By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
From meeting in founding members’ living rooms to live- streaming services into congregants’ homes, what a difference 50 years makes.
Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook is winding down its jubilee year by remembering its origins and “having an understanding of where we want to go and who we want to be,” Rabbi Aaron Melman said.
Continuing to be a welcoming congregation, a place where people will feel comfortable, is the path on which Beth Shalom and its 1,150 families, is headed, leaders say.
“It was always close knit but we’ve become more aware of the needs of people outside of our walls,” Melman said. “Social action has become very important, a big part of who we are.”
The synagogue has held a jubilee event every month since July 2017, culminating June 10 with a free dinner honoring congregation leaders, past and present.
To celebrate, members marched in the Northbrook Fourth of July parade and presented an August concert of the Clergy Boys, featuring Beth Shalom Cantor Steven Stoehr. A family day, mitzvah day, Chanukah dinner, scholar in residence and USY alumni event were also among the special monthly events highlighting the 50-year history, said Jack Knopoff, the co-chair with his wife Caron of the 50th Anniversary Committee.
Originally meeting in each other’s homes, 17 families formed Congregation Beth Shalom and held their first Shabbat services in July 1967 at Northbrook Savings & Loan. Many of these founders remain members today. A few years later, the congregation purchased a piece of land on Walters Avenue, the current home of Beth Shalom.
The original members of Beth Shalom made the commitment of time and money to ensure that there would be a home for egalitarian Conservative Judaism in Northbrook, said Knopoff, who served as president in the mid-1980s.
Beth Shalom continued to grow both in members and physical size. In June 1980, Beth Shalom completed a second expansion and hired Rabbi Carl Wolkin, emeritus since 2015.
The congregation began holding minyan every day of the week, morning, evening and holidays, making it different than most other synagogues even today. In 1994, the congregation searched for their first assistant rabbi as it surpassed 1,000 member households. It was felt that two rabbis together with a full time cantor would greatly benefit Congregation Beth Shalom members and enable the congregation to offer innovative programs and reach out to its members in new ways. In 1995, Rabbi Melman was hired as assistant rabbi. Today the assistant rabbi is Ari Averbach.
The synagogue offers adult education classes, a speaker series, a Hebrew school, special education, young family outreach, social action programs, and youth groups among other activities.
Several years ago, the synagogue started “Shabbat with a Twist,” a preschool program where kids come on Friday mornings for singing and storytelling. They get to bring home the dough to make a challah at home.
The synagogue is multi-generational with many adult members a part of the community since they were born. One of them is Debbie Solomon, the current president.
“We’re a community that people keep coming back to,” Solomon said. “I see us still thriving and growing into the future. We’re doing more outreach to young families and to young people who’ve moved from here to the city. We’re meeting people where they are which means more out of the building experiences. And we want people in the city to know we are here for them when they make that trek out here to the suburbs.”
“As we celebrate our 50th year and look back to see how much we have accomplished, we are confident that we are in for 50 more glorious years,” Melman said.
“Congregation Beth Shalom has come so wonderfully far since our earliest days, and the future is brilliantly bright with unlimited potential.”
For more information about Congregation Beth Shalom and the June 10 dinner, visit www.bethshalomnb.org. Call (847) 498-4100 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.