As our synagogue on Kenmore now faces sale with an uncertain future, it is a most appropriate time to place to paper an overview of its history from the time of its dedication to the present. Sadly, over the years, much of its historical data has been lost, all the more so in recent years by neglect and vandalization of the synagogue premises. We present Agudath Achim North Shore Congregation.
Our Synagogue on Kenmore Avenue, a Romanesque-revival style building of pale gray brick and limestone with Baroque and Gothic detailing, was begun by the North Shore Sons of Israel in 1922, with plans from architect P. Bernard Kurzou. In 1923, with the first floor of the building completed, the North Shore Sons of Israel consolidated with the Agudath Achim (First Hungarian) Congregation to become the Agudath Achim North Shore Congregation. In 1925, the synagogue’s second floor sanctuary, then the largest in the city, was completed from plans by architects Dubin & Eisenberg. In 1948, the congregation built a Hebrew school just north of the synagogue at 5033 North Kenmore Avenue.
Vincent Michael, Assistant Professor and chair of historical preservation, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, commenting on the architectural merit of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation:
Dubin and Eisenberg constructed it in a couple of stages. The building incorporated ancient classical, Romanesque, Baroque as you go up the building. The second story was added later and has an Art Deco effect that was new at the time. It’s a unique piece of architecture in Chicago.
Henry Dubin (1892-1963) of Dubin and Eisenberg designed our Synagogue on Kenmore Avenue besting the design submitted by Richard Neutra. Richard Joseph Neutra (April 8, 1892 - April 16, 1970) was an Austrian-American architect, living and building for the majority of his career in Southern California. He came to be considered among the most important modernist architects. At the time, Neutra was staying with friends in Highland Park so that he might meet and study the work of renown Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.
Henry Dubin’s best known work is the award-winning Battledeck house (1930) that was built as his family home, an early modern home in design and construction technique. As related by his son Arthur:
It occurred to him [Henry Dubin] that the greatest need at the time, after the stock market crash, was to house the poor. And he went around the country being invited to lecture about prefabricating homes. In fact, one of those articles is near and dear to my heart, because of my railroad interest. My father wrote a sentence that Pullman cars that traveled from Chicago in the freezing winter weather and have to pass through Arizona desert in scalding heat are so well insulated. And the Pullman construction was only a rather thin prefabricated kind of construction. The idea was to build easily and quickly, and also fireproof. At the time that [Battledeck] house was built, it had the lowest fire rating of any residence for miles around. It was one of the first residences that he ever designed. And he conceived the idea of making the floor framework in large segments, and dropping them into place with a crane – the way they did tall buildings, steel buildings – and just bolt or weld them together. And that’s the way they built battleship decks.
Henry Dubin’s detailed hand drawn blueprints of Agudas Achim are housed in the Dubin collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The members of the Uptown-Edgewater community were successful businessmen and professionals. Dubin was given a large budget and complete latitude in his design. The result was magnificent. The intricate plasterwork, the bronze and brass candelabras standing over six feet tall adorning the pulpit, the brass candelabra sconces mounted on the walls, the intricate designs painted on the walls all and more, resulted in a unique and spacious Sanctuary.
The story surrounding the unusual Aron Kodesh, Holy Ark, made of Italian glass mosaic tile and standing nearly 30 feet high, designed by Dubin and fabricated in Germany under his watchful eye, is worth noting here.
In 1892, two young sausage makers from Budapest, Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichel, arrived in the United States. “The lure of potential business associated with the World’s Columbian Exposition brought them to Chicago in 1893. They peddled their unique all beef spiced hot dogs at the Exposition. Their effort was so successful they decided to establish their business in Chicago. They chose “Vienna” as the company name because that elegant city, the great capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had a reputation for fine sausage makers.
Their first location was in the small, three-story building on the northeast corner of O’Brien and Halsted streets, in the Maxwell Street market area not far from Agudas Achim’s first formal Synagogue, formerly a Baptist church on the corner of Halsted and Maxwell streets. Around 1920, they expanded the business into a block long facility, where they remained until 1975, when their plant at 2501 N. Damen Ave. was constructed.* Today, Vienna Sausage Manufacturing Company, is one of the major frankfurter producers in the United States.
