By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
At the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, Chicagoans experienced an exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry on the history of the Jewish community of Chicago. A year later, the Chicago Jewish Historical Society formed having as its purpose the discovery, preservation and dissemination of information concerning the Jewish experience in the Chicago area.
The 500-member organization is this year celebrating its 40th anniversary. “In order for us to understand ourselves as a community and to know where we want to be going in the future, we need to understand our past,” said Rachelle Gold, co-president with Jerry Levin, of a board consisting of 20 members. The organization was founded in 1977 by 25 members including founding President Muriel Rogers.
“Preserving history is our way of uniting us, creating a stronger identification as a community,” Gold said. “We can look back and see all the challenges we had over the years and how we come to together to meet those challenges and accomplish what we have done in the last 180 years that Jews have been in Chicago.”
Digitization has made history more accessible and the organization’s website carries an abundance of information, some of it in the form of a quarterly journal dating back to the 1977. It started off with society news and gradually became a sophisticated historical publication of all original articles on local Jewish history. The editor and designer is Beverly Chubat.
The society holds expert guided summer tours of Chicago neighborhoods and Midwest Jewish historical sites such as Springfield and Milwaukee. A leader is urban geographer Irving Cutler, author of the iconic ‘The Jews of Chicago: from Shtetl to Suburb’ (University of Illinois Press, 1996). Cutler is now in his 90s and one of the founders of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society.
The society holds quarterly open meetings, free to society members, featuring programs on Jewish history. Its oral history project records the recollections of Chicago’s Jews. The society has published books including monographs of Jewish history. One of the books features fascinating nuggets originally printed in the society’s journal: Looking Backward: True Stories from Chicago’s Jewish Past (2002) by Walter Roth. He was president of the society for 22 years from 1988 to 2010.
Lecturers talk about art, architecture, neighborhoods, politics and literature. Recent programs include one that looked at Arnold Horween, a Jewish Chicagoan who played football for Harvard in the 1920s and became coach of the team. That was a time of anti-Semitism and quotas put in place by Ivy League colleges.
Members and organizations support the work of the organization with gifts that fund arts programs and original research. The late Seymour Persky made a bequest, for funding arts programs, which enabled the society to hold a concert of Jewish liturgical music by composer Max Janowski. He was the musical director of KAM Isaiah Israel.
The society also awards grants to young historians who are paid to research topics. Nathan Ellstrand, a graduate student in U.S history at Loyola University, researched letters, documents and artifacts donated to the society by a woman whose ancestors lived in Chicago in the 1870s. His article will be featured in the next issue of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. The society also sponsors a Jewish history award for high school students at the annual Chicago Metro History Fair.
The exploration of local Jewish history is never ending, Gold said. “The more you learn, the more there is to learn, leading you to explore something else.”
Join the Chicago Jewish Historical Society through its website, www.chicagojewishhistory.org, by phone at 312-663-5634 or by email at email@example.com.