Onward to Touhy Avenue

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A capital campaign was launched in late 1955 and a pledge brochure was quickly produced. With messages from the rabbi, President Arthur Foosner and Vice President H. Burton Schatz, the publication made an impassioned appeal for a new building that would capture the energy and spirit of the congregation. But in the excitement to create and distribute the document, one very important name and face had been omitted: that of Nathan Joffe, who had done so much in the previous 15 years to bring the temple to its current state of viability. In a conversation with Mr. Joffe, Rabbi Weissberg assured him that as the temple moved forward, it would not forget its past, nor fail to honor the Joffes’ contribution to Beth-El in its darkest hours. To be sure, the temple’s new home would not erase the legacies of those who had helped build it up.

A viable section of land was found at the intersection of Touhy and Albany Avenues, and the temple purchased half a lot. The other half of the property was donated by Irving and Fern Naxon, who soon joined the synagogue and, like the Joffes, made contributions to the greater temple community that continue to resonate today. Indeed, the Naxons’ daughter, Eileen Eisenberg (a past president of the sisterhood), and her sister, Jewel Klein, are active members today, and a Torah dedicated in Irving and Fern’s memory resides in the ark of the Glickson Chapel.

A special farewell service for Palmer Square was written and scheduled for early summer, and, on June 15, 1956, the synagogue in Logan Square held its last official service for the members of Beth-El. Joseph Weisz delivered a farewell address and Rabbi Weissberg presided over the ritual decommissioning of the synagogue. Ground was broken for the Touhy Avenue facility exactly one month later and the temple’s former structures at Palmer Square were sold to the Boys Clubs of Chicago.

Throughout late 1956, the temple operated out of a storefront at 6738 N. California Ave., and
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Hebrew school classes were held in public school trailers on Touhy and Sacramento Avenues. Friday night services were intermittently held at an American Legion post on Devon Avenue, in the Boone Public School auditorium, at Cine Hall of B’nai B’rith Deer Park Lodge, in the basement of The Chesterfield builder’s offices, and in the field house of Indian Boundary Park. The High Holidays were somewhat more opulent; in 1956, Beth-El conducted Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the ballroom of the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

Construction at Touhy Avenue was well underway in the spring of 1957, and a cornerstone ceremony for the $400,000 (roughly $3 million today) structure was planned for that May. Invitations were mailed to congregants, ribbons were printed, souvenir trowels were engraved, and even the cornerstone itself was inscribed with the date. However, the event planners ought to have given a closer look at past precedent; ever since Rabbi Eliassof witnessed the destruction of Beth-El’s first free-standing structure in that fateful storm of 1873, the synagogue had sustained a tumultuous relationship with the Chicago climate. Perhaps then, it was not surprising that May 19, 1957 was too damp and overcast for an outdoor celebration.

The cornerstone laying was moved to June 2, and, on this second date, everything proceeded smoothly under a beautiful, sunny sky. By autumn, the building was complete, and Rabbi Weissberg officiated at Beth-El’s 87th Rosh Hashanah in the new sanctuary at 3050 W. Touhy Ave. Menorahs, donated by Nathan Joffe, regally flanked the bimah, and today they remain treasured mementos of the congregation.

As the congregation welcomed the year 5718 in their new facility, they also welcomed a host of new members—local families from a closing West Rogers Park synagogue. The synagogue’s new location proved so attractive and convenient that Rabbi Weissberg quickly found himself in the best kind of membership crisis: the new building became too small for its congregants.

After 250 new members joined the synagogue in one week—effectively doubling the religious school enrollment—Beth-El underwent drastic maneuvers to accommodate its scores of new students. Between one Sunday and the next, eight classrooms were hastily constructed in the synagogue basement—originally designed as a youth center and roller rink—and instruction became staggered by age group, with religious school meeting on Shabbat and Sundays, Confirmation classes on Mondays, and Hebrew classes on weekday afternoons.

