150 YEARS OF SHOLOM: The iconic congregation on Lake Shore Drive celebrates its long history and tradition of innovation

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Blessed with uncommonly long life for any public or private institution, Temple Sholom at 150 never just sits on any laurels, the loyal support of a largely-affluent congregation or a robust endowment.

The third-longest-running congregation in Chicago possesses a Jewish DNA that courts change and innovation, going beyond its Reform base while paying homage to tradition in a Lake View synagogue that is a tribute to classic 1920s architectural techniques.

Founded in 1867 as the first Jewish congregation on the North Side, Temple Sholom was burned out by the Great Chicago Fire four years later. But like most of the rest of the city, the temple simply rebuilt and grew, eventually occupying four permanent homes through its present headquarters.

The congregation would go on to accommodate the largest crowd at a High Holiday service in the United States, host all-world speakers Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr., and employ the first female Jewish clergy and first gay congregation president in the city.

Then and now, Temple Sholom developed a social conscience, staging a weekly program in which it feeds the homeless while supporting progressive actions throughout the community.

“We always opened our doors to everyone, and grown with the times socially,” said past congregation president Roger Rudich, now a co-chair of the 150th anniversary celebration.  Rabbi (Aaron) Petuchowski liked to talk about ‘Chai 18.’ We literally have 18 doors to the synagogue. We (symbolically) keep those doors open.”

Said president Marc Kaufman, interestingly the fifth person named “Kaufman” to lead Temple Sholom:  “I do feel it’s the best-kept secret in Lake View. There are so many Jews in the neighborhood. If they came in and saw what’s going on, we would grow even more.”

Groundbreaking

The temple elders, so to speak, hope to increase Sholom’s profile with a series of sesquicentennial events commencing this fall.

Rudich, wife Teri, and Beth and David Inlander chair the anniversary committee for Sholom, officially chartered on Sept. 27, 1867.  Hyde Park’s KAM Isaiah Israel is the oldest congregation in Chicago, tracing its roots back to 1847 as Kehilath Anshe Ma’arav (“Congregation of the Men of the West”). Chicago Sinai Congregation downtown was founded in 1861. Sholom is the oldest continuous institution on the North Side.

On Oct. 15, Chicago Architectural Foundation will run its Open House Chicago with Sholom’s Byzantine Revival/Moorish Revival-style building at 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive on the schedule.  

The official kickoff weekend will take place Nov. 10 to 12. A special Sesquicentennial Shabbat ceremony will be staged Friday, followed by a Saturday bus tour of Jewish Chicago. Then, on Sunday, the Sholom Fest birthday bash for all members will be held.

On Jan. 19, Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism will speak. Five weeks later, on Feb. 27, Sholom will continue its tradition of prominent speakers with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Then, on May 11-12, a Shabbat service will honor past clergy, followed on Saturday by a 150th anniversary gala at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where Kaufman works as catering manager.

Glee Club

The current clergy of Senior Rabbi Edwin Goldberg, Associate Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, Assistant Rabbi Scott Gellman and Cantor Sheera Ben-David do not require a big party to know what kind of shoes they fill or the tradition they are carrying on that began two years after Abraham Lincoln’s death.

Every time the clergy and congregants enter the sanctuary during the anniversary celebration, they’ll be reminded on each side of the main entrance with a full temple timeline.

The very beginning took place when a group of 32 German immigrants, realizing they and their children had to travel  south on bridges over the Chicago River to reach the remainder of Chicago’s small Jewish community, then located downtown or in neighborhoods just south. The newcomers established the North Chicago Hebrew Congregation on the northeast corner of Wells and Superior streets. The congregation, led by Rabbi Adolph Ollendorf, was at first Orthodox.

But three years later, the congregants migrated into the new Reform movement, led by Ollendorf successor Rabbi Aaron Norden. All scarcely had time to ponder their new style of Judaism before the great fire burned down the synagogue and many congregants’ homes and businesses.

Norden left the congregation due to the conflagration, and the Jews barely kept themselves together in different ad hoc locations over the next four years. “They didn’t quit,” said Goldberg. By 1875, North Chicago Hebrew Congregation finally settled in temporary quarters at Dearborn and Washington streets. Norden was lured back, introducing Friday night kabbalat Shabbat services read from the Reform book Olat Tamid.

