Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There Used to be a Synagogue Here: West Side

As stated in my South Side post, my interest in photographing former Chicago synagogues stemmed mainly from tracing the family history on the South Side. Although my mother’s parents both lived on the West Side (Garfield Park and Medical Center areas) during the first two decades of the twentieth century, I don’t know where they worshipped. After some research, I believe my mother's grandparents, the Sachs family, attended B'nai Jehoshua at S. Ashland and W. 20th. My grandparents (below) lived in Hyde Park following their marriage in 1922.

My grandparents, early 1920s

Finding the former synagogues on the West Side, a thriving area of Jewish life until the 1950s, presented an interesting challenge. Compiling a lengthy list from a 1919-1920 American Jewish Committee directory and the Chicago Ancestors collection at The Newberry Library, I knew driving to each one was out of the question, since most certainly no longer existed. In addition, one should spend a minimum amount of time walking the streets of North Lawndale, where many of the synagogues were located. The Maxwell Street district most likely contained no more buildings, thanks to urban renewal.

The solution: Google Street Views. Plugging in an address would find either an image of an empty lot, a building that obviously could not have been a house of worship or a church or similar structure that most likely was a former synagogue. The CityNews Chicago Web site was also helpful. I prepared itineraries for several areas – one could not hit all of the possible sites in one day – and headed off to parts of the city I’d never seen.

In the early 1900s, the Lawndale area had the world’s third largest Jewish population, behind only Warsaw and New York City, and more than seventy synagogues. Only one – Temple Judea – was Reform. A mix of large and small shuls not found on the South or North Sides was scattered across the area. Anshe Knesses Israel Congregation on W. Douglas Boulevard was the largest in the city, seating 3,500 worshippers. After the congregation merged and moved to South Shore, the Shepard’s Baptist Church acquired the building. It’s closed and sadly facing demolition. The former Hebrew Theological College, a large structure with Greek columns virtually across the boulevard, is being held up by wooden shoring and also faces the wrecker’s ball.

The former Anshe Knesses Israel Congregation, W. Douglas Boulevard

Other large congregations included Congregation Anshe Sholom on S. Independence Boulevard, which still has the orignal stained-glass windows; Kehilath Jacob, where Benny Goodman played the clarinet, on Douglas Boulevard; and Knessess Israel Nusach Sfard (K.I.N.S), also on Independence. One of the most beautiful is the former First Roumanian Congregation, which moved to Douglas Boulevard from what is now the last remaining former synagogue in the Maxwell Street area (see my family’s connection in “There Used to be a Synagogue Here: South Side” post).

The former First Roumanian Congregation, W. Douglas Boulevard, and
the former Congregation Anshe Sholom, S. Independence Boulevard

The real treasures are found on the side streets – Christiana, Drake, Homan, Millard and Ridgeway – and sometimes took two trips to find. Many of these tiny shuls are now vacant lots, as is much of North Lawndale. The remaining ones, now churches, give one pause to think of the Torahs and tallit-clad worshippers that once filled these buildings. Remaining Hebrew inscriptions and Stars of David intensify those feelings. They had names harking back to the homeland, including Bikur Cholim Anshe Rosh Poland, Anshe Russia/Polie Zedeck, Mikro Kodesh Anshe Lida and Pinsk, and Anshe Pavalatch.

The former Anshe Pavalatch, S. Christiana Avenue, and the former
Congregation Atereth Israel Anshe Ticktin, S. Millard Avenue

West Side residents were notably interested on what I was doing in their neighborhood – one asked pointedly, “Why are you taking pictures of the church?" – and unanimously friendly. Given large numbers of people congregating on the streets during the day, though, I don’t recommend wandering around there alone.

Side door, the former Anshe Motele, S. Ridgeway Avenue

For my entire collection of photographs, please see the “Former Chicago Synagogues” sets on

NOTE: The Hebrew Theological College was razed shortly after this entry was written. Anshe Knesses Israel is slated for demolition in early 2012,

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I was wondering if in your research you ever found the Bnai Jehoshua Temple on Ashland and 20th? My grandfather was the original architect for it. I have not been able to find an image of it however. Please let me know or where you think I might be able to find one. Thanks very much. I can really relate to your project - I have been looking up building he build using google earth.