Celebrating the Grandness of 100 Years

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The energy, courage and spirit of those who helped to support Temple Beth-El in its 100-year existence were duly honored and memorialized on Oct. 9, 1971, at McCormick Place along Lake Michigan. Rabbi Paul Gorin, now serving as rabbi of Temple Israel in Canton, Ohio, returned to Chicago to attend the occasion and provide the evening’s invocation. The gala attendees were greeted by Rabbi Haskell M. Bernat, director of the Chicago Federation of the UAHC (a federation founded in part by one of Beth-El’s former rabbis, Julian Gusfield) and addressed by Dr. Max Lerner, a syndicated columnist with the New York Post. The Beth-El Quartet, led by long-time synagogue organist and music director Eleanor “Ellie” Leifer, provided musical entertainment. After dinner and dancing, Rabbi Weissberg spoke of the many challenges facing Beth-El in the future, and Rabbi Lee gave the closing benediction. At the evening’s end, the congregants of Beth-El reflected upon the astounding achievements of their past and present, and had every reason to believe that a strong future for the synagogue lie ahead.

But the festivities were far from over. The Beth-El Centennial was meant to be a yearlong celebration, with landmark events spaced throughout 1971 and 1972. In addition to the gala in October, centennial events in the fall included a workshop conducted by the Association of Family Living, a rededication service for the temple cemetery, an excavation of the Touhy Avenue cornerstone and a thorough review of its contents, and a tour of Beth-El’s former houses of worship sponsored by the Hi-Club and led by Rabbi Weissberg.

That November, the temple was honored with a special commemorative award by the UAHC at their biennial convention in Los Angeles. One month later, Beth-El planned a centennial shabbaton and invited Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, author of a volume of commentary on the Torah and Haftorahs that has served for many years as the definitive chumash of the Reform movement, as a special guest. Rabbis Weissberg and Lee developed a special service for Friday evening, and on Dec. 3, 1971, Beth-El welcomed Rabbi Plaut to the bimah on Touhy Avenue to celebrate 100 years of the congregation’s weekly Sabbath observances.

In 1972, centennial programming continued with a panel discussion featuring Congressman Roman Pucinski (D-IL) and Cook County Commissioner Floyd Fulle, and a performance by the North Central College Choir of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. The Beth-El youth group also hosted the Chicago Federation of Temple Youth’s annual conclave, filling the Touhy Avenue synagogue for a weekend of workshops, services, and social events.

The final event in the yearlong centennial celebration was the performance of a commissioned musical production narrating the story of Temple Beth-El from its inception on the night of the Chicago Fire to the celebration of its centennial anniversary. The story followed the synagogue through the more memorable events of its century-old history: the destruction of the wood-frame synagogue by a terrible storm in 1873, the World’s Fair in 1893, the rise of the Reform movement and its integration into synagogue practice in the 1920s, the Great Depression, and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.

Created by Robert Kahn and congregant Roger Hirsch expressly for the synagogue, “The First One Hundred Years Are the Hardest” featured a full orchestra and professional and semi-professional actors onstage alongside familiar faces from the congregation. Almost all of the temple’s trustees, directors, and their spouses were involved with the production in some way, and the show was a great success during its two-night run on June 10-11, 1972, in the Niles North High School Auditorium. The musical proved a worthy conclusion to a year’s worth of centennial celebrations, and as life slowly moved back to normal at Temple Beth-El, the sounds of Roger Hirsch’s theme, “One Hundred Years,” were still ringing in congregants’ ears.

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