After Demise Comes Holiness

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

In the March 19th [2004] edition of The Chicago Jewish News, one of the featured stories was entitled "Vanishing History" - the story of Robert Packer and his crusade to save the history of Chicago's Synagogues. Using his camera, Mr. Packer is attempting to record for posterity what is left of the many structures that once housed the spiritual homes of yesteryear's Chicago Jewry. He bemoans the fact that these buildings are literally disappearing at an alarming rate with many already existing only in the foggy memories of their former Congregants.

His passion for our "vanishing history" is commendable and even inspiring until one reads of his desire to assist a poor Baptist Church, formerly the South Side Hebrew Congregation, in raising funds to replace its leaky roof. At the same time he merely mentions in passing the ongoing struggle of our Synagogue, Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, to maintain itself.

No mention here of assisting this active Jewish House of Worship in raising the funds necessary to renovate its facility - arguably one of the most magnificent Synagogues ever built in Chicago. With an affiliation of over 500 households, in one of the up-and-coming areas of Chicago on the lakefront where property values exceed those in West Rogers Park or even Skokie, our 80 year old building, the last of the grand Synagogues of yesteryear, is in an enviable position, save for one problem.

Our present membership is, in the main, made up of senior citizens from the former Soviet Union who live on modest incomes who are unable to provide the financial resources for repair let alone maintenance of our buildings. We are slowly attracting young Jewish families who have moved into our area. A few weeks ago we celebrated a wedding in our main Sanctuary of just such a couple who have become very active members. But the clock is ticking and, with the passing of time, the necessary repairs left uncared for become ever more severe and, in consequence, more costly to complete.

After 10 years of super-human commitment by our membership, we have completed the renovation of the lower floor of our main building. This includes our Social-Hall/Chapel, our kitchen, bathrooms, library, remembrance room and offices. We have, after some 30 years, finally installed a working heating and cooling system.

If Mr. Packer and others like him wish to save our "vanishing history," I would suggest to them that the renovation of a 2,000 seat Synagogue, a functioning Jewish House of Worship, recognized by everyone as a magnificent architectural structure in a growing Jewish community, seems to me a far more compelling and valued endeavor than the repair of the roof of a Baptist Church that once, many years ago, was a Synagogue. Frankly, if we do not get the help we need to save our buildings, we may have to consider their sale which, unlike other such sales, would yield more than enough money for us to relocate the Synagogue to the suburbs. If we were, G‑d forbid, forced to take this step, perhaps then Mr. Packer would like to take some pictures of the former Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation for posterity.