Story by Ellen C. Warren, Photo by Vince Bushell – Micaela Olson Greets Rabbi at the Bremen Cafe

I’m not going to tell you much about Rabbi’s feisty side. Somehow it feels like an oxymoron coupled with his name. Yet, the man who keeps a keen eye sharpened for intolerance, has fought for his life while being beaten until his jaw and other bones were broken, and who has a real problem with police response times and indifference, is definitely a part of Rabbi Bradley Van Engel. He “tries to control (his) temper” but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions, and you might just hear them.

To most people, however, Rabbi is “The Flower Guy.” Rabbi loves flowers. You see him everywhere with his cart filled with flowers. He sells them. His tulips, lilies, asters, orchids, and roses make him a living. They also make him a lot of friends.

He’s been selling his flowers since 1995. After attending two years of MATC night school in Floral Design he began his business. “The first five years were bad. It’s gotten better but it’s gotten harder, so I still consider it bad,” he recalls with a small chuckle.

Those of us accustomed to seeing Rabbi on the streets and in the establishments of Riverwest might be surprised to learn that our neighborhood is only a small piece of the territory he covers. He serves clients “all over downtown, in the Third Ward, some stuff in Brewer’s Hill and a little bit on Brady Street and North Avenue,” as well as a couple more distant accounts.

This kinetic man sleeps in snatches, a few hours at night and a couple more during “siesta time” after lunch. The rest of the time, he’s on the move, except for a “slow time” between 7 and 8 pm, post-business and pre-bar hours. His day starts early servicing his “corporate clients” downtown which include offices, restaurants, salons, storefronts, and occasional hotels. He quips that if I think a lot of people know him in Riverwest, “You should see how bad it is downtown. Everybody’s beepin’ and honkin’ at me all day long. I keep on wavin’ and I don’t even know who I’m wavin’ at anymore!”

People began addressing him by the singular word “Rabbi” years back when he always dressed in black and white. Of course, it’s also accurate. The Flower Guy is indeed a rabbi, just not the type most of us are used to thinking of. He attended Orthodox Shiva High School and College in Washburn, a “suburb” of Brooklyn.

To achieve the title of rabbi one needs the schooling and must also have a trade. “You gotta be a tradesman,” Rabbi explains. “Some of them are plumbers. Like, you always think they’re all doctors and lawyers and they’re not, you know, they’re cabinetmakers, masons, you wouldn’t believe it! Very few are actually given a synagogue.” And what was his trade? “Cabinet maker,” he answers, pauses, laughs heartily and continues, “I hated it!”

So he’s done with cabinetmaking and with his tractor-trailer “deadheading” of the 1980s. His sparse living comes from his flower sales. “To me it’s not about the money, it’s what I like to do,” he exclaims.

Yet, he often contributes up to two-thirds of what he makes toward stuff for “the kids.”

The kids are the focus of his rabbinical life of service.

“I work with kids,” he says. “I work with all the rough kids.”

Rabbi counsels city youth. “I try to get them focused in the right directions, keep them out of trouble,” he explains, adding, “ It’s not easy. I lose a lot. I win about 10%. And I’m doing good!” He makes time four days a week for this work.

Rabbi is also one of the caretakers of a “farm set up for kids.” The farm, whose name and location will remain unidentified, was built for Jewish and inner city youth. It’s a fully functional farm that includes a camp, providing warm weather experiences. Rabbi spends six to 60 hours a week there, depending on the time of year.

Flowers are raised on a couple of its acres. They are one source for what he sells. The others he buys from wholesalers and independent growers.

Rabbi was born in Milwaukee and grew up on the west side near 68th and Glendale. He’s been living in Riverwest for a couple years, since selling his east side home, driven out by property taxes that rose from $700 to $4,800 a year in the eight years he owned it. During his happy marriage of nearly 20 years he and his wife grew a family of five girls and three boys, three of whom were adopted, as well as a number of foster kids. His smile and eyes light up when he talks about his wife who passed away in 1996. “She had such an imagination,” he recalls. “I loved it!” His children live in various neighborhoods of Milwaukee, including Riverwest, with one in Alaska. Rabbi’s hoping the latter comes home soon. He wants her to go to college.

As unconventional as his lifestyle and opinions may be, this is one area in which he’s adamantly practical. “I tell them, once they get their college degree they can do anything they want.” A few of his kids have their degrees. A couple others are working on them.

Rabbi thinks Riverwest is getting better. He’s very aware of the safety issues and is a good person to turn to about advice for staying safe. Being on the streets much of the time has given him a perspective that few have. It’s also exposed him to experiences that few would want.

Like stopping a rape attempt in a Riverwest alley. And two years ago he and his daughter were brutally assaulted on our streets by three teenaged boys who he believes were part of a larger gang. His daughter came out of it “okay.” He wasn’t so lucky, suffering a broken jaw, bruised ribs, back and shoulder, a limp and a slight concussion that lasted for two weeks. The fact that the police never showed up, even to talk to him in the hospital, didn’t improve his feelings about them.

But it seems nothing will keep Rabbi off the streets and away from his flowers and kids. He’s out there in any weather except an “occasional stop for the really strong, cold winter wind.” Buy his flowers, ask his advice. Just don’t kick his cart!

Riverwest Currents online edition – June, 2007