Meanwhile, frustration among the temple’s decision-makers was running high. In 1958 and 1959, the temple board was a volatile mixture of older congregants from Palmer Square and new members from the closed West Rogers Park synagogue who had been accorded seats on the temple board after their synagogue’s merger with Beth-El. The tension came to a head when the president of the temple, a public school principal, asked to be appointed principal of the religious school, a request which Rabbi Weissberg considered to be a conflict of interest. The other candidate for the job, and the favorite of the Rabbi and the temple’s school board, was Dr. Herbert M. Zimmerman, a graduate of Harvard University’s School of Education and the principal of Roosevelt High School, a then-prominent Chicago public school.

With both sides using the issue to vie for control over the synagogue, and with threats to split the congregation issuing from both camps, the Rabbi agreed to arbitrate the conflict in his own home. Soon after, some Logan Square “old timers” angrily voiced their discontent to the Rabbi in his study, threatening to remove him from the pulpit. Rabbi Weissberg judiciously and patiently calmed the group, and with the help of Joseph Poppie and Jack Neadell—elder statesmen from Logan Square—peace was restored to the united congregation.

In 1959, Dr. Zimmerman became principal of a religious school that was 500 students strong, and everywhere the temple was full of activity. By now, in addition to his achievements at expanding the school and integrating the congregation, Rabbi Weissberg had also made great strides in guiding Beth-El’s practice back toward its traditional roots. Services were conducted on both Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, the second day Rosh Hashanah was observed, a sukkah was erected on the bimah, and a candlelit Selichot service became a regular component of High Holiday worship. As Beth-El entered the 1960s, the Touhy Avenue synagogue was bustling from morning to night, fulfilling the dreams of its greatest guarantors and proving that there was no storm the temple couldn’t weather.

The early 1960s saw much activity at Touhy Avenue, as many new families flocked to the synagogue in its prominent new home in West Rogers Park, and older families continued their support of the now almost 90-year-old congregation. As membership rose to almost 800 families, participation also increased in a wide variety of programs both in Chicago and around the world. The Hi-Club—in the capable hands of Rose and Bob Brown—grew closer to becoming the largest synagogue youth group in the Chicago Federation of the UAHC, and the drama club continued to mount comedic and musical reviews, such as 1961’s spring show, “My Fair Zadie.”

The religious and Hebrew schools continued to grow exponentially. Rabbi and Tamar Weissberg also introduced a host of new programs and initiatives to encourage youth involvement in synagogue life and the Reform movement, including the founding of a Youth Scholarship Fund. To ensure that the temple’s younger members had opportunities to continue their Jewish learning outside of Hebrew and religious schools, Rabbi Weissberg attempted to found a Hebrew Studies Program at Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. When the Institute rejected his proposal, Weissberg helped found Camp Yehuda as a Young Judea camp with a strong Hebrew program. Camp Yehuda’s success ultimately proved to Union Institute—now Olin Sang Ruby Union Institue (OSRUI)—the popularity of and need for Hebrew studies in a camp setting.

Back on Touhy Avenue, the Beth-El Youth Scholarship Fund became a principle recruitment tool for both camps. And when the Jewish Agency offered the first Bar Mitzvah pilgrimage to Israel, the Youth Scholarship Fund enabled five teenagers from Beth-El to join 11 other students from around the country as trailblazers in what is now a hugely successful program worldwide.

The synagogue also continued to promote civic responsibility in and around Chicago, hosting lectures and other events featuring prominent politicians and community figures. At Beth-El’s 90th Anniversary celebration at the Ambassador Hotel on Oct. 8, 1961, U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) delivered the keynote address. He was quite impressive as an influential thought leader of the time, and Church would become one of the strongest and most articulate opponents in the Senate of the Vietnam War.

In 1964, Temple Beth-El celebrated the 10th anniversary of Rabbi Weissberg’s leadership with a gala at the Westin Continental Hotel. As testimony to the rabbi’s efforts to make Temple Beth-El a center of religious tolerance, social action, and civic responsibility, remarks were delivered by guests such as Rev. James G. Jones, director of development of Episcopal Charities, and Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, director of the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism).

