In 1986, Rabbi Nachman Levine was a contented, full-time Judaica teacher with 18 years’ tenure at Hillel Academy in Milwaukee. He must’ve been very effective, too, because a group of Hillel parents asked his help in forming a modern Orthodox congregation in Glendale.
“They pursued us. They came after us,” recalled Rebbetzin Leah Levine in a telephone interview.
The rabbi continued the thought: “We felt very comfortable with what they were saying and how the congregation would evolve. It was an exciting opportunity.”
Twenty-six years later, the Levines will be honored by the congregation, Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, at a dinner on Sunday, May 20, 5 p.m., at the Pfister Hotel.
The Levines initially led the core group of 17 families in Shabbat and holiday services at members’ homes, the rabbi recalled. Then the new congregation, called Kehillat Torah, met in converted office space in Glendale for five years.
“More and more people were coming to services, so [for the High Holidays] we had a tent built in the backyard of our Glendale home with heating, lighting — everything,” he said.
When the congregation moved into its Glendale building in the 1990s, it already had merged with Congregation Anshe Sfard, becoming ASKT.
Both Levines served the congregation. “My involvement was much more informal and my husband’s much more formal,” said the rebbetzin.
Dinner chairperson Tanya Mazor-Posner recalled that when she joined ASKT nine years ago, “Leah Levine was still very instrumental in terms of quietly doing acts of kindness for various people through the community, whether raising funds for people who were financially strapped, or providing meals for new moms and for people sitting shivah. Leah Levine has been incredible in terms of being the glue of a synagogue.”
The rabbi noted that of the original families, five were shomer Shabbat (kept the laws of the Sabbath). ASKT has grown to 116 member households.
“What I’m very proud of is that out of this, we now have to close to 95 percent shomer Shabbat families,” he said.
The increase “happened through a lot of education. A lot of learning and teaching and encouragement and commitment,” he said.
Levine has been ASKT’s rabbi emeritus since Rabbi Wesley Kalmar arrived in 2010, and has resumed teaching full-time at Hillel after 20 years of part-time teaching.
“I’m very grateful,” Levine said. “We’ve been very blessed throughout all the years. Baruch hashem, we’ve seen our congregants grow from birth and marriage to have children of their own.”
He still sees former Hillel students who have moved away. “They come back all the time. They feel at home here. Some of them are parents and grandparents,” the rabbi said.
Levine also was a co-founder of Kosher Supervisors of Wisconsin, a kashrut certification organization, and still serves as a rabbinic supervisor. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Glendale eruv, an area in which observant Jews can carry items during the Sabbath.
Levine is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Chicago Rabbinical Council. He holds rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel; the Av Beis Din of Netanya, Israel; and Yeshivas Ner Israel, Baltimore. The rabbi earned a bachelor’s degree from Loyola University, Chicago, and a master’s in education from Marquette University.
The keynote speaker at the Levine dinner will be Rabbi Michel Twerski of Congregation Beth Jehudah on Milwaukee’s west side. “We go all the way back to when I came to Milwaukee in 1968,” Rabbi Levine said. “We’re very, very close friends.”
The dinner also will feature a multi-media presentation by congregant Simcha Karan comprised of hundreds of photos of the Levines that congregants lent. For more information about the dinner, call Mazor-Posner, 414-218-9491.
Andrew Muchin is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer, and the producer and host of the "Sounds Jewish" weekly program on Mississippi Public Broadcasting Music Radio.