If Rabbi Raphael Wachsman had been a “realist,” it is doubtful The Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study would still be a part of the Milwaukee Jewish landscape.
To say Rabbi Wachsman wasn’t “realistic” is to pay a compliment of a very high order. He had the vision to see things that were possible when many others couldn’t see those things. He had the determination – feel free to call it stubbornness – not to be stopped by problems that would have led others to give up. He had the cheerful and optimistic personality of someone who cared deeply for just about everybody he knew and was convinced good things were ahead for all.
Rabbi Wachsman was one of the three founders who opened a small yeshiva in 1980 in Milwaukee, a place that had never had such an institution before. How “realistic” was that? Not very. But WITS grew, attracted students from across North America, and became a special asset to Jewish life in Milwaukee and far beyond.
The three founders of WITS – along with Rabbi Wachsman, they were Rabbi Yehuda Cheplowitz, who remains a leader (Rosh Yeshiva) of WITS, and Rabbi Moshe Dov Harris, who teaches now at a yeshiva in Israel — were each idealists and excellent educators who shared the vision of opening a yeshiva in Milwaukee. Upon the aliyah of Rabbi Harris, Rabbi Avrohom Boruch Rauch joined WITS as a rosh yeshiva, bringing his own unique talents and special qualities to the developing bais medrash program.
But, as the yeshiva developed, it was Rabbi Wachsman who took on the bulk of the business and operational needs of the yeshiva. In simple terms, that means he became the one who worked constantly on raising funds for WITS and on managing the finances. There were financial crises too many to remember and difficult decisions at times. Rabbi Wachsman did not falter. He was not alone in the work and not alone in the determination. But he carried the biggest load.
He worked the phone constantly, visited often with people of all kinds, and travelled frequently – and it wasn’t just to raise money. Just to check in with former students or parents, just to be there for a celebration or to make a shiva call, just to maintain the large network of contacts he had. And, especially to check in with his family. He and his wife, Perel, who taught for many years at Hillel Academy and Yeshiva Elementary School, have five children. Rabbi Wachsman spoke with each of them almost every day.
WITS has grown and stayed vibrant. It opened initially in Whitefish Bay and moved in the mid-1980s to a former mansion on north Lake Drive, where it remains. The yeshiva has a high school with about 70 students currently and a post-high school Talmudic learning program (bais medrash) with about 35 full-time students. Milwaukee and Chicago remain the home towns of many WITS students, but students enroll from coast to coast. They and their parents regard WITS as one of the highest quality yeshivas in America, not only for its religious studies but for its general studies high school program.
WITS goes on, but Rabbi Wachsman could not. As his health declined in recent years, he spent more time in Jerusalem, with the goal of going back to teaching and learning full time in years some would label “retirement.” He passed away on Feb. 6, 2018, in Milwaukee. He was buried in Israel.
Rabbi Cheplowitz, who worked with Rabbi Wachsman for nearly a half century, said at funeral services in Milwaukee that all the people who taught at WITS gave up a lot for their work. The pay is not great, the hours long, the demands of working with teenagers great. But they are doing what they love to do – Jewish education.
Rabbi Wachsman was the one, more than anyone else, who gave up what he loved to do – teaching – to shoulder the load of the practical demands of WITS.
Only someone as “unrealistic” as Rabbi Wachsman could have done so much for so long in making WITS a reality that includes over 1,200 alumni who have gone on to become leading members of Jewish communities in Milwaukee, Chicago and many other places. Only someone like Rabbi Wachsman could build the momentum of WITS that continues now in his absence.
Alan Borsuk is president of the board of governors of The Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study.