By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Sixty menorahs burned brightly at Beth Hillel Bnai Emunah synagogue on December 16, 2017. The mass lighting marked the 60th anniversary year of the founding of the Conservative synagogue in Wilmette.
BHBE caps a seven months-long observance at a gala dinner dance on June 24. Greer Braun, ways and means vice president of the board, chairs the gala. The evening will showcase a running loop of images from the synagogue’s archives compiled by Bev Rosen and Eunice Hershman.
Throughout the year, the synagogue has honored and blessed members who joined during each of the six decades. The members are called to the ark and blessed. A Kiddush luncheon in their honor follows.
“It’s really been exciting,” said Rabbi Annie Tucker, spiritual leader since 2014. “It’s a nice celebration of the 60 years of our history and the community can look forward to the next 60 years.”
Dan Cedarbaum has completed a history of BHBE’s first 15 years as part of a broader look at the history of post World War II American synagogues. In 1956, about 20 founding families were among many Jews who began moving to western Wilmette from the south side, west side and Rogers Park. What was then Congregation Beth Hillel formerly established itself on April 16, 1958.
“They were pioneers of the Jewish suburbs—mostly young families with children, who were eager to create some kind of Jewish community and educate their children,” said Cedarbaum, who is executive director of the Mordechai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood.
They hired Rabbi Louis Lieberworth and decided to become a conservative synagogue. “The Jewish community grew very rapidly and they were at the right time and place,” Cederbaum said.
Families first met at an office at 1213 Wilmette Ave. The first building built at 3220 Big Tree Lane was a school begun in 1961 and finished in 1963. A sanctuary and chapel would be built by 1971 and connected to the original building. Most notable is its architecturally significant design, which drew much attention at the time, Cederbaum said. It sweeps steeply from back to front. The sanctuary was just refurbished this year with a generous gift from Jerry and Jackie Rosenwasser. A new sound system was also installed.
The synagogue had only one serious splintering in 1968, which produced Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer served from 1968-1973. He left for Israel where he became an important intellectual scholar in the Conservative movement. He was followed by Rabbi David Lincoln from Great Britain, who would go on to become the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.
Rabbi Annie Tucker took over the spiritual leadership in 2014 and Cantor Pavel Roytman officially joined the synagogue in 2010. “Our rabbi is really terrific,” said Marsha Lyon, synagogue president. “She reaches out to everyone.”
Bnai Emunah synagogue merged with Beth Hillel in 2004 at a time when the Jewish population had dropped in Skokie. “Bnai Emunah wasn’t thriving so they decided to merge with us,” said Hershman.
The synagogue has a new director of education and family engagement, Aaron Frankel from Anshe Emet, who has modernized the classroom experience for 140 kindergartners to high schoolers and the teachers. For example, the children studied Passover the entire year, creating a newspaper about the holiday, a circus act and many other projects that took them outside the classroom. “He has such wonderful modern ideas. It’s really energized what was going on the school,” said Hershman, who joined Beth Hillel in 1969.
Adult education has become more cutting edge. Last year, the synagogue ran a program about how science relates to religion.
Over the years the synagogue has become more inclusive and egalitarian. Members will represent Beth Hillel at the Pride Parade this month. “Change came slowly,” said Cedarbaum. “We didn’t reach full egalitarianism until the late 70s and early 80s. Of course today, we have a female rabbi.”
Today the congregation has about 500 families, drawing from Wilmette and Winnetka, Chicago, Skokie, Glencoe and other communities along the North Shore.
As for the next 60 years, Lyons says, “I hope we continue being vibrant and strong and continue to make a big difference in the Chicago area.”
“I see us heading in a great direction,” Tucker said. “Continuing moving forward, attracting new and young families, offering programming of real religious vibrancy and depth.”