A permanent building, with a seating capacity of 150 and classroom space for 100 children, was dedicated at the southeast corner of Rush Street and Walton Place on Aug. 22, 1884. By now membership was 100 families.

The synagogue grew in membership and influence. By 1909, a site for yet another bigger building was secured at the southwest corner of Grace Street and Pine Grove Avenue.  Noted synagogue architect Alfred Alschuler was tasked with the blueprint work. Amid the re-location, the Ladies Auxiliary urged a new name for the synagogue. Temple Sholom, “a sanctuary of peace,” was adopted.

Even the larger quarters – eventually sold to Anshe Emet – weren’t big enough to hold the throngs attending Kol Nidre services on Oct. 11, 1921. Shifted to Medinah Temple in River North to accommodate the crush, Temple Sholom hosted 3,500 members and 1,100 non-members in the largest Jewish service ever in the U.S. Soon afterward, services were broadcast on the new mass medium of radio.

Temple politics prevented Alschuler from having a hand in designing the present building, for which construction began in 1928. Rudich said temple vice president William B. Frankenstein, a powerful real estate developer, had pledged $100,000 for the new building. But Frankenstein had a conflict with Alschuler. He stipulated if Alschuler designed the building, he would withdraw the pledge. Norman Schlossman ended up as lead architect with assistance from Charles Hodgson of Chicago and Charles A. Coolidge of Boston.

The western wall of the 1,350-seat sanctuary was mounted on wheels so that it could be moved, opening the room into the adjoining social hall, almost doubling the capacity. Meanwhile, the actual bimah did not face east toward Jerusalem, as is traditional in synagogue design, because – Rudich presumed — temple elders desired an east-facing entrance onto Lake Shore Drive.

The building’s completion took place as the Great Depression began. “We moved over with great stained glass from the old building,” said Rudich.  “But as a result of the shortage of funds in the Depression, on the north and south sides of sanctuary, our stained glass is a very inferior quality compared to pre-Depression. That’s the physical evidence (of the hard times).”

The chief social advisor and closest relative of the man pledged to lift the Depression played to a packed house of 3,000 on Nov. 7, 1937. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt regularly reported back on conditions throughout the country to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her talk at Temple Sholom took place just one month after FDR’s famous “quarantine speech” about the spread of war at the dedication of Lake Shore Drive’s bridge over the Chicago River.

Eleanor Roosevelt was first of a great cast of speakers at Temple Sholom. On Oct. 21, 1964, in the same year as his Nobel Prize and passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to an even bigger, overflow crowd than Roosevelt on “The Future of Integration.” Later speakers included Chicago Cardinals John Cody, Joseph Bernardin and Francis George; Mayor Richard M. Daley, and Jesse Jackson.

New Rabbi Louis Binstock welcomed Eleanor Roosevelt to the temple. At the same time, devoted to the classical Reform tradition of ethical and progressive Judaism, yet with a mandate to increase membership, Binstock instituted changes. He introduced the Union Prayer Book, replaced Friday night services with Sunday morning worship, dispensed with aliyot, allowed men to pray without yarmulkes and tallit, incorporated orchestral and vocal musical accompaniment, and expanded the religious school curriculum. Sholom also acquired Westlawn Cemetery in 1959.

But if there was anything constant about Temple Sholom, it was change.  Following Binstock’s death, Rabbi Frederick C. Schwartz was appointed as senior rabbi in 1974.  Embracing Reform Judaism’s new traditionalism and renewed pride in Jewish ethnicity, Schwartz re-established Friday night Shabbat services. Services included more Hebrew language and greater member participation. Continuing education programs were established for adults. The high-school program was expanded through 12th grade.

Schwartz was serious about inclusion in temple life. He recruited cantor Aviva Katzman, the first female clergy member in Chicago, in the spring of 1987 out of Hebrew Union College in New York. Katzman, a lyric mezzo-soprano with a master’s degree in voice performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is now cantor emeritus after a 28-year run at Sholom.

“I remember we sang as we were interviewed,” Katzman recalled. “Rabbi Schwartz told me when I was hired that I came on not because I was a woman, but because I was the best candidate.”

Even with a politically liberal Reform congregation, Katzman had to face down some doubters about a woman’s role as a leader on the bimah and as a pastoral counselor in the congregation.

“Sholom was very welcoming, but it was a little overwhelming,” she said. “Female clergy were very new here. Women had made many more inroads on the coasts. I just tried to hang in there because they needed to get to know me. Occasionally there would be a woman who really found it hard to accept me.”

