Can This Temple Be Saved? | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Can This Temple Be Saved? 

A jaw-dropping Jewish landmark struggles to regain its former glory.

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Two elderly Russian immigrants, one man wearing a baseball cap and the other a fedora, stood by the entrance to Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue at 5029 N. Kenmore. The man in the baseball cap looked north on Kenmore and then south, waiting. Gradually a few more men showed up at the temple. "Good shabbos," said the man. It was a Saturday morning in August, and traditional Jewish law requires ten men--a minyan--for a service to get under way. By 9:40, five minutes before the scheduled hour of worship, more than ten had gathered at the entrance, and they headed inside for sabbath prayer.

The main sanctuary is in disrepair, so the men entered the modest first-floor chapel, where they sat in front, clad in yarmulkes and prayer shawls, and three women who had joined them sat in back, behind a white curtain, following Orthodox custom. Philip Lefkowitz, the synagogue's 58-year-old rabbi, is disabled from diabetes and largely confined to a wheelchair, and though he lives across the street, Orthodox law prevents him from wheeling to Agudas Achim on the sabbath. ("The shul is so near, and yet so far," he laments.) His son Levi, a tall man wearing a broad-brimmed black hat, rocked back and forth on his feet, chanting the two-and-a-half-hour service in Hebrew. The synagogue keeps Russian as well as English prayer books, and a flip chart of numbers alerts everyone to the proper page. Lefkowitz read from the Torah and afterward said a few words in English, wishing good health to President Bush and Vice President Cheney. There was no sermon.

Later, in the social hall, Levi's brother Moshe set out tuna fish, bread, and pop for the kiddush meal, which traditionally follows services. Off in a corner stood Esther Schatten, a woman in her 80s who had come with her second husband to check up on Agudas Achim. "This is my old hunting ground," she said, eyeing the worn social hall. "It was such a beautiful place in the 50s, with the pews full and a Hebrew school next door. It was very nice. It's a shame the way things are now, with all the building problems. The old Russian people come here. It would be great to see some young blood."

"When I came to this country I was so depressed," said 67-year-old Basya Pulis a few days later. A biochemist in her native Ukraine, she migrated to Chicago with her family in 1992. "For me, at home in Kiev, I was never religious--you really couldn't be. But when I first put my hands to the Torah, at the Free Synagogue on Devon, where we first went, I felt a strength come to me. I don't know why, but my feelings were even stronger at Agudas Achim. I was home."

Natives of Austria and Hungary founded the First Hungarian Congre-gation Agudas Achim on Maxwell Street in 1884. It later moved to Polk and Marshfield, where Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke's Medical Center now stands, then in 1922 it merged with North Shore Congregation Sons of Israel and settled into a single-level building at the North Kenmore site; two years later the building was enlarged with second and third stories. The architect of the addition, Henry Dubin, is best known today for the "battledeck house," the groundbreaking steel-frame residence he built for himself in Highland Park, but he designed many synagogues.

Leather doors opened onto Agudas Achim's sanctuary, with its oak pews and 12 stunning stained-glass windows on the side walls. Gold and green arches, accented by a ring of stained glass depicting a sunrise, surrounded the pulpit, or bimah, whose centerpiece was a 30-foot-high ark decorated with a mosaic and topped by three electric Stars of David. A Hebrew inscription from the Old Testament read, "Know before whom you stand." The main floor and three-sided balcony could seat 2,000 congregants. Dubin drew on Austrian and German styles for Agudas Achim's Romanesque sandstone facade and interiors, traveling to Germany to select the mosaic tile for the ark's lions and images from the Ten Commandments. He also added some Louis Sullivan-like touches, in particular the sanctuary's arches and a rippling stone curtain that acts as a parapet at the front of the roof.

With the new building and wealthy congregants that included members of the Arie Crown family, the synagogue flourished. "Agudas Achim had the largest sanctuary in the city," says Philip Lefkowitz. "I'd say one in five Jews on the north side had an affiliation with it. In its heyday there was a rabbi, a cantor, and a choir at every sabbath. People tell me that on the High Holidays you couldn't get in, so they had to hold youth services at the Aragon Ballroom. They attached the religious school in 1948. Unfortunately, in the 60s the neighborhood went down, and the Jews left for the suburbs." Agudas Achim's membership plummeted, and the building fell into disrepair from water damage and neglect.

