By Leon Cohen
of The Chronicle staff
At the very beginning of the Six Day War in 1967, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, decreed that Lubavitch Chasidim could help Israel by encouraging Jewish men to perform the commandment of putting on tefillin.
A student named Yoseph Samuels decided to begin at once. Across the street from his Brooklyn yeshiva was a bank that had a high level official who was Jewish. So there Samuels went, visited the man in his office and helped him lay tefillin.
Decades later, Rabbi Yoseph Samuels, now director of Chabad of Downtown in Milwaukee, still remembers that “great experience.”
It showed how the Rebbe’s directives “help us discover how wonderful a Jewish soul is; how if you approach them with love, they will open up,” Samuels said in an interview at The Chronicle office.
This March, Samuels will begin his 30th year of work in Milwaukee with his wife and partner, Chashy, to reach and teach the “wonderful Jewish souls” they have found in the Milwaukee area.
The Joseph and Rebecca Peltz Center for Jewish Life in Mequon will mark the occasion by honoring the couple at a “Celebration Dinner” on Wednesday, March 4, beginning at 5 p.m., at the center, 2233 W. Mequon Rd.
Other honorees are Pamela and Ron Kohlenberg, who will receive the Community Service Award, and Jan and Aaron Katz, who will receive the Pillar of Chesed Award.
Until Moshiach comes
Rabbi Menachem Rapoport, executive director of the Peltz Center, said he wonders “why hasn’t [Samuels] been honored” previously in the community.
“He’s one of the greatest scholars Milwaukee has today,” Rapoport said, but “what’s most phenomenal about him is his love for people and his dedication to people as individuals.… His connection is not via any medium, but is person-to-person.”
One reason may be Samuels’ own reluctance. The center had approached Samuels “several times” for honors, but “we couldn’t get him to agree.” Even for this 30th year milestone, “it took a lot of arm twisting,” Rapoport said.
Indeed, Samuels himself said that the Peltz Center actually is “honoring all these wonderful people who put on tefillin and study Torah and permit me to do the things I do. That’s whom they’re honoring.”
As for his wife, the rabbi said she “is my complete partner.” Moreover, “there are a lot of people she teaches and who consult with her and confide in her.”
Karen Forman, co-chair of the dinner with her husband Marty, said she has known Chashy Samuels for more than 20 years, when the Formans moved to the Milwaukee area from Chicago.
“She was the first person to welcome me at her home with a Shabbat dinner,” said Forman. “Every conversation I’ve ever had with her has really reflected her gentleness and sincerity and great faith.… She is the most understated and humble person with so much wisdom and spirituality.”
Rabbi Samuels has always regarded himself as primarily a teacher, ever since the Rebbe told him, “You should be involved in Jewish education” shortly after his marriage to Chashy in 1969.
He served as a teacher in a Lubavitch day school in Miami, Fla., and worked at the Chabad in Seattle, Wash. He had known Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin, director of Chabad of Wisconsin, earlier, and when Shmotkin asked Samuels to come to Milwaukee in 1980, the Rebbe gave his blessing.
At first, Samuels was education director and taught at a community high school that didn’t last. In 1990, he opened Chabad of Downtown, creating an operation that is funded independently from the general Milwaukee Chabad operation, but that still coordinates with it, Samuels said.
In that operation, Samuels teaches classes and individuals, and is open for downtown workers who want to study or pray during their lunch hours. He also officiates at life cycle events; and he travels to Richland Center, about a hour’s drive northwest of Madison, “a few times a year” to meet with the small Jewish community there.
Yoseph and Chashy have seven children, of whom the youngest is still in high school and the oldest son directs a Chabad operation in Simsbury, Conn.
As for the future, Samuels said he plans to “welcome the Moshiach [Messiah] whenever he should appear, which hopefully will be very, very soon.” Until then, “there are always more Jews to reach, learn with and interact with.”
The celebration dinner costs $50 per person. For more information, contact the Peltz Center for Jewish Life, 262-242-2235