A Fitting New Sanctuary

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By this time, a dedication gift had been made for the new sanctuary, but the honor had not yet been announced. A generous gift from Bernard “Bob” Brown and his late wife, Rose, memorialized the couple’s remarkable contributions to the congregation for over half a century. An architectural engineer by profession, Bob designed and developed some of the largest elements of infrastructure in the Chicagoland area, including updates to the subway system, the International Terminal at O’Hare Airport and the city’s water filtration plants. (Bob was also responsible for the tight squeeze fans felt at the Old Chicago Stadium, where he shaved an inch off of the width of the seats.) Rose Brown worked as a Chicago Public School teacher before her successful career as a public relations professional for both Jewish and secular organizations.

With no children of their own, Rose and Bob became surrogate parents to generations of Beth-El youth; their truest passion and most loving family was the Beth-El community. In hundreds of ways, the Browns represented the very best of Temple Beth-El. In their later years, Rose and Bob’s landmark gift affirmed the commitments and beliefs that motivated them to serve the community for over 50 years: that Beth-El be a vibrant congregation from generation to generation, in a home of its own.

Sanctuary Dedication
On Friday evening, August 27, 1999, Shabbat Ki Tavo, Bob Brown opened the doors of the Rose and Bernard “Bob” Brown Sanctuary and entered the place of worship that his love helped to build. Though Rose had died years previously, at that moment her spirit was clearly present. That night, Bob opened the Ark to receive the Torah scrolls, which were carried in from Fink Hall. As the Sifrei Torah were placed in their new home, the newly commissioned Robbie Solomon composition was performed before the dedication service concluded. After 10 years in Northbrook, the “hearts and hands” of Temple Beth-El had joined together to build a sanctuary unto God.

The grand celebration weekend continued on Sunday with a dedication dinner dance, which was also held in the new building. The evening began with a reception in Fink Hall and then moved into the Beider Family Social Hall for dinner and dancing. Phase II Capital Campaign co-chairs Richard Schoenstadt and Randy Podolsky addressed the partygoers at the start of the evening, and Rabbis Helbraun and Weissberg offered their own remarks at the evening’s conclusion. Every speaker expounded upon the incredible accomplishment that Beth-El had achieved—a marvelous synagogue building and sanctuary worthy of accolades. However, the historic occasion was not over yet; the temple still owed a debt to its history.

On June 2, 1957, when the Touhy Avenue synagogue had been completed, Rabbi Weissberg held a cornerstone dedication for the congregation. In 1971, in commemoration of the synagogue’s centennial, the cornerstone was removed and its contents were viewed. At that time, documents were added to the original material and the cornerstone was returned to its original location. With the sale of the Touhy Avenue structure to ORT in late 1988, the cornerstone was removed and stored offsite.

When ground was broken on the Slavin-Malkin Religious School building in 1988, Rabbi Weissberg once again led a cornerstone dedication service with a new cornerstone to commemorate the temple’s presence in Northbrook. Just over a decade later, on Sept. 26, 1999, that cornerstone was rededicated, marking the completion of the phase II campaign, which had succeeded in raising more than $3.6 million to construct this new house of God.

That Sunday morning, Rabbis Helbraun and Weissberg, and cantorial intern Judith Zelson led a new cornerstone dedication service. Rabbi Helbraun offered an invocation, religious school children provided choral music, and Richard Schoenstadt delivered introductory remarks. Then members of the congregation were invited to place family items and memorabilia into the cornerstone box while Rabbi Weissberg offered a blessing. After Zelson sang Psalm 140, the ceremony concluded.

The dedication of the Brown Sanctuary and the cornerstone marked the beginning of a number of congregational celebrations, including the temple’s 130th anniversary and the dedication of Beth-El’s Wall of Honor. During the fundraising campaigns for phases I and II, many temple members and their extended families pledged their support for the congregation’s expansion, as earlier generations had done in previous years when the temple relocated. These contributions were recognized with plaques and nameplates throughout the building, as well as on a permanent recognition wall, which marked every significant campaign gift.

A five-person Recognition Committee, chaired by Audrey Holzer Rubin, oversaw the creation of a Wall of Honor, which was dedicated as part of a special Shabbat service on Friday, June 1, 2001. A celebratory oneg for the honorees followed the service.

Four months later, the temple was ready to celebrate another landmark event. On Sunday, Oct. 14, 2001, a dinner dance was held to celebrate 130 years. While previous celebrations honored individuals, this anniversary focused on a variety of groups that comprised the Beth-El community. Temple President Herb Cohen presented awards to the congregation’s social service groups, including B’Yachad (Caring Community), College Connection, the Giraffe Project, YoBE (Youth of Beth-El, which took the place of the Hi-Club), L’Chaim Seniors Club (now called Distinguished Journeys), Men’s Club, Sisterhood, Social Action Committee, and the Youth and Social Activities Committee.

While some of these organizations had been a part of Beth-El for generations, others had come about more recently. Honoring these groups reinforced Rabbi Helbraun’s belief that the life of a congregation should extend far beyond the education and Bar/Bat Mitzvah of its children. With a new building and a new place in the community, Beth-El shined its spotlight on its own community institutions, highlighting the many ways the congregation touched the lives of its members, both within and beyond its walls.

Within the temple’s own community, Rabbi Helbraun pushed forward with new initiatives to build membership and stimulate involvement in temple life. He directed the congregation toward interfaith community programming, welcoming the Northbrook Clergy Association’s annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service to the congregation. He initiated a grief support group for congregants who had suffered losses. He encouraged involvement in Maot Chitim and other social action activities. And he worked hard to build strong congregational support for the state of Israel—leading trips there with his wife, Debbie, and promoting membership in AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

In 2002, cantorial intern Judith Zelson left Beth-El, and the congregation hired its first invested cantor, Kim Harris. A native of South Carolina, Harris had been an English teacher in her home state before deciding to pursue a career as a cantor. While Harris loved working in education, she was increasingly drawn to sacred music and Jewish worship—first as a lay leader in her own community, and later as a performer and conductor of Jewish services in the Southeast. Eventually, Harris decided to combine her passion for teaching with her love for Jewish music, and entered the cantorial program at HUC-JIR, studying for a year in Israel and completing her education at the New York City campus.

Following her investment in 2002, Cantor Harris came to Beth-El along with her husband, Brian, and two children, Nathan and Dana. Since her arrival, she has proved a worthy addition to the Beth-El clergy, bringing her love of music to adult and children’s choirs, forming a simcha band to accompany special services throughout the year, preparing B’nai Mitzvah students, and bringing liturgy to life with creative services and the use of new technologies.

During this same time, Rabbi Helbraun worked with temple leaders to define a new administrative position, Director of Family and Congregational Life, to manage the wide range of adult, teen, youth, and early childhood programs offered by the congregation. In 2002, congregant and religious schoolteacher, Janice Hadesman, daughter of long-time Temple members Nathan and Annabelle Hoff, assumed the new title. Today, Janice works with temple committees and oversees Beth-El’s very full calendar of events. She also runs the congregation’s preschool camp program, Summer F.U.N.

The engagement of a full-time cantor and a director of Congregational Life set precedents in Beth-El’s 131-year history, but more remained to be done. With a growing membership and burgeoning religious and Hebrew schools, the board of directors conducted a study to determine if the time had come to again hire an assistant rabbi. After months of examination, the board decided to move forward on this action. A search committee was established, which found a worthy candidate in Rabbi Anne Persin, a recent graduate of HUC-JIR. Rabbi Persin joined Beth-El in the summer of 2004, becoming its first woman rabbi.

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