By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Toby Lou Hayman recalls being a little girl and asking if she could sing in the choir at what was then the South Side Hebrew Congregation. She was told by the rabbi that would never be possible because she was a girl.
Now, she is Hazzan and spiritual leader of the downtown congregation, reincarnated as Central Synagogue of Chicago, and one of the most egalitarian in Chicagoland, said President Marvin Weinstein. This High Holy Day season, the conservative synagogue enters its 130th anniversary year and a year of celebration.
“Central Synagogue is truly a unique congregation, which engages people of all ages and backgrounds in inspiring authentic organic Judaism that is both traditional and inclusive,” Weinstein said.
The celebration of the 130th anniversary will begin with High Holiday services and continue with special programming aimed to rededicate this goal and to honor alumni of the synagogue. An arts festival, including a benefit concert, is planned for the spring of 2018.
And like the Jewish people, Central Synagogue, has a distinctive persevering history and a somewhat nomadic journey. Though currently located at 122 S. Michigan, Suite 1449, the synagogue’s roots go back to the immigration era of Chicago on the city’s South Side where many Jews first congregated.
The synagogue was established in 1888 in the neighborhood where the Chicago White Sox play baseball. The congregation initially had 24 families and started out at 34th Street and Indiana Avenue. When the Jewish community moved further south in 1899, the synagogue relocated to 59th Street and Michigan Avenue.
In 1927, the congregation followed the Jewish community further south and relocated in an emerging Jewish neighborhood near 73rd and Chapel Boulevard called South Shore.
The South Side Hebrew Congregation became one of the largest Conservative synagogues in Chicago in the post-World War II era. The congregation built a synagogue and heder/community center. They were one of the first, if not the first, to offer an afternoon Hebrew School in Chicago, Weinstein said. Along the way, the congregation merged with neighboring Etz Chaim and Ohav Emunah synagogues.
The synagogue stayed there until the early 1970s when, for many reasons, the entire Jewish community left South Shore for the near North Side. The synagogue found refuge on the third floor of the Chicago Sinai Congregation building at 15 W. Delaware Place. After a stint at Water Tower Place, Central Synagogue relocated two years ago to the 14th floor of 122 South Michigan Avenue across from the Art Institute of Chicago. The synagogue is still the only centrally located Conservative congregation in the Near North/Downtown area. Its 350 participants and congregants come from all over Chicagoland.
“We are the only surviving congregation from the South Shore that exists in its original entity,” Weinstein says. “There are several elements of the congregation that have been historically retained.”
Adds Weinstein, “It’s a milestone that this congregation has been able to survive all these years when so many buildings have been knocked down.”
According to Hayman, who graduated from Jewish Theological Seminary, “It is a privilege and a blessing to serve a completely egalitarian congregation for so many years, where our liturgical heritage is so highly valued.
“This is a congregation where derech eretz is the rule and where I find a thirst for knowledge, coupled with respect and warmth toward each other—where the stranger becomes a friend in a heartbeat.”
The first event celebrating the congregation’s 130th anniversary of its founding on September 10, 1888 (5 Tishrei 5649) will be High Holy Day services conducted at the Drake Hotel by Rabbi Maralee Gordon and Hazzan Toby Lou Hayman. For information, call 847-763-8812 or 312-330-0154.