Diane Margolis’s family has been living in Manitowoc, Wisc., for more than 100 years, a descendant of Chabad Chassidim who, along with thousands of their compatriots, had settled in northeastern Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century. She says she is proud of the direction her community has taken since Rabbi Michoel and Esty Feinstein moved to nearby Green Bay in 2010 to open Chabad of the Bay Area, bringing the region’s unique Jewish history full-circle, with Chabad once again playing an active role in Jewish communal life in northeast Wisconsin.
Based in Green Bay, the Feinsteins also serve the Jewish communities in Appleton, Wausau and Door County, along with Manitowoc. After three years of holding services, Hebrew-school classes, adult-education programming and community events in a small rented home, they are now in the final stages of renovating a new center that will have a sanctuary with seating for 100, a spacious all-purpose room, three guest suites, classrooms and a mikvah—the first built to be built in generations.
“We are most excited about the mikvah,” says the rabbi. “Until now, women wishing to do this mitzvah needed to drive to Milwaukee, a four-hour drive round-trip. Now we will have a state-of-the-art, attractive mikvah right here in Green Bay.”
Margolis, 69, contrasts it with the mikvah her late father maintained for many years in Manitowoc. “It was dark and dank—a dungeon—and the heater broke right before my wedding. In the gentle manner of a father speaking to his daughter, he said, ‘You swam in Lake Michigan, you can go to the mikvah.’ With the new one, it’s going to be so much better.”
Looking Forward to New Mikvah
Shari Hupert is eagerly looking forward to it. “One of the really nice things is that Esty is getting all the women involved,” she says. “She plans on giving it a spa-like, soothing atmosphere. We are going to get together to discuss color schemes and how we want our mikvah to look. This is going to be a learning experience for many of the women who are not yet familiar with [the laws of] Jewish family purity.”
The annual lighting of an outdoor Chanukah menorah is just one of many new traditions Rabbi Michoel Feinstein, left, has started in the Green Bay area.
A recent transplant from the bustling Jewish neighborhood in West Rogers Park in Chicago, Hupert says the Feinsteins were crucial in easing her into life in a small community. “They had us over right away and drew us in. They helped us with everything. For example, the rabbi goes once a week to Appleton and brings back chalav Yisrael kosher milk, which we all share.”
Hupert notes that Chabad’s women’s circle has also been a wonderful way for her to learn something and get to know the local women, many of whom, like Margolis, have known each other for their entire lives and have deep roots in the region.
Margolis’ great-aunt Shifra was married to Rabbi Aryeh Leib Aronin (1849-1931). A renowned Torah scholar and devoted disciple of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch (1834-1882), of righteous memory, Aronin had served as the rabbi of nearby Sheboygan, an important center of Chabad Chassidic life in the Midwest known as “little Jerusalem.”
The concentration of Chabad Chassidim in the area was the result of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s policy of encouraging European immigrants to settle near lansleit, or fellow immigrants from the same region. Thus, northeast Wisconsin became a destination for many immigrants from towns such as Liepli and Vitebsk, historic Chabad strongholds in Russia.
With time, Wisconsin-born children of the original immigrants moved south to bigger cities like Milwaukee and Chicago in search of higher education and better jobs. Many of those who remained behind slowly drifted from the Chassidic lifestyle to the Torah observance of their parents.
“By the time I was old enough to remember, we no longer had a kosher butcher in Green Bay,” recalls 62-year-old Henry Zimmerman. “Every once in a while, mother would take a bunch of live chickens to Sheboygan, where there was a shochet, who would slaughter them for her, and we would take them home and remove the feathers and kosher them” through soaking in water, salting them and again soaking to remove all the blood from the meat.
“As an adult,” he says, “I’ve had my meat shipped in from Chicago or Milwaukee.”
A Sense of Renewal
Since the Feinsteins’ arrival, kosher meat and other products have become available in local supermarkets—a welcome change by the dozen or so families who keep kosher.
Other transformations have taken place in Jewish life as well, including an annual public menorah-lighting ceremony attended by none other than the mayor of Green Bay.
The Feinsteins are now in the final stages of renovating a new center that will have a sanctuary with seating for 100, a spacious all-purpose room, three guest suites, classrooms and a mikvah—the first one to be built in generations.
Indeed, the Feinsteins’ presence has had a resounding effect: Services are well-attended; men have begun donning tefillin; families have started celebrating Shabbat; and there is a sense of renewal throughout the community.
“They put the fun back into Judaism,” says Steve Weinshel, who has lived in Green Bay for 20 years. “Eventually, things got so crowded that they needed to move to larger premises. You literally could not move at Purim party, there were so many people packed into the place. The new building will be so much nicer, and there will be room to spread out a bit.”
Weinshel says that in addition to studying with him on a weekly basis, the Feinsteins have embraced his special-needs adult son, Ben. “He is nonverbal, so it is hard to know exactly what he is thinking, but he really likes going to Chabad on Friday nights. He loves the service and clearly enjoys the food. We are so happy that they are so welcoming to disabled people.”
Chabad of the Bay Area is branch of Lubavitch of Wisconsin.
Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin of Milwaukee, executive director of Lubavitch of Wisconsin—the umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch programs and institutions in the state—says “the Feinsteins are a one-of-a-kind, able and devoted couple; their devotion to the people they serve and their mission is beyond compare. In their short time in Green Bay, they have done wonders—and their hard labor shows. The establishment of its own Chabad Center in this desired location is testimony of their accomplishments. It will no doubt enable them to broaden their reach for the benefit of the entire Jewish population in the area.”
Feinstein likes to joke that he and his wife are working to warm up the “frozen tundra,” borrowing the moniker applied to Lambeau Field, where the Green Bay Packers have been known to play football for thousands of cheering fans in below-zero weather.
The new building’s three classrooms will allow for growth in the Kreative Kids Hebrew School, which has attracted nearly two-dozen children from Green Bay and its environs. It will also be home to the Kinder Club, where children come by after school to craft, play and learn about Judaism in an educational and entertaining environment.
“Everything is falling into place,” says Hupert of the community she’s adapting to more easily because of Chabad, “and we are just so blessed.”