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Yeshiva invites neighbors to help open addition

$7 million project at Torah institute is complete after bitter court battle

By Whitney Gould
of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: March 7, 2000

The scene has an Old Testament timelessness about it: young men in yarmulkes hunched over long tables in a big, book-lined room. With its beamed ceiling and luminous stained-glass panels depicting images from Jewish history, there is no hint of the bitter struggle it took to create this sun-filled space: the bais medrash, or educational and spiritual nerve center, of the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study, 3288 N. Lake Drive.

By the time the new room is dedicated Sunday, the rabbis who run the yeshiva for 138 young Jewish scholars hope, years of bad blood between the institution and its critics will at last have given way to peaceful coexistence. Neighbors have been invited to a special open house from 8 to 9 tonight.

"We want people to have a good feeling when they drive by," said Rabbi David Bogart, school development director.

With 82 youngsters of high school age and 56 at the college level, the school operates in an English Tudor Revival mansion built in 1913 by lumber baron Henry Thompson and designed by prominent Milwaukee architect A.C. Eschweiler. From 1948 until the Torah center bought it in 1984, the property served as a convent for Catholic and Episcopal religious orders.

Finished in early February, the bais medrash is where students gather to study the Talmud - a codification of the oral laws of Judaism - and to pray. Before, they worked in shifts in a crowded former ballroom.

With its honey-colored, laminated pine beams and tall windows overlooking a wooded ravine and Lake Michigan, the new room seems at one with its surroundings.

"It's unprecedented for us to have a spiritual place like this planted in a piece of nature," said Rabbi Yehuda Cheplowitz, one of the yeshiva's three deans. "To see the grandeur of nature in front of you is awe-inspiring."

The 23,000-square-foot addition, which cost $7 million, also includes nine new classrooms, a state-of-the-art computer lab and a science lab. From the street, none of the new construction is visible - a concession to neighbors, who strongly objected to an earlier plan to build on the north side of the front yard.

Still, the rear expansion nudges up against the property line of two neighboring homes to the south, whose owners in 1996 joined an acrimonious and ultimately unsuccessful court fight to stop the project.

Among the southern neighbors were Gilda and James Shellow, well-known attorneys. The Shellows recently sold their property, but not because of the Torah institute addition, Gilda Shellow emphasized. Asked her opinion of the finished project, she declined to comment.

Barbara Elsner, a preservation activist who lives nearby, said she and others remain unhappy about the addition.

"It's well-constructed," she conceded, "but it's still a monster building. The long-term effect on the neighborhood will be bad."

One of the fears critics raise is that the school might someday buy other properties nearby. But Bogart and Cheplowitz said that there were no such plans and that the school will never accommodate more than 160 students.

"We pride ourselves on giving a lot of individual attention," Bogart said. "You don't want to lose that."

Cheplowitz said the school made sure the addition, designed by the Kahler Slater architecture firm, was compatible in style and materials with the original building, as the city's Historic Preservation Commission required.

School officials said the attention to history, plus the litigation and the need to reinforce the bluff on which the addition perches, added more than $2 million to the cost. The overruns delayed other work, including construction of an already approved gymnasium addition.

The school has raised $4.5 million of the $7 million needed for the current addition, Bogart said.

He joked, "I'm thinking of going on that show 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' to raise the rest."

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 8, 2000.

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