Congregation Anshai Lebowitz knows its roots. And this year it will celebrate its past and look to the future.
This Jewish year, 5764, marks 100 years since a group of immigrants from the town of Lubowich, Russia, began meeting in local living rooms with the intention to form a synagogue.
Many of Anshai Lebowitz’s current members trace their family relationship with the synagogue back three or four generations to the early part of the century.
Herbert Usow was named in the synagogue 80 years ago. He celebrated his bar mitzvah there and was married by then-spiritual-leader, Rabbi Solomon Schulson. Usow’s parents joined the congregation in 1912 and were buried in the synagogue’s cemetery.
Usow maintains his membership with Anshai Lebowitz and professes that he is emotionally moved when he enters the Mequon synagogue, where the congregation moved in 1997.
“When I walk into that temple, I feel a warmth,” he said from his winter residence in Florida. “Everybody greets me, ‘Hello. How are you? Where’ve you been? How’s your wife?’ It’s a real warmth, and I think that’s so important.
“I have a definite feeling of connecting with that temple. The people there make it a special place…. If you call and tell them you have a yahrzeit, they’ll arrange to have a minyan, so you’ll have a place to say Kaddish with at least nine other men…. When I’m in Milwaukee, they frequently call me to come and make a minyan.”
And, Usow added, “They don’t want you to leave morning minyan without having breakfast.”
“There are a lot of people like us, who have a filial devotion to the temple and maintain and still contribute,” he said.
The centennial celebrations begin tonight with a Chanukah party and inauguration of the new officers, and will continue throughout the year, explained spiritual leader of 39 years Rabbi Bernard Reichman.
Activities will include special Shabbat services for those who were named in the synagogue, celebrated their bar or bat mitzvah there and were married there. Also, Reichman said, there will be a banquet in June to honor members for special contributions to the synagogue.
As the congregation honors its past it is also looking for renewal. Current membership includes approximately 95 member units and the synagogue is actively trying to attract younger members, said Reichman.
Outreach efforts include last year’s hiring of Steven Boroda, assistant to the rabbi, and a variety of new programming.
“We’re innovating new programs,” Reichman said. “We made a havura, where a group of people are celebrating holidays and special occasions together. And we try to gear our programs to younger people with children so that they should find themselves fulfilled in the synagogue. Particularly, my aim is that they should love to go to the synagogue, that they should have a love for services, for activities, for Jewish education.”
Other programs include new adult education classes, an assortment of speakers, sponsoring the twice-annual concert of Simply Tzfat and last September’s “Kosher Taste of Milwaukee.”
“We need to do a better job at explaining to people that we exist,” said synagogue president Joel Guthmann, noting that he thinks there are a lot of people who would be interested in the synagogue’s unique practice.
“In terms of where we stand on the spectrum,” Guthmann explained, “[Orthodox Agudas Achim] Chabad is to the east of us and Conservative Beth El [Ner Tamid] is to the west. We’re in the middle of those in our practice also.”
The congregation was originally strictly Orthodox but has changed throughout the years. Though services are still conducted using Orthodox prayer books, the seating arrangement is more liberal. In the 1950s, seating changed from a strict separation between the genders and now includes three possibilities: a men’s section, a women’s section and mixed seating.
Guthmann acknowledged the great importance of concurrently honoring the synagogue’s history and planning for its future.
“This is a time to remember our past … rebirth ourselves and bring in younger members. We don’t want to abandon our past, we’re proud of it, but we see this as an opportunity to expand for the future.”
“We have hope for a beautiful future for the synagogue,” Reichman concluded.