By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Temple Beth Israel, one of the most prominent Reform congregations in the northern suburbs, is also one of the most long-lasting.
One-hundredth birthdays are always a cause for celebration for a synagogue. Michael Lorge, whose family’s history is very intertwined with Beth Israel’s, estimated that no more than a dozen Chicago-area congregations have reached their centennial in their original form, without mergers with other synagogues.
Which is why Beth Israel’s milestone birthday on Jan. 31 will be the kickoff to a number of gala events, with party planners looking ahead as much as behind with the theme “Lighting the Way to Our Future.”
“While we should be proud of our first century, we should also be looking forward to our second century,” said Rabbi Michael Weinberg, who has been the temple’s spiritual leader for more than 30 years. “We are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and are looking forward to an even brighter vista.”
Weinberg is one of a trio of rabbis, all with at least three decades of service, whose Beth Israel tenure has spanned almost its entire history. Felix Mendelsohn became the first full-time rabbi in 1919. Serving until 1952, he was succeeded by Ernst Lorge, only seven years removed from being personal witness to the liberation of Nazi concentration camps as a U.S. Army chaplain. Lorge retired in 1984. A short-term rabbi preceded the arrival of Weinberg in 1987. He oversaw the re-location of Beth Israel into its present home in a former bank building at 3601 W. Dempster in 1989.
The temple’s story began with its establishment as the first Reform congregation in the Albany Park neighborhood, as Jews migrated out of their first landed-in-America homes on the old West Side and in Humboldt Park.
It started with a $5 rental fee for High Holiday services in 1917 at Albany Park’s Kimball Hall given by the owner of Tannenbaum’s Deli on Kedzie Avenue to a “Mr. Novack” (first name lost to history), a dry goods merchant on Lawrence Avenue. Concurrently, a meeting convened among local Jews to decide if the first Jewish organization in the neighborhood would be Orthodox or Reform. Temple Beth Israel (Reform) and Beth Itzchok (Orthodox) were formed out of the meeting.
Beth Israel’s official incorporation in the state of Illinois was Jan. 31, 1918, so that date also has become its official birthday.
Services were held in various locations until the permanent synagogue was built at 4850 N. Bernard Street. Beth Israel held out in Albany Park, after the majority of neighborhood Jews had departed, until 1981, when the original building was sold. The congregation relocated to a school building at Howard and Crawford for an eight-year stay.
Membership rolls have featured a number of famous Chicago Jews. Political leaders like assistant state Democratic majority leader Lou Lang and Seymour Simon, former Illinois Supreme Court justice, Cook County Board president and 40th Ward alderman. Another member was musician Steve Goodman, whose “Go Cubs Go” ditty is sung by the Wrigley Field crowd after every Cubs victory. Also Sidney I. Cole, who designed and installed the popular coal mine exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
But the towering figure in the temple’s history remains Rabbi Ernst Lorge, who died at 73 in 1990.
A native of Germany, Lorge began his rabbinical studies in Frankfurt, but fled in 1936 after a purge of Jewish professors claimed his father’s job. After being ordained in 1942, his Army chaplain’s duties took him to the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and work resettling displaced persons for three post-war years.
Co-founder of Olin-Sang Ruby Union Institute in 1952, Lorge was involved in the civil rights movement as co-founder of the Chicago Commission on Race and Religion. He mediated between the city and protestors amid the racial turmoil of the 1960s. Invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy, Lorge served on a presidential race-relations advisory committee.
He later returned to Germany to work with the surviving Jewish community. Nearly a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he became the first post-war Western rabbi to conduct services in East Berlin.
In addition to influencing his son Michael’s career and commitment to progressive Judaism, Lorge dramatically set the course for his congregation’s community involvement.
“Our commitment to social justice certainly is built on the foundation Rabbi Lorge put here, and Rabbi Mendelsohn before him,” Weinberg said. “Also, Rabbi Lorge was very active in the Labor Zionist movement, and we still are a strongly Zionist congregation, very much connected to Israel.”
Weinberg, 65, has his own record of accomplishment.
