coordinator and his mother Fagie directs the women’s mikvah.

“The Rapoport family has been a boon to this community” says Dr. Robert Kleigman, Chief of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. As president of the Mequon Jewish Pre-school he was heavily involved behind the scenes in the campaign for the new center. Although his children were grown when Dr. Kleigman first was introduced to Chabad, he identified with Rivky Spalter's dream to open a pre-school. They began in the basement of the Rapoport home and very quickly outgrew the space. “I saw what a wonderful thing this was for the community’s children to have a school that provided such a phenomenal atmosphere of warmth, love and learning that I was happy to get involved” he said. “I became the first and only president of the school and it has been gratifying to see it grow and reach out to people who are not necessarily members of Chabad. Many of our parents have begun observing Jewish holidays for the first time since enrolling their children in our school.”

Wisconsin businessman Arnie Peltz who is the fundraising chair behind the new center echoes that sentiment. “The outreach that the Rapoport family is doing has given people a very comfortable atmosphere in which to observe Judaism in many different ways. This new center is not about the outside, but about the love and learning that will go on inside.”

Peltz is dedicating the new center in memory of his father Joseph and in honor of his mother Rebecca, both Holocaust survivors from the Polish town of Izbiza. The stone from the pile of rubble that was once its synagogue and is the only remnant of a once thriving Jewish life in Izbiza, was brought to Mequon for the groundbreaking ceremonies last year. The Rapoport family enlisted the aid of a Chabad rabbi in Eastern Europe to travel to Izbiza, find the site and bring back the precious memento as a surprise to Mrs. Rebecca Peltz.

The great psalmist King David wrote: “The stone the builders despised, has become the cornerstone.” This prophetic verse finds resonance today in Mequon. “The Nazis destroyed our synagogue and destroyed my family” said Mrs. Rebecca Peltz, “but the stone from my town in this new building is a message that Judaism has triumphed.”

The building of the center coincides with the 36th (twice chai) anniversary of Lubavitch of Wisconsin. Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin, director of Lubavitch of Wisconsin, sees the development and expansion of the new center in Mequon as an outgrowth of the tremendous impact of Chabad Lubavitch on Wisconsin Jewry. He noted that the new center is being built in the tenth year since the passing of the Rebbe, of righteous memory. “It demonstrates” he said, “the impact of the unceasing spirit of the Rebbe and the powerful inspiration of his guidance and leadership. Surely the good and the programs generated by this center will bring the Rebbe’s blessings to all involved.”

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