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Relocation Revisited

With the congregation’s membership growing month to month, the temple’s directors continued their discussion on the pros and cons of suburban expansion. The Beth-El religious school’s North Shore extension had by now outgrown its home in the Fox Nursery School and had relocated to a house purchased by the congregation on Walters Avenue in Northbrook, but even this property was too small to accommodate the burgeoning school enrollment. The board of directors voted to purchase the adjoining house and lot on Walters Avenue and convert the two properties into classroom space and a small chapel.

With the actual purchase of land in Northbrook—instead of renting space, which it had done since 1975—the temple had effectively made a decision about its future: it would have a permanent presence in the northern suburbs. In the meantime, the temple supported the new arrangement, with a few modifications from the original program begun in Northfield in 1975.

The renovation of the building on Walters Avenue meant that the synagogue intended to conduct religious services in the suburbs in addition to those offered on Touhy Avenue. High Holiday and festival services remained exclusively in the synagogue on Touhy, but family-oriented Shabbat services began to be offered in Northbrook. The range of classes taught in Northbrook also expanded to the point that the synagogue was effectively running Hebrew and religious schools in two distinct facilities.

As the popularity of the Northbrook satellite location continued to grow, Beth-El began to draw the attention of rabbis from the surrounding communities. Apprehensive about competition, local rabbis began contacting Rabbi Weissberg to express their displeasure at the encroachment of Beth-El into their territory. Unfazed, the temple continued its plans for the development of a Walters Avenue facility in 1983. Further, with the guidance of Sharon Lichtenstein, M.Ed., the temple designed preschool programming for the High Holidays and festivals.

In both the city and the suburbs, Beth-El was gaining popularity with young families. Enrollment in the North Shore religious school continued to rise. Nevertheless, Beth-El had apprehensions concerning the future.

By the mid-1980s, the temple found itself in a curious position. Membership remained strong, with most new members being from young families who had grown up in the congregation. Their parents still comprised a significant part of the synagogue community on Touhy Avenue, but this older generation could not sustain the synagogue in the long term. Beth-El was already close to outgrowing its property on Walters Avenue in Northbrook, yet neighboring synagogues were not pleased about its expansion in their midst. The question then became: Where could the temple go to honor its heritage and adequately provide for its future, while retaining the loyalty of families around Touhy Avenue?

The answer to Beth-El’s questions of expansion came from the City of Northbrook, whose planners informed the temple’s board of directors about a potentially promising real estate opportunity on Dundee Road. Ichiban, a popular Japanese restaurant at 3610 Dundee, was closing its doors due to financial difficulties, and the proprietors were looking to sell the building and the land surrounding it. With an ideal location on a prominent thoroughfare, the property seemed ripe for development. Offering ample space for a main building and parking lot, and with enough land to support possible future expansion, 3610 Dundee afforded Beth-El room to grow in a new suburban environment.

Yet the city’s gracious lead was far from a dream come true; there were many factors to consider before a deal could go forward. Purchasing a large plot of land in Northbrook would permanently move the congregation outside of Chicago, thereby isolating the older members who remained within the city and who had been loyal congregants for upwards of 50 years. This would go along with the trend in mobility that was sending almost 25,000 Chicago-area Jews to the suburbs each decade, and there could be no argument that the congregation had seen great success in the northern suburbs thus far. As the former Ichiban restaurant stood vacant, the temple board began an intense series of deliberations, and, for the second time in his rabbinate, Rabbi Weissberg found himself at the helm of a synagogue divided on the issue of relocation.

Proposals were heard to remain on Walters Avenue and greatly expand; to sell on Walters and build a school facility on Dundee, but retain Touhy for religious services; to sell on Walters and move all operations to Dundee; and to look for other options in other locations. After many discussions facilitated by Rabbi Weissberg and Temple President Roger Hirsch, a decision was made in 1987 to purchase 3610 Dundee Road in Northbrook and develop a multi-phase expansion project on the property that would be completed over approximately 10 years. The first phase would create a chapel and school wing for immediate use. Construction would begin as soon as possible, and the houses on Walters Avenue would be sold while temple activities would temporarily continue as usual on Touhy Avenue. Thus, roughly 10 years since Tamar Weissberg began teaching two students in a rented room at Sunset Ridge, and roughly 32 years since Temple Beth-El first began worship on Touhy Avenue, the decision was made that the synagogue would move beyond the city limits. After 117 years in Chicago, the congregation was bringing its city life to a close, and a vacated Japanese restaurant would soon host the Jewish experiences of a new generation of Beth-El’s members.

Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784