Friday, January 25, 2013

Save The First Roumanian Congregation

Agudas Achim
Ahavas Achim
Anshe Antipole
Anshe Emeth Nusach Sfard
Anshe Galitzia
Anshe Kalvaria
Anshe Knesses Israel
Anshe Lebowitz
Anshe Lubavitch
Anshe Luknik
Anshe Motele
Anshe Odessa
Anshe Pavolitz
Anshe Pinsk
Anshe Shavel and Yanova
Anshe Ticktin
Anshe Vilno
Anshe Zitomer
Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol Kehilath Hasfardim
Beth Hamedrosh U’Bnai Jacob
Beth Jacob Anshe Kroz
Bikur Cholim
B’nai Abraham
B’nai Itzchok
B’nai Reuven
Mishna U’Gemora
Mikro Kodosh
Ohel Jacob Anshe Kovno
Poali Zedeck
Shaarei Shomaim
Shomrei Hadas

There is one name missing from this list: First Roumanian Congregation. It’s missing because of all the above, it is the last surviving synagogue building in the Maxwell Street area. The pre-fire building (1 of only 112 remaining) is facing demolition, and Preservation Chicago put it on “The Chicago Seven,” its list of the most endangered structures in the city.

 Constructed at 497 (now 1352 S.) Union Street in 1869, the building’s various ownerships reflect the changing demographics of the city. Its architect was Augustus Bauer, whose firm also designed St. Patrick’s Church and the Tree Studios. A German-speaking high school, part of the neighboring German United Evangelical Zion church, was the first tenant. Beginning in 1875, a branch of the Foster School, a public school, leased the building.

Former First Roumanian Congregation/Gethsamane Missionary Baptist Church
With the influx of Eastern European Jews on the eve of the 20th century, the First Roumanian Congregation purchased the building in 1897. Several founders were from the city of Isai, which through pogroms and later the Holocaust saw its Jewish population virtually eliminated. With a growing congregation and the movement of families to Lawndale – which eventually had the third largest Jewish population in the world behind Warsaw and New York City – the first Roumanian built a large, ornate synagogue at 3622 W. Douglas Boulevard in 1925.

Former First Roumanian Congregation, 3622 W. Douglas Blvd.
Chicago’s African-American population, confined to certain parts of the city, moved into the Maxwell Street area during the 1920s. The next tenant gave the name for which it is now popularly known: Gethsamane. On May 27, 1935, the Gethsamane Missionary Baptist Church, organized in 1922, made S. Union Street its new home. The congregation erected a new fa├žade on the front of the building in 1944, obliterating Bauer’s design. The construction of the adjacent Dan Ryan Expressway (you can see the building when driving in either direction), urban renewal and expansion by the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) led to a dwindling membership, and the church closed in 2005. Purchased by an investor, the South Union Arts Center was the final tenant, closing in 2008.

The Gethsamane Church has sported a large “For Sale” sign for at least three years. The broker describes it as land for sale, 26,000 square feet that can be divided into 11,000 square feet. The listing price is $3.5 million. This has not stopped plans by UIC to construct the John Paul II Newman Center Student Residence, at first a 17-story, 500-bed dormitory since scaled down to 5½-floor (what’s half a floor?), 250-bed facility.
Given the poor job done in preserving any semblance of character in the old Maxwell Street area, one would think the powers that be would want to save the Gethsamane. I find the arguments against preservation rather lame – merchants will benefit from additional money spent by the students, it’s not architecturally significant or financially viable, its vacancy is dangerous, etc. – when compared to the loss of the last vestige for which Maxwell Street is best known. Like it or not, this was (and for some still is) “Jewtown.”  There were more than 30 Jewish congregations and only one is left. And my great-grandparents worshipped there after arriving in Chicago at the turn of the century, and my family is buried in the First Roumanian Congregation Cemetery in Waldheim. I know it’s personal, but I think preservation is more important than how many bags of Skittles the students will buy or how many pizzas they’ll order.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

There Used to Be a Synagogue Here: Former Chicago Temples

The above title is similar to two posts in October 2010, detailing my efforts to photograph all (or nearly all) of the remaining former synagogues in Chicago. It’s taken from the song “There Used to Be a Ballpark,” recorded by Frank Sinatra. Old baseball parks are another one of my interests (see 

“I’m going to get these photos published in a book,” I kept saying, month after month, year after year without making more than cursory efforts to find a publisher. Although books have contained photos of former synagogues, none is dedicated to a compilation of what these buildings look like today.

My book – There Used to Be a Synagogue Here: Former Chicago Temples – was published this month. Here’s how it was done.

Former Isaiah Temple (see note at the end)

While driving on the South Side, I passed what remained of the former KAM, the oldest Jewish congregation in Chicago, at E. 33rd St. and S. Indiana Ave. A disastrous fire to the Pilgrim Baptist Church, designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, had left only the front and two side walls standing. I stopped the car and shot the front, sides and back of the building and talked to some church members who were meeting across the street.

My project initially centered on the temples for which our families had worshipped on the South Side. Further research, however, found a much larger web of family connections and the intense desire to discover more about the synagogues of bygone days. I used three main sources for finding the subjects: Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues by Robert A. Packer (Arcadia Publishing, 2007), American Jewish Committee lists from the early 1920s and the Synagogue Collection from, an online list of 279 institutions from The Newberry Library.

Armed with a myriad of addresses – from Rogers Park to Hegewisch, Maxwell Street to Austin – I now needed to streamline my efforts. The Street View option on Google Maps made the task of determining which buildings still exist much simpler. By entering an address in the search bar and dragging the Street View icon to that location, I could observe one of three situations: a vacant lot (very prevalent), a building that obviously was not or never had been a house of worship or – if lucky – a structure that most definitely looked like a former synagogue.

