After more than 50 years, Lubavitch leader is still on a mission

Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin met “the Rebbe” several times before the revered Chabad-Lubavitch leader’s death in 1994.

This included a private audience.

The Rebbe, the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, remains a guiding patriarch, even in death, for the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Firm ties to the Rebbe set Chabad-Lubavitch apart from other streams of Jewish thought. (Though Shmotkin would be quick to point out that Chabad-Lubavitch does not see denominations, just Jews.)

The Rebbe never told Shmotkin to start Lubavitch of Wisconsin more than 50 years ago, but he might as well have.

Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin

“He didn’t tell me exactly that message,” Shmotkin recalled. “After thinking for months, what did he say, I got it. He was saying stop being busy with yourself and get to doing what’s right.” 

Shmotkin brought the Chabad movement to Wisconsin back in October of 1968. “There was no red carpet,” he recalled.

Lubavitch of Wisconsin is a Torah-observant organization that seeks to serve Jews of all varieties. In 1970, Lubavitch of Wisconsin was operating out of fewer than a half-dozen outposts, including Chabad of the East Side and Madison Chabad House.

“The programs have been expanding and growing,” said Rick Marcus, chairman of the board for Lubavitch of Wisconsin.

Now, more than two dozen Chabad emissary families are operating synagogues, outposts and programs, including efforts in Waukesha and Green Bay. That growth is what Shmotkin said he takes the most pride in.

Shmotkin’s wife, Devorah Shmotkin, leads Jewish Beginnings Lubavitch Preschool and Bader Hillel Academy.  

Over many years, Devorah Shmotkin has had a great influence on the community with her husband, Marcus said. “It’s a team effort between the two of them,” he added.

No retirement in sight

Why make this your life’s work?

“This is when we come back to the Rebbe,” Yisroel Shmotkin said. “A giant of a person, bigger than life, larger than life who was completely devoted with every fiber of his being to God, to Torah and to the Jewish people. Selflessly.”

Yisroel Shmotkin met with the Rebbe repeatedly in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after Shmotkin came to America from Israel in 1961. “I came not because I ran away from Israel but because I wanted to be around the Rebbe,” he recalled.

But that draw to the Rebbe and his principles soon sent a young Yisroel Shmotkin to Milwaukee.

Now more than a half-century later, Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin is still serving as executive director of the sprawling Lubavitch of Wisconsin organization.

His office is in Milwaukee at the intersection of Kenwood Boulevard and Lake Drive – the building with the large menorah out in front. He gets up at 5:30 a.m., holds a class at 6:30 a.m. and retires between 11:30 a.m. and midnight, he said.

As for actual retirement, he said that’s not happening anytime soon.

“There’s things to do,” he said, “so long as there is one Jew in all of Wisconsin.”