The Joseph and Rebecca Peltz Center For Jewish Life

Articles About Our Construction

CAAC launches $4 million campus in Mequon

By Mardee Gruen         . .
of The Chronicle staff

"It’s hard to believe that we built our synagogue only six years ago, and already we’re maxed out," said Rabbi Menachem Rapoport, director of outreach and development at Congregation Agudas Achim Chabad in Mequon.

That said, he officially announced a $4 million fundraising campaign to expand the synagogue’s current site, "which will enable us to offer our services and programs on a proper scale."

CAAC began more than 20 years ago as Chabad of North Shore in the basement of the Rapoport family home in Fox Point. It was led then, as now, by spiritual leader Rabbi Dovid Rapoport.

"Six years later, in 1988, we bought the current Mequon property and again operated as Chabad of North Shore out of our home," Dovid explained. "At that time we had only 40 member families. Now we’ve grown to more than 137 member families."

During that period of growth, in 1995, the congregation merged with the west side’s Congregation Agudas Achim, to become Congregation Agudas Achim Chabad.

Today, said Menachem, "We’re more than just a shul — we’re really a continuum of Jewish services for the community at large. And to better define who we are today and what we do, we will rename the new site the Center for Jewish Life.

"Since we cater to all spiritual needs, each entity on the campus, such as the shul, preschool, Hebrew school, or senior luncheon program, will maintain its own name. Essentially, everything will stay the same, except that each entity will have its own identity. Now, it seems all our services are considered an arm of the shul."

Plans call for building a two-level addition to the existing building and razing the former residential property where Dovid and his wife, Fagie, used to live and the Mequon Jewish Preschool now operates. The project was approved by the City of Mequon on March 3.

"We view this expansion to be of benefit to the entire Jewish community, especially to those living in the North Shore," Menachem continued. "We’re adding 31,000 square feet, which will give us 27,000 on the main level and 8,000 on the lower level, including existing footage. The synagogue will be relocated to the south, and the preschool will slot into the former, but expanded, shul space."

Rapoport’s daughter, Rivkie Spalter, founded the preschool in 1998 with four children. "We now have an enrollment of over 40, and continue to grow each year. Eventually, we had to kick my parents out of their home," she laughed, "because we needed more space…. The addition will allow us to double our size. We will have seven classrooms, a computer lab, indoor play area and a kitchen."

The synagogue, too, will be expanded to seat more than 150 men and some 130 women in a balcony setting with stadium seating.

"This arrangement will be great because the women will have a much better view as well as feeling more included in the service," Menachem noted.

In addition, the social hall and kitchens will no longer be designated as multi-purpose space, but dedicated to their specific use. The plans also include a chapel, library, youth center and increased storage.


Rebbetzin Fagie Rapoport, who directs the mikvah, said that the new mikvah will be for women only. "With an increase in the number of men requesting to use the mikvah as well as the usage by women from the general community, we felt we needed to have two separate mikvahs. The men will continue to use the existing facility while the women, two thirds of whom are not synagogue members, will enjoy a new one that will really offer a spa-like setting. We’ve nicknamed it ‘miki-spa,’" she mused.

"Personally, the project is very exciting and I’m thrilled we’ve outgrown the facility we have. That means we’re vibrant," she said.

Menachem agreed, adding, "We really want to be the Center for Jewish Life. We want our building as well as our programs and services to be intergenerational and interactive for all Jews — from the Orthodox to the less observant. The addition/expansion is not about buildings, but about people."

Fundraising chair Arnie Peltz agreed. He, too, said the project is not about the building, "but about what we do inside through programming."

Further, Peltz said, "It’s curious that many non-members, some of whom belong to other synagogues, attend our programs and our services. They send their children to our preschool, use our mikvah and sometimes accompany their parents to our senior luncheon program. I guess it’s because of the way the Rapoports reach out into the community."