When our congregation decided to build its new synagogue on Kenmore Avenue, Emil Reichel, desiring to do something in recognition of, and in gratitude for, the success he had in the United States, being an Austro-Hungarian Jew, undertook the cost for the creation of a unique Aron Kodesh, Holy Ark, for the new Sanctuary of the “Hungarische Schul,” as Agudas Achim was affectionately known. Visitors to our synagogue always marvel at its intricate design and the beauty of the thousands of colorful tiles used in its construction.
The dedication service of the new synagogue in February 1925, officiated at by Rabbi Dr. Jacob Sonderling and Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt and his choir, betokened a new and glorious future for the newly merged synagogue. Months later, however, Rabbi Sonderling, who already enjoyed a reputation in Chicago as a consummate orator, resigned as Rabbi of the congregation, and a group of individuals left the congregation to start their own synagogue in the neighborhood. As Rabbi Sonderling told the Board of Directors only five weeks after the merger of the two Synagogues when difficulties arose, “Gentlemen, goulash, herring and sauerkraut do not mix.” He was of course referring to the composition of the respective synagogues – Agudas Achim was comprised of mostly Austro-Hungarian Jews and North Shore Congregation Sons of Israel was comprised of mostly Lithuanian Jews.
The first High Holy Day services held at the synagogue in 1925 were officiated at by Rabbi Morris Taxon and Cantor Isadore Adelsman.
Membership grew at a steady pace with High Holy Day attendance reaching above-capacity crowds of 2,000. The steady growth of the synagogue required the Aragon Ballroom on Lawrence Avenue to be rented for the conducting of youth services on the High Holy Days.
The synagogue, always a strong supporter of Zionism, raised a great deal of money for both Israel bonds and the Jewish National Fund. Its annual Israel Bonds affair was considered a highlight on the social calendar of Uptown-Edgewater Jewry.
As the synagogue grew, its Sisterhood grew as well. For many years the Sisterhood’s annual affair was hosted by the wife of the President of Peterson Bank at a local hotel. Notables such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s grandmother, and famed Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky’s mother were Sisterhood members.
One of the important aspects of the the synagogue was always the dignity and quality of its religious services. With its magnificent acoustics and “Presbyterian” seating – curved pews, allowing each individual a clear and unobstructed view of the pulpit, with each seat provided with its own book stand – the Sanctuary offers a perfect venue in which to enjoy and be inspired by the voice of the trained Cantor.
In 1935, Cantor Aron Krits, formerly of Bais Yitzchak Congregation in Albany Park, became our synagogue’s Cantor. He served Agudas Achim for many years. His magnificent voice, having a similar timbre to that of renown Cantor and movie star Moishe Oysher, brought a new dimension to services at Agudas Achim. His offering of the liturgy accompanied by a choir under his direction, utilizing both traditional melodies as well as a modern twist, were beautiful and inspiring.
Other Cantors who graced our pulpit included Cantor Isadore Adelsman, formerly of Boston and later Cantor at Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cantor Engelhart, Cantor Sholom Kalib, formerly of K.I.N.S. Congregation in West Rogers Park and Cantor Kreiger of A.G. Beth Israel in West Rogers Park who, for many years in addition to serving his own congregation, joined us for the High Holy Days as A.G. Beth Israel employed an international Cantor and choir for these services.
Cantor Kalib has already authored the first two volumes of a ten volume thesaurus on European cantorial music entitled “The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue” published by Syracuse University Press.
Cantor Kalib was born in Dallas, Texas in 1929. After his bar mitzvah. the family moved to Chicago, where he was exposed to the many cantors adept at the Eastern European cantorial tradition. He was closely associated with two of the most famous Cantors of Chicago, Joshua Lind and Todros Greenberg. Kalib notated, arranged and edited Greenberg’s cantorial music, which was published between 1961-1978. In addition to being a practicing cantor, Cantor Kalib was a Professor of music theory at Eastern Michigan University.
