If you grew up Jewish in Chicago and are of a certain age, say, 50 or older, there’s a good chance the synagogue where you went to Hebrew School has moved to a new location or no longer exists. Either way, buildings were left behind in neighborhoods that no longer have a Jewish population.
In his new book of photographs, There Used to Be a Synagogue Here, Frederick J. Nachman shows us the enormous, awe-inspiring religious buildings as well as ordinary two-flats that once housed Chicago synagogues. While Nachman has uploaded more than 300 photographs of former Chicago synagogues to his flickr acccount, he selected 100 images of the better-known or architecturally interesting former synagogues for his book. In the accompanying text, he offers both a public history and a personal account of his family’s connections to several synagogues pictured in the book. (Disclosure: I received a review copy of There Used to Be a Synagogue Here courtesy of the author.)
Six degrees of separation
The histories of Chicago synagogues read like a family tree. This synagogue merged with that synagogue. They changed their name. They moved to a new location. The resulting web of related synagogues criss-crosses the city and suburbs, stretching from the mid-1800s to the present day. Example (and there are many):
- Beth Jacob Anshe Kroz, built in 1927 at W. 15th Street and S. Drake Avenue.
- Merged with Congregation Ahavas Achim of the Maxwell Street area.
- Renamed Beth Sholom Ahavas Achim, currently located at 5655 N. Jersey Avenue. In my old neighborhood, on the block where one of my classmates lived.
When I first came across Nachman’s photographs in 2009, I was surprised by the number, size and grandeur of more than a few synagogues on the South and West sides. Even in their current dilapidated condition, these structures are a powerful reminder of the strength of religious communities..
They periodically appear in the media, these old buildings that once housed synagogues, churches or, more often than not, both synagogues and churches at different times. A building’s architecture may attract the attention of preservationists, as happened in the Spring of 2012 before the demolition of the former Anshe Knessess Israel Congregation/ Shepherd’s Temple Baptist Church that was located at 3411 W. Douglas Boulevard. Later that same year, we heard of the possible demise of the 137-year-old St. James Church on the South Side.
The problem is, of course, money. But, even if we could afford to save these old religious buildings, why should we try?
In the case of the former First Roumanian Congregation, located at 1352 S. Union Avenue, it’s a matter of historical, not architectural, significance. For Nachman, the historical significance is public and personal: this is the last remaining former synagogue in the Maxwell Street area and it is where his father’s family worshipped. The University of Illinois-Chicago wants to demolish the building. Nachman believes, and others agree, it should be saved as a monument to both civic and religious history.
What do you remember?
Following Nachman’s lead, let’s remember the synagogues of Chicago. Where did you go and where was it located? I’ll go first.
Temple Beth-El, 3050 W. Touhy Avenue.
There Used to Be a Synagogue Here, available online at blurb. Hardcover: $50. Softcover: $42.
For multiple copies, please contact Fred Nachman directly by email at: fnachman (at) marjancommunications (dot) com.
Check out Fred Nachman’s blog, The View from Brule Lake.
More about former Chicago synagogues in my blogpost, Backward Glance.