Turn-of-the-Century Improvements, Visions

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In 1902, the temple purchased three adjoining lots at Crystal Street and Hoyne Avenue. There they constructed a much larger building for worship as well as a separate structure with a gymnasium and rooms for a Sunday school. Such a configuration was novel to Chicago; Beth El became the first synagogue in the city to house its religious school and its sanctuary in independent buildings.

Ever the innovator, Rappaport went several steps further in offering coed enrollment at the school on Crystal Street. Beth El is thus noted as the first synagogue in Chicago to offer Sunday school education to girls. Rappaport’s strong commitment to family life touched other areas of his rabbinate as well; he established Chicago’s first synagogue youth group and Beth El’s first social club for married couples.

With a generous gift from the Molner family, the synagogue dedicated its secondary structure as Molner Hall, and throughout Rabbi Rappaport’s tenure, Molner Hall was considered a great social hub for the Jews of the Northwest Side. Molner Hall functioned like a miniature Chicago Hebrew Institute (CHI), offering plentiful resources to the Jewish community at-large for study, sport, and socialization similar to the original CHI on Blue Island Avenue near 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road). Similarly, Molner Hall hosted drama club performances, learning sessions, musical and literary events, dances and mixers, athletic competitions, and numerous other opportunities for cultural outreach for more than 20 years.

Beth-El (the hyphen was added to the temple’s name in the early 1900s) also enjoyed a period of considerable growth and prosperity under Rabbi Rappaport. For a fiscal perspective, the “Laws of Congregation Beth-El for 1907” revealed that membership dues during this time were $24 for married men, payable in monthly installments of $2 each, and $12 for singles.

Rabbi Rappaport resigned shortly after World War I, breaking a 30-year bond with Beth-El with his departure in 1921, at age 50. His great contribution to Beth-El was his understanding of his congregants’ needs to adapt to an American way of life. Under his leadership, the synagogue was a diverse and eclectic institution, providing outlets for learning, culture, spiritual counsel, family ritual, and social programming. Further, the synagogue simultaneously aided a generation of European immigrants in their acclimation to the intricacies of life on this side of the Atlantic. As Beth-El celebrated its Golden Jubilee at the Morrison Hotel in the fall of 1921, one thing was certain: it was the 50th birthday party of an undeniably American synagogue.

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