Many prominent individuals served as president of Agudas Achim. In the early 1940s, Charles Mishkin, a noted Chicago attorney, served in this position for several terms. He brought new vigor and dynamic leadership to the congregation. He staged a successful campaign to raise $175,000 among its members for the purchase of a naval plane for the new cruiser Chicago. The drive was concluded at an enthusiastic meeting with $190,000 raised. The plane carried the name of our Synagogue. In that same year the Synagogue, through its Purim appeal, raised more money for Jewish National Fund than any other Chicago organization for the second year in a row.
In his column in The Jewish Sentinel, Rabbi S. Felix Mendelssohn quoted a letter written to the publication from Pres. Mishkin regarding a major membership campaign he spearheaded at our synagogue. In part Mr. Mishkin wrote, “In these days when everyone’s interest is self-gain, in material terms, and all one’s efforts are being employed in the search for and the seizure of the elusive dollar, is there any time or effort or imagination left to try to help build up the most important thing in Jewish life – the synagogue?”
In 1948, under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Shmaryahu T. Swirsky, responding to the growing needs of our burgeoning religious school, a purpose-built modern school building was erected adjacent to the synagogue. Including five classrooms, a general office, principal’s office and restroom facilities, this structure complemented the three formal classrooms and small auditorium and stage and temporary classrooms located on the lower floor of our synagogue, providing for the needs of a large and growing student population. An enclosed play area between the structures provided a safe environment for the students’ recess.
At this juncture, mention must be made of Dr. Sofer who, for many years, served as the Principal of our Hebrew school. His dedication to the school, its students, and Agudas Achim in general, is legendary. A dentist with offices on the corner of Kenmore and Argyle, the story is told that on one occasion, while drilling the tooth of his patient, he received a call from the synagogue, prompting him to leave his patient in the dentist’s chair, mouth ajar, as he ran down the block to tend to the needs of the synagogue.
Daily services, including Talmud study and a Chevra Thilim, a group of dedicated members who daily recited Psalms offering prayers for the ill, were long a component of the religious functions at Agudas Achim.
In 1951, with the arrival of Rabbi Sidney Riback, a Conservative ordained Rabbi, the synagogue, following the trend then prevalent in Chicago, dubbed itself a Traditional synagogue. Abandoning the Orthodox practice of separate seating in its Sanctuary in favor of family seating, it, nevertheless maintained separate seating in the alternative services in the synagogue’s Beis Medrash (Chapel) and auditorium.
The 1960s were marked by a mass exodus of Jews from the Uptown community, resulting in a downward spiral for the neighborhood and for Agudas Achim. This ever worsening trend began to take a severe toll on the synagogue in the 1980s when, as a result of ever diminishing funds and neglect, the Synagogue fell into worsening disrepair. The leaky roof complicated the situation, resulting in the crumbling of the magnificent detailed plaster work in the sanctuary and the rotting away of the pulpit. It was a miracle that the Aron Kodesh, Holy Ark, made of Italian glass mosaic tile, was not damaged by the ever increasing leaks in the roof of the building. Over the years, the now empty school building was devastated.
By the 1990s the synagogue had moved toward Conservative Judaism under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Michael Schorin, allowing women to be called up to the Torah. Now able to count both men and women for the necessary quorum of ten individuals, the minyan, it was still hard put to maintain regular Sabbath services.
With the arrival of Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz in 1998, a new glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon. Returning to full Orthodox observance, as a prerequisite for his assuming the pulpit of Agudas Achim, the synagogue quickly saw a resurgence. Sabbath services now had a regular attendance of about 70 followed by a weekly Kiddush. Friday night services were begun. Regular services on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were established. A new Megillah was purchased for Purim services.
Funds for the Sabbath and Holy Day Kiddush were provided by Maot Chitim of Greater Chicago, Chicagoland’s fund providing food for Passover to the needy, in recognition of the Rabbi’s reaching out to the thousands of Jewish seniors from the former Soviet Union residing in close proximity to the synagogue. A breakfast and class with the Rabbi were held on Sunday mornings. Oneg Shabbat dinners, meals in the new synagogue communal Succah, Purim and Hanukkah parties, an adult education program, once again filled the synagogue with many events attended by large crowds numbering in the hundreds.
