By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
In the Bible, 70 years is considered a lifetime. For the life of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, seventy years represents a five-generational community with deep roots in the North Shore.
In 1947, 16 families looked to create a presence for the Conservative movement on the North Shore. Just two years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, they began their plans for the congregation even before the establishment of the State of Israel. On July 18, 1947, they received the charter for the new organization and articles of incorporation were issued by the state for North Suburban Synagogue Beth El.
This year, the synagogue is celebrating 70 years with a series of parties and educational programs for the 1,100 family members. Many of the celebration events are open to the public.
The synagogue has always celebrated during milestone years, seeing the occasions as a time to reflect on its journey, to tell the story of its founders and vision, to celebrate its achievements and to plan for the future.
“Our whole history has been unique and exciting for us,” said Jerry Blumberg, head of the 70th Anniversary Committee. “We never get stale.”
“We continue to thrive as a congregation,” said Richard Zelin, current synagogue president. “We have a dizzying array of activities, for the young through old. It’s a very busy and thriving place.”
Mort Steinberg is the synagogue historian whose milestone book will be published in 2018 and available to members and anyone interested in the synagogue’s history. The 100-page book is long in the making, having been started by Leonard Birnbaum and updated since 1988 by Steinberg.
Highlights of the early years in Steinberg’s history are: The story of Benjamin and Gertrude Harris, the very observant leaders of the synagogue’s pioneering families. They regularly opened their home in Glencoe for traditional Jewish services. Those initial meetings planted the seed which eventually would grow into North Suburban Synagogue Bel El. Families joined mostly from Highland Park, Deerfield, Glencoe and Northbrook.
In the fall of 1947, a Sunday school, Hebrew school and preschool (now with 200 children) were established and held at the Winnetka Women’s Club under the supervision of Beth El’s first director of schools Meyer Shisler.
The summer of 1948, the congregation purchased a seven-acre estate at 1201 Sheridan Road in Highland Park, which changed to 1175 Sheridan through a new street numbering system. The lavish 20-room residence with a coach house and English teahouse in the backyard overlooked Lake Michigan. It quickly became a second home to Beth El’s families. The synagogue would build numerous additions over the years including the school building, sanctuary and a large auditorium.
According to Zelin, the congregation was founded at a time where few Jews were living on the North Shore, compounded “by a great deal of skepticism about the viability of Jewish life in suburban communities.” The Lakeville studies by Marshall Sklare did an exhaustive analysis of salient components of Jewish identity in the North Shore and concluded that the level of observance and affiliation were low.
“The founders beat the odds and proved the study wrong. It was their vision, their hard work and Rabbi Vernon Kurtz’s distinguished leadership, that made it not only survive, but flourish,” Zelin said. “It’s an outstanding example of what Conservative Judaism should look like, locally and nationally. The congregation was able to withstand those challenges.”
Rabbi Kurtz said this is a time to recognize “the vision of our founders and how it has progressed throughout the years. It’s an opportunity to study our history, learn from it and plan for a vibrant future.”
For more information about North Suburban Synagogue Beth El, visit the website www.nssbethel.org or call at (847) 432-8900.