He is a past president of the Chicago Association of Reform Rabbis, and served for four years as National President of The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE). At the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp, he has been particularly devoted to the Chalutzim program, an intensive Hebrew immersion program for teen-agers. He serves on the national board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), and has represented the CCAR as vice-chair of the Reform Movement’s National Commission on Lifelong Jewish Learning.
With 31 years in the pulpit, Weinberg only has three more years to go to become the record-holder in longevity at Beth Israel. But he claims that is not a prime motivation for continuing his service.
“I don’t think of it in those terms,” Weinberg said. “For me it’s an opportunity to be of service to the Jewish people through serving the congregation. Doing it as long as it makes sense for me to do it is fine. I don’t play the numbers game.
“I love what I do and I love doing it here at Temple Beth Israel. We have a great relationship. I’m really honored and proud to be the rabbi of the congregation. I now do bar and bat mitzvahs, and did the bar and bat mitzvahs for the children’s parents. The opportunity to be connected to people’s lives through life cycle events is a real gift for me.”
The goal of the 100th birthday celebration, said Weinberg, is “to make sure that it will touch everybody. We want to make sure everybody can see their own personal Jewish story as part of the Temple Beth Israel story. And so we’ve tried to think of a number of different ways and projects at different age levels and different forms of celebration.”
The official birthday party at the temple on Jan. 31 will include birthday hats, decorations, cake, pizza, games and all the trimmings usually found at such a celebration.
“We’ll have a scavenger hunt in the building,” Weinberg said. “The archives will be displayed in the library. A project for kids and younger families involves creating birthday boxes for people less fortunate to be able to celebrate their own birthdays. We’re trying to imagine participation at various levels.”
Michael Lorge’s own event-planning experience and advocacy of art and sculpture will be in evidence. Village counsel of Skokie for his day job, Lorge has drawn inspiration from his decades running the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival.
“We will be creating an inter-active and aspirational art piece for the building,” he said. “Another project is creating a very unique kiddush cup – a Social Justice Centennial Cup. The base will replicate a sort of spiral candlestick design that my father was given by survivors as he was liberating camps in 1945. The longstanding mission of social justice is a real pillar of congregation to commemorate. We’ll have a full-sized one for the pulpit. Then we’ll make available smaller limited edition cups for the congregation to purchase.”
All the while, youth will be served in marking the anniversary. Religious school students in grades preschool through high school are participating in the TBI Centennial Art Installation, consisting of giving visual representation to the younger ages of exactly what 100 means. All students will collect 100 items to be inserted into 100 mason jars: beads, coins, buttons, paper clips and other items to be displayed at the school.
Lorge also has spearheaded the social-media effort to reach out to temple alumni in the Chicago area and beyond. “We have a Facebook page to reach out to alumni,” Lorge said. “As people find it, if they connect with it, we will send them the cover page of the temple bulletin from the week of their bar or bat mitzvah. We have copies of the temple bulletin going back to the beginning. These are the things that make our history come alive.”
Beth Israel is not just making merry. The thread of social justice work continues in tandem with the anniversary events. The temple is partnering with the Second Baptist Church of Evanston to convene a series of conversation circles about race relations. Each circle will be comprised of an equal number of members from each of the congregations, facilitated by a pair of specially trained facilitators. The circles will meet for about five or six months. The goal is to “foster relationships, to listen and learn, to share stories, and then to broaden the conversation, the understanding and the action,” according to a Beth Israel release.
Meanwhile, all 460 students of Theodore Herzl Academy — a turnaround school in the Lawndale neighborhood — received presents from temple members, many of whom trace their roots to the West Side neighborhood.
“People throw around the term ‘legacy’ a bit too much,” Lorge said. “I prefer to use ‘intentionality of purpose.’ Many people over a lifetime had their passion for Judaism linked to Temple Beth Israel. Each had different intentionality in maintaining Temple Beth Israel to where it’s still a pre-eminent, progressive congregation.”
Temple Beth Israel’s birthday celebration is at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31. Admission is $8 for dinner and treats. Included will be games and skits for children. Reservations can be made by calling 847/675-0951 and the fee can be paid at the door.