 My photographic journey took me to many parts of the city. Luckily, I had no trouble shooting in the places like Lawndale, Englewood and Bronzeville, where the people were uniformly friendly (some invited me inside) and interested in why the white guy was taking pictures of Baptist churches. Eventually, I compiled more than 300 photographs, which I posted on Flickr (  Comments on the photos included translations (I don’t know Hebrew), suggestions for places I’d missed and an occasional correction.

After purchasing a new camera in November 2012, I decided to restart the project in earnest. I made a list of buildings to re-shoot and vowed to contact publishers. One month later, at a lunch gathering of the ChiFlickr Chicago Meetup Club, an informal group of photographers who made their initial contacts on Flickr, I voiced my desire to get serious about a publisher. I also said I didn’t really want to self-publish the book. “Why not?” asked Kevin Eatinger, a professional photographer, art director and graphic designer, pointing out he’d done several (and I add excellent) books of his work. He suggested Blurb, his publisher of choice; one doesn’t pay anything until a book is sent in for printing and publication.

Returning from lunch, I went right to Blurb ( and perused the site. The tutorial made it look fairly simple, so I plunged right in. My experience in book and magazine publishing helped greatly on designing the book, for I had to pick out each page layout individually, fit copy into sometimes tight spaces and ensure headers and captions were stylistically consistent. Less than one month later, the books (hardcover and softcover) were in my hands.

Because I controlled all aspects of production, I made the book historical with a personal perspective. My parents grew up on the South Side but one set of grandparents was from the West Side, which provided an impetus to cover all parts of the city. Research found countless interesting facts, many complied for the two blog posts and a later one on the formation of KAM Isaiah Israel ( but the most interesting came from my uncle Adolph.

My father had one brother, Adolph, who turned 101 on January 4. I knew the family originally lived at E. 61st St. and S. Michigan Ave. but did not know they worshipped two blocks up the street at South Side Hebrew Congregation. Its huge sanctuary on the corner burned to the ground in the 1920s and only the religious school on E. 59th St. remains. Adolph told me he attended Hebrew school there before moving to South Shore; my father was too young then. I did not include his claim that the rabbi didn’t like him because he was a better student than his son!

So here's my pitch: the books is sold on Blurb ( and the keyword "synagogue" will get you there) or you can contact me if you live in the area. Please let your friends know about this unique offering, and thank you for your consideration.

NOTE: I'd like to publish a photo of the book but Blogger can't seem to get its act together and restore the link for uploading photos from one's computer. The former Isaiah Temple, pictured above, is the cover photo; I was able to use it because it appeared in a previous blog post.

Friday, January 4, 2013

"Keep on Goin'"!: Uncle Adolph is 101

This happily is another View from Brule Lake tribute to my uncle Adolph’s birthday. He turned 101 today. My tribute to #100 was penned one year ago. Here’s a few more anecdotes, but I’m saving some for the birthday #102 entry in 2014.

Adolph and Rabbi Steven Mason at last year's
birthday celebration at the temple (spot the typo on the cake)
Last October I received an email from Floyd Sullivan, an author writing a book about Comiskey Park for a series on baseball stadiums of bygone days. He saw my photos of the ballpark’s 1991 demolition on Flickr and wanted to use a few in the book. Because the proceeds are going to Chicago White Sox Charities, I agreed in exchange for a copy of the book. I also told him that because it will contain interviews with former White Sox players, executives and fans, he should interview Adolph. His reply was “this is too crazy”; he’d already heard about him and met my cousin Cathy at a Sox game.

 Floyd conducted the very interesting interview at Adolph’s house. As previously reported, Adolph saw his first Sox game in 1921. He did not, he noted, know anything about baseball before then and thus had no recollection of the Black Sox, whose nine members were banned beginning that season. The ballpark wasn’t double-decked around to the outfield until the mid-1920s, and he sat in the bleachers before then. Some of the highlights of his long (mostly suffering) career as a Sox fan included seeing Urban Shocker pitch complete-game victories versus the Sox in both halves of a doubleheader (1924) and Minnie Minoso and Mickey Mantle hit their first Major League home runs in the same game (1951). The book is scheduled for publication in the middle of this year.

Adolph made a request as I was leaving. “Please look up Ian Kadish on the Salt River team in the Arizona Fall League,” he asked. “I want to know if he’s Jewish.” Some ten years ago, Adolph journeyed to Arizona to the Sox’s spring training site. Upon his return, my brother Frank inquired about the outlook for the coming season. He replied, “I didn’t watch much of the team. I was more interested in the minor-league prospects.” That, Frank noted, is the definition of an “optimist.” At 101, he still reads Baseball America and other publications to keep abreast of what’s going on in Charlotte, Birmingham, Winston Salem, Kannapolis, Great Falls, Bristol and Salt River. And Ian Kadish is Jewish.

Finally, a story from a different age. My aunt Rosalind, one of the world’s greatest raconteurs (she passed away in September 2001; boy do we miss these tales!), told of a visit to Michael Reese Hospital, where Adolph’s aunt Lucy, was in the last throes of her 92-year life in 1974. She was in a double room, and the roommate was borderline delirious. “Oh Lord, I’ll be there soon! Sweet Jesus, have mercy on me!” she cried. Now this was in the days before pagers and cell phones, so Adolph, a pediatrician, needed to call his answering service. Having difficulty with the phone, he asked Lucy, “How do you get an outside line?” The next thing they heard was from the roommate: “God almighty, I’m in your hands! Dial 9 and keep on goin’!”
All I can add is: Adolph, celebrate #101 and keep on goin'!