A More Functional Structure

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As Beth-El members saw transitions in the temple staff ranks, they prepared for an even bigger change. The construction project at 3610 Dundee Road, launched in 1988 as phase I, had given the congregation a sanctuary space and a religious school, with rabbinic and administrative offices remaining off-campus in an office park located a few blocks to the east. Eight years later, the time had come to begin phase II, a major campaign to complete the temple’s vision with the construction of a new sanctuary, kitchen, administrative offices, rabbinic suite, library, classrooms, and a basement to provide for the possibility of future development.

Chaired by temple members Randy Podolsky and Richard Schoenstadt, the “Preserving our Past … Building our Future” phase II committee met regularly to coordinate and execute the complicated fundraising and planning of the temple’s construction project. Phase II, designed by local architects Bernheim and Kahn, Ltd., would transform Beth-El, giving the congregation greater flexibility for worship, study, social events, and family programming.

A main sanctuary, with flexible seating for 650, would easily accommodate religious services and programs (although High Holiday services would continue to be held offsite at Glenbrook South High School). The space could also be used as a social hall with a seating capacity in excess of 250, providing ample room for special events, life-cycle celebrations, and diverse programming to be hosted within the congregation. The library would create a welcome room for adult classes, reflection, and personal study, and the construction of offices would enable the entire professional staff to be housed within the temple’s building.

With work on phase II progressing at full speed, the members of Beth-El commemorated their 125th anniversary with a special celebratory weekend. On Friday, Nov. 8, 1996, Rabbi Helbraun led a joyous Shabbat service in Fink Hall, and, in his closing benediction, he remarked on the worthy past of the congregation, with an eye toward its future.

Two days later, a banquet was held at the Rosemont Convention Center, which celebrated the theme: “Our Past is Present.” In addition to music and dancing, the banquet featured a special presentation by president Randy Podolsky to the temple’s past presidents and members active in the congregation for 50 or more years. To add to the evening’s entertainment, Podolsky read congratulatory letters from local and national figures, including President Bill Clinton, Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and Illinois Senator Carol Mosley-Braun. The 125th anniversary dinner dance was a great success and a fitting way to end an exciting year in the temple’s history.

In 1997 and 1998, as phase II progressed, Rabbi Helbraun continued to examine and redefine congregational life. He now focused on increasing lay leadership and participation in the congregation. While Beth-El enjoyed a very active (and financially autonomous) Sisterhood, the Men’s Club was no longer active. Rabbi Helbraun helped to restart this vital temple auxiliary. In another area of temple life, the Social Action Committee, created in 1995 by Rabbi Weissberg and chaired by Elaine Koffman, helped to match up b’nai mitzvah students and the congregation at large with meaningful projects, giving Temple Beth-El an even stronger presence in the community.

During its previous 125 years, the congregation never had a cantor and it relied on its clergy and tutors to work with B’nai Mitzvah students. Congregant Ellie Leifer directed the temple’s choir and non-Jewish soloists were hired to sing at Shabbat and High Holiday services. Rabbi Helbraun believed that worship needed to be conducted by Jewish clergy. Thus, hiring a Jewish
Janowski's Arrangement
cantorial soloist who was working toward her investment as a cantor was a logical next step. In 1998, Judith D. Zelson was hired as Beth-El’s cantorial intern, bringing her beautiful voice into Fink Hall.

Zelson’s appointment was not the only exciting musical event to take place at this time. In anticipation of the completion of the main sanctuary, slated for summer 1999, members of the congregation had contacted renowned cantor, performer, and composer Robert Solomon to compose a new work for the sanctuary dedication service.

Beth-El was no stranger to musical commissions—Max Janowski had composed “R’tsey Vim’nuchateynu” in honor of Rabbi and Tamar Weissberg in 1980. In addition, the congregation was familiar with the work of Cantor Solomon. His redition of “Etz Chayim Hee” was a regular part of the High Holiday liturgy. Solomon accepted the commission and began adapting a choral work from the Torah service to dramatize the ceremony of removing and replacing the Torah scroll in the Ark. Funding for this project came from long-time temple members Lil and Herb Cohen.

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