One other reason members of her own gender had mixed feelings is they were denied the chances only a decade or two before to become Jewish clergy, only to watch as Katzman was granted a starring role at a young age.

“I felt for them,” she said.

Katzman also had challenges of maternity leave, including one for twins, with her cantor duties, and staying on her feet for long periods on the bimah while pregnant. In a perfect world, Katzman might have started at a smaller congregation, but she still would not trade her experiences for anything.

Katzman was at the forefront of Temple Sholom performing same-sex marriages years before they were legal in the state of Illinois. A big proponent was Associate Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, who in 2011 secured a grant through the Union of Reform Judaism allowing the temple to enter a float in the Chicago Pride Parade. Temple Sholom has been represented in the parade ever since.

Conover was instrumental in persuading now-president Marc Kaufman and longtime partner Bill Healey to hold a Jewish wedding in 2010.

A Madison, Wisc. native and a generation-long hotel caterer,  Kaufman took office in June after being a Sholom member for 13 years. Seven years ago, he wondered how to handle the inter-faith angle of his nearly-25-year relationship with Healey, raised in a strict Catholic environment.

“Conover approached Bill and me,” Kaufman said. “We were in our 40s. I asked, ‘What advice do you have, Bill is pretty (Catholic) religious?’ But he loved coming here to services. She put the bug in our ear — we should get married in a Jewish ceremony.

We had a Jewish wedding. It was pretty transformative for both of us. He did say he wanted to convert to Judaism, and he did. We became increasingly involved in the synagogue.”

Katzman helped Conover officiate at Kaufman’s wedding.

“He wasn’t our first same-sex wedding,” she said. “I’m very proud. Somebody needed to pay attention to LGBT groups. They wanted to have a clergy to be liaison to those groups. I said I’d love to do that. That was very, very meaningful to me.”

More recently, the small North Side Reform Or Chadash congregation, which has served the LGBT community since 1975, merged with Sholom.

Kaufman is too busy balancing his Ritz Carlton manager’s duties and Sholom gig to advertise his status as the first gay president of a major Chicago synagogue. There are too many members of all groups to engage and more to recruit.

“It’s such an honor to be asked (to be president), it’s such a huge commitment and a huge role in the history of Sholom,” Kaufman said. “It is scary at times, but I am so proud of Sholom.”

He finds commonality in dual roles as hotelier and shul big macher.

“It goes back to my day job,” Kaufman said. “We added a new member engagement position. We try to make sure the member experience is without compare. From the minute they enter the synagogue, and I’ll quote Rabbi Conover, ‘They should have a sense of Shabbat. Whether on a Monday or Tuesday, whenever they call on the phone, write or e-mail, have a sense of safety and peace and welcoming.’ That’s what I think is so important. That’s how we can maintain our membership.”

Kaufman knows the Sholom timeline can only have additional mid-2000s entries if Millennials and even younger members come into the fold.

“We have a 20s and 30s Chavura, which is tremendously successful, and gained membership out of them,” he said. “Once a month, they have their own Shabbat services.”

Sisterhood

Sholom has more potential resources than many synagogues. But those that guide it cannot slough off.

Roger Rudich recalled the days after he assumed the presidency.

“I was the ‘recession president,’ in 2007-09,” he said. “On Erev Rosh Hashanah in 2007, the Dow dropped 775 points. I wove it into the speech that night to ask the congregation for money.  It was a challenge. But fortunately we came prepared.”

The leadership is prepared to stay nimble.

“Sholom often has had to re-invent itself,” said Senior Rabbi Goldberg. “We’re not competing with another synagogue. We’re competing with Disney.

“If I see a staff member not smiling on Shabbat, I ask them to smile. We’re cast members.”

And they’re staffing one of the longest-running shows in American Judaism.

1 Comment on "150 YEARS OF SHOLOM: The iconic congregation on Lake Shore Drive celebrates its long history and tradition of innovation"

  1. After moving to Chicago a year and a half ago, my husband and I decided we’d “shul shop” and go to as many different synagogues as we could, to see if we could find our spiritual home. We decided to start with Temple Sholom, as it’s two blocks away. Well, after attending one Friday night service, that was the end of our search. I could not ask for a more loving congregation. I always leave services feeling renewed and uplifted. We are filled with gratitude that Temple Sholom has beccome a part of our lives.

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