Peltz, who grew up attending Congregation Agudas Achim on 59th and Burleigh Sts., added, "This is a big undertaking. We’re halfway home, as we’ve raised $2 million, but we have a long way to go. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to lead this effort…. But as I thought about what we have to offer the community, I just couldn’t let the community lose out. It may be a rough road, but I know we’ll make it. And it will be worthwhile, because the center will be a place to enrich the entire community."

Peltz views the shul family "as a very strong family that is tied together because of the Rapoport family’s genuine warmth. People can take whatever they want from the experience."

Joining Peltz in leading the fundraising effort is Les Weil, who works as a full-time volunteer in fundraising, marketing, business operations and networking for small non-profits.

Weil said he was recruited for the project by Dr. Robert Kliegman, president of the preschool, after the two became friends through projects at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, where Kliegman is pediatrician-in-chief.

"I support lots of Jewish causes, but I don’t regularly attend services at my own shul," Weil explained. "After coaxing from Bob, I agreed to go to CAAC at least once. I was amazed, and feel that what they’re doing for the Jewish community at large is important. They set a good tone for the community.

"It’s odd that I feel I belong [to CAAC] without belonging. This project is important to the future and I’m excited to lend my skills to make it happen."

Kliegman, who joined CAAC in the mid ’90s, is impressed by the "receptivity of the community to the congregation. At this point, there are so many activities happening that we are no longer just a congregation, and, therefore, I’m very supportive of re-naming our campus."

Acknowledging that there is no room for growth on the current site he said, "We need the ability to expand so we can continue to offer more services. From my perspective, it’s interesting that the majority of the children attending our preschool aren’t members of our shul, and that while we are Orthodox, our members come from all spectrums of Jewish life. Our leadership has been so positive to make the campus a warm and welcoming place to all."

Though a groundbreaking date has not yet been set, project planners hope for a mid-summer start.


Congregation reaches out to Jews
Orthodox mission encourages returnees

From the April 27, 2003 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
By LAWRENCE SUSSMAN Journal Sentinel

For Aaron and Jan Katz, Saturday's are a gift from God. "Saturdays are strictly for the Sabbath," Aaron Katz said. "In today's world where nothing ever stops, it's an incredible feeling of satisfaction to know that there is going to be 24 hours that you automatically set aside to think about what is important, which is your family and, certainly, your commitment to a higher power, God."

New to Orthodox Judaism, Katz and his wife, Jan, moved to Mequon two years ago and embraced Congregation Agudas Achim Chabad, 2233 W. Mequon Road.

The Katzes are part of the rapid growth of the Mequon synagogue, where many members unsparingly observe the Sabbath in a congregation that also opens its arms to the less observant.

The Mequon synagogue is part of the growing worldwide Lubavitch movement, known for its combination of outreach to other Jews along with strict religious observance and conservative dress.

For those who strictly observe the Sabbath, work is not allowed from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. They walk to synagogue because driving is considered work and is not permitted.

Most of the men have beards and keep their heads covered. The men normally wear black suits on the Sabbath. Women don long, loose-fitting dresses and keep their heads covered in respect to the higher power of God.

"I think it's wonderful," Aaron Katz said. "It's people who have made a commitment to lead a completely Orthodox lifestyle."

The synagogue has grown over the last six years from 40 families to 137, about half of whom live in Mequon, said Dovid Rapoport, the congregation's senior rabbi.

Last month the City of Mequon approved a proposed synagogue expansion that includes a sanctuary that would seat 325 worshippers, a social hall with seating for 236 people and a mikvah, a spiritual pool for purification that would be used exclusively by women.

The expansion is expected to cost about $4.5 million. About $2 million has been pledged, Rapoport said.

The goal is for construction to start this summer with the expansion completed in fall 2004.

The Rapoport family has put its signature on the congregation. The senior rabbi's two sons, Menachem and Moshe, also are rabbis connected to the synagogue. Dovid Rapoport's daughter, Rivkie Spalter, heads the synagogue's preschool program.

In accordance with the Lubavitch movement, the congregation's mission includes trying to encourage Jews who have left the religion to return.

