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The Migration North Begins

By 1975, the temple was hard at work focusing on its next 100 years by increasing its recruitment of young families and enhancing educational and outreach opportunities within the religious school. Programming for teenagers and young adults was similarly revitalized. The Hi-Club’s ranks continued to swell, and the organization officially became the largest youth group in the Chicago Federation of the UAHC. Still ably guided by Rose and Bob Brown, the Hi-Club was adding further distinction to the already long-respected and established synagogue on Touhy Avenue. However, the future of the synagogue in its current location was again coming under scrutiny for reasons not too different from those faced by the congregation in the 1940s.

With the Vietnam War-era economy and the shifting demographics of young professionals in Chicago, housing opportunities for new families were drying up within the city. Elder temple residents of neighborhoods such as West Rogers Park and Lawndale enjoyed stable lifestyles in houses that had long been paid off, but younger families were finding it difficult to secure and finance suitable homes in the area.

With suburbs becoming more accepting of Jewish homeowners and offering greater public amenities—chiefly schools, parks, and retail centers—younger families were settling more and more frequently in the suburbs to the north and northwest of the city. As restrictive covenants on real estate were lifted and greater government-backed financial support for mortgages became available after World War II, the suburbs experienced an unprecedented influx of Jewish residents, which began in 1951 and continued to approximately 1990.

According to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, 4 percent of Chicago Jews lived in the suburbs in 1950. By 1963, that figure had climbed to 39 percent, and by 1973 it had reached 51 percent. In 20 years, roughly half of the city’s Jews had moved to the suburbs, and this population shift showed no signs of slowing down in 1975. The temple thus found itself confronting two serious problems: how to balance member retention with member acquisition, and how to meet the needs of two very distinct, but equally important, populations—older congregants in neighborhoods like Rogers Park and Lincolnwood, and potential congregants in villages such as Northbrook, Deerfield, and Northfield.

In 1975, Tamar Weissberg, who had received her bachelor’s degree in education and Jewish studies, began teaching religious school classes in a rented space at Sunset Ridge Elementary School in Northfield to a number of students from families who had grown up at Beth-El. At the beginning of this pilot program, the Rabbi and Tamar, whose own children had reached high school age, covered the expenses themselves with the board’s approval, so as not to burden the congregation financially or suggest a move too early. Meant to meet congregants’ needs and gauge interest and viability in a suburban location, the program began as a particularly small enterprise—Tamar’s first class had only two students.

Fortunately, the program found support from its target demographic: suburban families beleaguered by daily commutes yet desiring to remain with the synagogue. These Beth-El members were finding it increasingly difficult to drive to and from the city multiple times a day, not only for business but also for their children’s Hebrew school classes. Similarly, members attempting to find reciprocity with suburban synagogues closer to their homes—where their children might go to religious school while retaining affiliation at Beth-El—were told by rabbis that, if they lived in the suburbs, they should join a congregation in the community where they lived.

The Weissbergs’ solution was to encourage temple members to attend religious services and weekend classes on Touhy Avenue, and enable their children to receive their Hebrew education in the suburbs. This way, congregants would not have to make the difficult weekday trip to evening Hebrew School. The program quickly outgrew its room in Sunset Ridge and a larger space was rented in nearby St. Peter’s Church of Northbrook.

Back on Touhy Avenue, Rabbi Lee’s departure in 1977 made way for the arrival of Rabbi Steven M. Bob, a graduate of the University of Minnesota and Hebrew Union College, who joined Beth-El shortly after receiving his ordination. Rabbi Bob continued many of the projects begun by Rabbi Lee and proved to be an important addition to the leadership of the synagogue as assistant rabbi and religious school administrator.

Yet Rabbi Bob was not the only figure to make great contributions to Beth-El’s religious education around this time. Tamar Weissberg was continuing her involvement with the religious school both in teaching and exploring opportunities for expansion into the suburbs. Over the next several years, Tamar’s value to the synagogue was so significant that in 1980, she was named religious school principal and director of religious education. She was faced with a great deal of work, as an increase in the popularity of the Hebrew classes on the North Shore (now held at Fox Nursery School in Northbrook) effectively meant that Beth-El was operating two distinct religious schools in separate locations.

The continual move of families to the suburbs validated the program begun years earlier at Sunset Ridge, but the implication of its success was sobering. Greater enrollment in the North Shore classes meant greater opportunity for suburban membership, while an aging population in the Rogers Park area meant dwindling school enrollment at the Touhy building. Rabbis Weissberg and Bob began to consider anew the question of relocation, while Tamar worked to bridge the two educational communities of Beth-El within one organization.

The growth in Beth-El’s membership in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as its degree of solvency, were impressive accomplishments, but ones that were soon seen as unsustainable. A decade that had begun on the high notes of a worthy celebration was now ending with the subdued consideration of an uncertain future. Still, the longevity of Temple Beth-El was not at issue; the great question was not how the temple would endure, but where.

Thu, November 30 2023 17 Kislev 5784