B’nai Zion, First Synagogue in Rogers Park

by Hank Morris

The congregation of B’nai Zion, made history by being the first Conservative synagogue in Rogers Park and Chicago; it is a group which was established and remained in a neighborhood never predominantly Jewish despite a sizable number of Jews; and was a synagogue which adapted to demographic change of the sort that defeated other congregations.

B’nai Zion’s home was always in Rogers Park. The area grew slowly until 1907 when the elevated lines were extended from the Loop and the Jesuits shortly afterwards established Loyola University.

Originally occupied by persons of German and Irish background, Rogers Park was once an area of single-family homes with only a handful of Jews until an apartment building boom during the period 1910-1920. In that decade, the population of Rogers Park grew from 7,000 to 27,000. Among the new arrivals were socially mobile Eastern European Jews already moving from the West Side into other Chicago communities.

It was at the close of this decade when a relatively small number of Jews living in a still sparsely settled Rogers park recognized the need for a place to worship.

Generally, 1919 was an optimistic time for those Jews who were able to leave the West Side and relocate in Rogers Park.

Three men, known as the three musketeers, Herman Spivak, Edward Steif, and Joseph Friedman, met at Friedman’s home and planned the beginnings of a congregation. At the time, services were being conducted at the home of Joseph Friedman on Saturday mornings. With Herman Spivak as its first President and Joseph Friedman as Vice President (later 2nd President), it started with 16 families.

Rabbi Abraham L. Lassen was in Chicago from Evansville, Indiana. Born in Russia, he had attended the Jewish Theological Seminary and was ordained. The three musketeers prevailed upon him to become the group’s first rabbi, a decision immensely important to the new organization.

Charlie Oliff and his family had moved to Rogers Park in 1921. They joined the new synagogue, even though Charlie’s father was an Orthodox rabbi. Originally these differences were just a question of speaking English rather than Yiddish in the synagogue and exercising greater control over the decorum of the congregants during services. This included an attempt to read the prayers together as a group rather than each congregant chanting his own prayer independently.

Rabbi Lassen not only set the standards for Conservative practice at B’nai Zion, he also established the central body for this new movement in the Midwest. The heads of this movement eventually became presidents of B’nai Zion, an indication of the influence wielded by the congregation in the early years of the United Synagogue of America.

The members decided to purchase a small wooden church building at 1715 W. Lunt Ave. that had been the Episcopal Church of St. Paul by the Lake. After some reconstruction, it became B’nai Zion’s first home and the first synagogue building in Rogers Park.

It should be noted that Temple Mizpah, the Reform congregation organized very shortly after B’nai Zion, had no building of its own until the mid-twenties.

Although initially adequate, the facilities could hardly have been called commodius. Schoolrooms, located in the basement, were poorly lighted and always damp.

Rabbi Lassen persevered despite inconveniences and overwork, preaching in the sanctuary and teaching classes in the basement with the assistance of his new wife, Ann. He was cantor for the congregation, chanting a beautiful Kiddush.

Meanwhile, Rogers Park’s Jewish population continued to grow by leaps and bounds, reaching 10,000 by 1930 and about to reach toward 20,000 by 1945.

As membership grew, it became apparent that a larger building was needed for B’nai Zion. In 1926, a site at 1447 W. Pratt Blvd. was purchased. A home on the site where the sanctuary was built had belonged to the boxer Jess Willard.

B'Nai Zion Synagogue

B’Nai Zion Synagogue

Before the new synagogue was completed, it was necessary to have high holiday services in the Masonic temple on Lunt, as the little wooden shul was no longer able to hold the growing congregation. The new building was dedicated on September 8, 1928. One year later the Depression arrived with problems.

These years were accompanied by severe personal financial hardships which were very soon reflected in B’nai Zion’s finances. Rabbi Lassen continued to perform his duties even though the members were unable to pay him any salary.

Occasionally individual members would call on the rabbi and bring gift baskets of food. During study group sessions at his home, someone would tactfully leave a check behind to help tide him and his wife over during these hard times.

B’nai Zion survived and, as the Depression waned, continued its growth. During the 40s, Rabbi Lassen, in ill health, sought early retirement. The congregation engaged Rabbi Jacob Siegel, who married the daughter of Abraham Rinklestein, a devoted member and five-term President. However, Rabbi Siegel served only a short time.

In 1945, Rabbi Henry Fisher came from Rochester, New York, and served until 1964 when he became emeritus. By then, membership reached 850 families and more space was needed, primarily for classrooms.

They were able to purchase the property adjacent to the west and built the Wolberg Community center, which included the Oliff Auditorium, a large hall which can seat 1,100 worshipers on the high holidays, as well as nine classrooms. When it opened in 1957, membership had reached 1,100 families and a similar number attended religious school classes.

Since Rabbi Fisher’s 1964 departure, the B’nai Zion pulpit was occupied by several different men.

Through subsequent years, the community and demographic patterns changed. Children raised in Rogers Park have married and left the neighborhood. Jewish families have tended to settle farther west or in the suburbs. Rogers Park is no longer the Jewish community that it once was. The neighborhood is changing rapidly. The apartments and homes adjacent to the synagogue buildings were gradually occupied by various other ethnic groups. Despite a dismal prediction. B’nai Zion continued to serve the needs of an older Jewish community and those of newly arriving immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Then, finally, it happened in June 2002. B’nai Zion, the oldest continuously operating Conservative synagogue in Chicago, held its last services in its sanctuary, hosting its last Kiddush luncheon, its last Sunday breakfast.

Technically, B’nai Zion did not die. It merged with another Conservative synagogue, Congregation Shaare Tikvah. The resulting congregation is now known as Congregation Shaare Tikvah B’nai Zion, and a majority of B’nai Zion’s 80 member families became members of the merged congregation located at 5800 N. Kimball Ave.

In the merger there was a place for many of the artifacts that B’nai Zion accumulated over its 83 year life: Torah scrolls, memorial plaques, and various other Judaic objects. Portions of the the stained glass windows were cut and incorporated into a collage that is displayed at the new-old synagogue.

In the end, it wasn’t scandal or squabbling or mismanagement, or anything so interesting that did B’nai Zion in. It was simple demographics. There was no longer a viable Jewish community in Rogers Park.

B’nai Zion was formed on the crest of one Chicago Jewish migration-from the West Side to the North-and began losing steam when another swept Jews out of the city and into the suburbs.