Welcome home

The movement does not seek converts from other religions.

"They welcome you no matter where you are at in your level of Jewish observance," Aaron Katz said.

Katz, 39, and his wife, Jan, have two sons, 6 and 3, and live less than a mile from the synagogue.

"With the Lubavitch, it's not what you're not doing, it's about what you are doing," he said. "They offer a very nurturing and encouraging environment for people to be just a little more observant and to continue to progress."

Orthodox Jews attempt to live according to Halacha, the vast body of Jewish law. They practice a stricter form of observance than those who belong to the other Jewish denominations - Conservative, the next most traditional, followed by Reform and Reconstructionist.

A demographic survey of American Jews was supposed to be completed last fall but has not been released, said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive director of programming at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of America in New York City.

"But from the anecdotal evidence, this is the strongest that the Orthodox have ever been in America," he said.

The synagogue's proposed expansion should firmly root this Lubavitch-based group into Mequon life, Dovid Rapoport said.

"Many people have the misconception that we are only a synagogue," he said. The synagogue has a number of outreach programs including parenting classes, senior luncheons, a preschool, a Hebrew school and a youth program.

"This is an outreach center that serves the community as a whole," Menachem Rapoport said. "It's a place of learning and a center of Jewish practice . . . We serve a Judaism buffet. But you don't expect people to eat everything at a buffet."

The expanded synagogue and its surrounding campus will be called the Center for Jewish Life.

The expansion plans call for constructing a two-level addition to the existing synagogue.

The upper level of the addition would have almost 27,700 square feet.

A new sanctuary with seating for 325 worshippers is planned. Women would sit in a raised mezzanine with seating for about 150 and the men would sit below them in a separate section with 175 seats. Orthodox Jewish law does not allow men and women to sit together during religious services.

Social hall

The plans also call for constructing a social hall on the upper level with seating for 236 people. The social hall would open to the sanctuary for possible big events, such as weddings.

The addition will have a preschool with seven classrooms, a computer room, an indoor play area and a separate kitchen. The current synagogue sanctuary would be reassigned for classroom space.

A new library would be added, providing a Jewish resource center for anyone who wants to use it, Dovid Rapoport said.

The addition would have a smaller chapel to be used for weekday services.

The lower level will have a mikvah exclusively for women's use. They no longer will have to share the existing mikvah with men.

A mikvah is a pool built on top of another pool. The bottom pool will be 4 feet deep and will be filled with rain water. The upper pool will be 5 feet deep and will contain filtered water.

Under Orthodox law, if a person converts to Judaism, he or she has to go through a cleansing ceremony in a mikvah similar to a baptism.

"It's a spiritual cleansing," Menachem Rapoport said.

Jewish women also immerse themselves in a mikvah after menstruation before resuming conjugal relations. Rules governing the mikvah say that a husband planning to go out of town should try to postpone his departure if he had intended to leave at the time of his wife's immersion.

The synagogue's services are conducted mostly in Hebrew. The prayer books are written in Hebrew with English translations on the right pages.

The synagogue welcomes Jews who are literate in Hebrew and those who are not, Dovid Rapoport said.

"God understands English, although he might speak it with a European accent," he said.

Richard Schutkin, new to Orthodox Judaism, welcomes the structure that this branch of Judaism provides.

Schutkin and his wife, Karen, have been congregation members for four years and live within walking distance of the synagogue. Over the last year, they have begun to adhere to the Sabbath rules.

Schutkin, 42, owns a travel agency. He said the hardest thing to do is close his business at 4:30 p.m. Fridays during the winter.

"My clients know what I'm doing," he said, "so, basically, I take care of everything in the morning that needs to be done that day."

Richard believes that his two young daughters and another child on the way will benefit from the Orthodox rules.

"I think that it has to do with living the life of the observant," he said. "You learn that there are limits in life by keeping the Sabbath and keeping Kosher . . . A lot of kids from non-religious families feel that anything goes."