Settling in to Worship
Reverend Daniel Gottlieb immediately ascended to the pulpit of the new Beth El Congregation and served as its spiritual leader until 1881. Following Gottlieb’s retirement, Rabbi B.A. Bonnheim of Congregation B’nai Sholom (now KAM Isaiah Israel) served the Beth El community for approximately one year. He was succeeded in 1883 by Rabbi Danek, who served for eight years before his death in 1891 at the age of 37 from pneumonia. Little is known about the congregation under these two rabbis.Following this period of rapid institutional change and turnover in leadership—five rabbis in less than 20 years—Beth El Congregation entered a new era of synagogue life with the arrival of Dr. Julius Rappaport from Austria. The first ordained rabbi to lead the congregation and one of the most progressive voices in the Chicago Jewish community, Dr. Rappaport enjoyed a tenure of almost 30 years. During that time, he drastically reshaped Beth El’s character and purpose, and notably expanded its vision.
Rappaport understood that the American synagogue as an institution was poised to connect Old World Jewry with the modern Jewish practices uniquely developing in North America at the turn of the century. In Rappaport’s eyes, the purpose of the American immigrant congregation was to “maintain Jewish identity, provide gathering space for prayer, and furnish the resources necessary to celebrate family and private joys and crises.” Rappaport’s synagogue was one where immigrants “could live as Jews, die as Jews, and be remembered as Jews.” The rabbi was an advocate for social change and liturgical reform within the Chicagoland Jewish community as well. He did much to make his synagogue an inclusive and inviting space to people of varying ages, backgrounds and levels of religious practice.
In the spirit of unification that was touching growing congregations across the American West and South in the late 19th century, Rabbi Rappaport adopted Isaac Mayer Wise’s popular Minhag America: The Ritual of American Jews as the temple’s standard prayer book. Rappaport also implemented other changes to temple protocol, such as the adoption of the tri-annual cycle of reading the full Torah, to cautiously guide the synagogue toward the liberal practice of the German Reform congregations to the South and more closely approximate the principles of the fast-growing Conservative movement in the Midwest. While these gentle reforms were executed with the strongest intentions for spiritual and social unity, many older members of the Beth El congregation took issue with the rabbi’s increasing departures from the classic Orthodoxy that had been recently practiced within the temple walls. Although most members readily embraced the reforms, a sizable contingent of the congregation parted ways with Beth El under Rappaport’s tenure, citing irreconcilable conflicts with the temple’s progressive rabbinic leadership.
Yet, Rabbi Rappaport’s call for enlightened religious change and heightened social responsibility was not diminished. On the contrary, the rabbi broadened his agenda, becoming one of Chicago’s strongest advocates for the resettlement of Russian Jews. Coming to the Midwest in large waves between 1885 and 1914, Russian Jews were confronted with considerable hostility in Chicago—from the German Jews of the South Side in particular. Considering themselves sufficiently Americanized to merit their ascending position in the urban social order, the German Jews resented the Russian immigrants for their Old World ways, insularity, and continued devotion to ancient customs.
While rabbis from the South Side saw unpleasant reminders of a dismal world left far behind, Rappaport saw rays of hope in these desperate journeys to America, a land rich with promise and mystery to the Jews who had recently come from Russia. He championed the rights of these displaced people and made himself and his synagogue visible in the immigrant communities branching out from Maxwell Street, which served as the hub of Russian-Jewish life in Chicago.