The synagogue’s communal Seders, conducted in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and English, attended by nearly 200 individuals, were a rousing success. On one occasion, the then governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, joined us for the Seder celebration. The meals for the Seders were prepared in the newly renovated Synagogue kitchen under the capable leadership of Moshe Lefkowitz, the Rabbi’s eldest son. Food for the Seders was amply provided by the Maot Chitim Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.
The annual film festival utilizing the newly installed state-of-the-art audiovisual system in the synagogue’s renovated auditorium was a welcome addition to the many innovative programs initiated by Rabbi Lefkowitz. A professionally printed newsletter, prepared by the Rabbi, provided up-to-date information on the activities of the synagogue as well as a source for information concerning religion and other Jewish interests to the membership and general supporters of Agudas Achim. Sent to over 1,500 households, the newsletter brought the message of a reinvigorated synagogue to many Jewish homes beyond the Uptown neighborhood. Entering the world of cyberspace, the Synagogue created a well received website which included an online newsletter, the Synagogue’s history and plans for the future, as well as Rabbi Lefkowitz’s articles on Torah portions and current events.
Ambitious plans were begun to build a community center to replace the now abandoned school building adjacent to the Synagogue. The center was envisioned as a facility available for use by synagogue members as well as the general community of Uptown. Planned to contain a large auditorium, a senior center, a small workout center, and classroom space to house a Jewish day school, as well as a modern Mikveh, the center concept was hailed by the entire community as a welcome addition to the now gentrifying Uptown.
Rabbi Lefkowitz opened the synagogue to communal needs. The local Block Club held its monthly meetings in our newly renovated auditorium. The synagogue played a key role in the community’s summer block parties which were held in front of the synagogue on Kenmore Avenue. Public meetings concerning community safety and political elections were also held at Agudas Achim.
A significant interest in the renovation of the synagogue began to develop within the Jewish and general communities of Chicago. Mayor Richard M. Daley visited the synagogue for a personal tour of the facilities. He expressed enthusiasm regarding the development of a community center.
The future seemed promising. Then, tragically, a small element came into conflict with Rabbi Lefkowitz and his family, resulting in that element locking the congregation out of its synagogue. High Holy day services were canceled by this small group of individuals a few days before Rosh Hashanah. Ensuing legal battles in the Ecclesiastical Court, Bet Din, of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, the Civil Court, the Appellate Court and the Criminal Court created uncertainty as to the synagogue’s future viability within the Synagogue’s congregationally affiliated and in the Jewish community as a whole.
The accusations brought against the Rabbi and his sons found the Bet Din determining that there was no evidence to support them, and complementing the Rabbi on his service to the congregation, the Civil Court dismissing the case based on res judicata, the Appellate Court dismissing the case on the basis of ecclesiastical abstention and the Criminal Court dismissing the case based upon the State’s Attorney’s office not presenting evidence which would have precluded the grand jury from indicting the Rabbi and his sons. This evidence was a letter signed by Steven Turk then president of the congregation authorizing the very account that he accused the Rabbi and his sons of secretly opening in the synagogue’s name, which as well authorized the rabbi’s sons, then board members of the synagogue, to serve as signatories on the account.
This uncertainty curtailed financial support for the synagogue, thus bringing to a close the possibility of continuing the synagogue in its Uptown location.
Featured as a destination on Chicago’s architectural tour in 2012, the weekend event saw over 1,500 individuals visit our synagogue to see for themselves it’s unique architectural beauty and learn of its history through presentations given by Rabbi Lefkowitz and his sons. As of this writing, the future of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation has yet to be determined.
* quoted from “Hot Dog! Jewish Participation in Chicago’s Meat Industry”, Chicago Jewish History, volume 36, number 2, Summer 2012, published by Chicago Jewish Historical Society.