Just two years later, Temple Beth-El was planning banquets anew, for there was much to celebrate in 1966. The synagogue was about to mark its 95th anniversary on the crest of a remarkable wave of membership that had accorded Beth-El continuous growth since its move to Touhy Avenue almost 10 years previously. And, as a sign of ultimate confidence in the efforts of Rabbi Weissberg on behalf of the congregation, life tenure was conferred upon him during the banquet at the Westin Continental Hotel on Oct. 29, 1966.

Citing the move to West Rogers Park as one of the events most important to the continued prosperity of the congregation, the temple board applauded the rabbi and temple directors for their leadership and courage throughout the temple’s construction and relocation process. In a dramatic ceremony symbolizing the temple’s current success, the mortgage and title note to 3050 W. Touhy Ave. were burned in front of the banquet’s attendees. (Naturally, they were duplicate copies—the originals were safely stored away.)

Temple president Reginald J. Holzer, a recently elected judge in the Cook County Circuit Court, presided over the burning ceremony. A photograph of Rabbi Weissberg and Reggie Holzer proudly observing the flaming mortgage made it onto the cover of The Sentinel a few weeks later.

Nine years earlier, in 1957, a $175,000 mortgage (roughly $1.3 million today) was undertaken on the recently completed structure on Touhy. Twenty-one members of the congregation signed the mortgage papers and agreed to personally assume responsibility for the payments should the temple become unable to meet its financial obligations. Fortunately, the 10 years following the move to Touhy Avenue were the temple’s most fruitful to date, and the synagogue found itself able to pay off the mortgage without great difficulty.

In 1970, Beth-El reached a milestone in membership numbers, counting over 800 families on its roster for the year. With the influx of new members and the buzz of activity at the synagogue, plans were developed to build further at the Touhy Avenue site. A capital campaign was launched, and temple members responded generously to the call. Simultaneously, Rabbi Weissberg prepared to train an assistant. With the religious and Hebrew school enrollment off the charts, Weissberg created the position of Assistant Rabbi and Director of Religious Education. Designed for a newly ordained graduate of HUC, the assistantship would provide valuable experience in the rabbinate by focusing on the educational and family programming components of synagogue life. Rabbi Weissberg’s load would be lessened, and a young rabbi would learn the ins and outs of temple and religious school administration.

Rabbi Barton G. Lee (now executive director of the Hillel at Arizona State University) was brought on as Temple Beth-El’s assistant rabbi, and for the first time in the 99-year history of the synagogue, two religious leaders shared all rabbinic responsibilities. Together, Rabbi Weissberg and Rabbi Lee helped to lead the High Holiday services that year at the Lincoln Village Theater.

The following year, Temple Beth-El began preparations for its centennial anniversary. Multiple celebrations were planned across many days, for it would be the most momentous occasion yet observed by the synagogue. The fundraising and organization of the Beth-El Centennial proved a tremendous undertaking, and a 15-person general committee delegated work to dozens of congregants active in 10 subcommittees, ranging in function from meal-planning for the banquet to accounting needed for the rededication of the cemetery.

Rabbi Lee served on the general committee and helped draft a special synagogue rededication service for the late fall to coincide with the October date of the Chicago Fire. Sidney Stavins, who served as temple president from 1961 to 1963, was the Centennial general chairman. Along with Rabbi Weissberg, who served in an advisory capacity, Stavins confidently orchestrated the event planning.

In the summer leading up to the celebrations, the construction and refurbishment project at Touhy got underway at a cost of $350,000 (roughly $1.8 million today) and a special full-length musical production commemorating the temple’s colorful history was commissioned from a local playwright. At the same time, membership and participation continued to climb. The program for the Temple Beth-El Centennial Dinner boasted the following numbers: a Sisterhood membership of 250, 190 in Brotherhood, and 30 in the “Mr. and Mrs. Club,” 539 students in religious school—223 of whom were also enrolled in Hebrew school, and 150 members in the youth group. Total temple membership stood at an historic 824 families. In one century, the synagogue had grown from a small assembly of close-knit immigrants from central Europe to a large and diverse community of families and friends, spanning generations, neighborhoods and perspectives.

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