Steven Turk, a young man two years out of college who'd been raised a Reform Jew, first heard of Agudas Achim in 1986, when an aged cousin in California asked him what had become of it. He learned that his great-grandparents had helped build it, and one Saturday morning he drove over to Argyle and Kenmore. "I saw nine elderly men between the ages of 65 and 104--literally--looking at their watches and waiting for the tenth man to show up. Finally up comes me, this 24-year-old kid. They were thrilled, and I had tears in my eyes."

So began his devotion to Agudas Achim, which had changed from an Orthodox to a less restrictive Conser-vative congregation. Turk joined the board and quickly became president. The building had been severely vandalized, and it smelled of the six German shepherds that patrolled it. Turk got rid of the dogs, put in a security system, and raised enough funds for some tuck-pointing and roof repair.

Philip Lefkowitz had been an Orthodox rabbi in New Jersey and in Manchester, England. He was working for a funeral business when Turk offered him the pulpit at Agudas Achim in 1994. Turk had to persuade his small board to revert to Orthodox Judaism in order to hire Lefkowitz. "There was opposition, but because of what I had done they went along with me," he says. By the time Lefkowitz took over, the member-ship was predominantly Russian. "On the eve of that first Rosh Hashanah, 250 people showed up, and they didn't know a word that I was saying," says Lefkowitz. "The second day I put in some Yiddish, which I knew somewhat and which they knew somewhat, too. The Russians started to cheer. On Yom Kippur I spoke in Yiddish for ten minutes and ran out of nouns, but there was a connection."

Things were looking up, but the temple's problems persisted. "There was no money for the gas bill," Lefkowitz says. "It was so cold in winter that my blood turned to sherbet." Many of the elderly Russian congregants were on public assistance, and for them even the low dues proved a burden. Turk and Lefkowitz got donations from the Crowns, philanthropist Seymour Persky, and retired rabbi Herman Schaalman of nearby Emanuel Congregation. Then in March 2000, city building inspectors wrote up the synagogue for 13 building-code violations, including deteriorated walls and floors, broken tiles, a rusted fire escape, washed-out mortar, and broken windowpanes. Lefkowitz blames 48th Ward alderman Mary Ann Smith. "All of a sudden these inspectors came at us left and right," he says. "Then when we went to Mary Ann, she was totally uncooperative. When we had to go to court, her observer was there, but only as an observer, not to help us."

Smith says she's taken an interest in Agudas Achim for 16 years, since she was chief of staff for her predecessor, Marion Kennedy Volini. As an alderman, she says, she pushed a couple efforts to establish a community center in the old religious school but got nowhere. Turk was particularly disappointed when the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago chose not to locate a hunger program at Agudas Achim, feeling the school wing was too decrepit. Smith's not sure who triggered the 2000 building inspection, noting that technically churches and synagogues require an annual look. When she met with Lefkowitz, she says, "his tune was always the same, that we're out to destroy him. But we're here to assist in any way we can." Her representative, Marilyn Pierce, monitored the case without intervening, which is how Pierce defines her role with the 100 or so structures on her caseload. Lefkowitz grew furious with Pierce, at one point ordering her not to sit next to him. "I didn't respond in kind," says Pierce.

A contractor who read about the synagogue's plight donated some tuck-pointing, but this April, Judge Daniel J. Lynch prohibited Agudas Achim from using the main sanctuary until it's removed peeling paint in a stairwell and repaired the broken windows. It may be ready for the High Holidays.

Lefkowitz says he was relieved when redistricting brought Agudas Achim from Smith's ward into Helen Shiller's 46th Ward. "Helen called up and said, 'Rabbi, I'm here to help you,'" says Lefkowitz. "I was delighted." Yet Smith says that until the next city election in March, Agudas Achim remains under her purview, and she's concerned. "This is a tragedy in the making," she says, "because if someone doesn't bring this together, Agudas Achim, such an important part of history, will be lost forever. This still should be a sacred place. The mystery to me is why the Jewish community hasn't embraced the building. Don't they care?"

"The reality is that there are never enough resources to meet community needs," said Jewish United Fund president Steven Nasatir in a written statement. "We can't in good conscience renovate buildings when there are waiting lists for human serv-ices in our community--like subsidized housing for seniors and respite care for families of kids with disabilities." The JUF, he says, has helped Agudas Achim by distributing its marketing materials and sending over volunteers to scrub floors and scrape plaster.

To bring the synagogue back to full flower could cost as much as $4 million, yet Lefkowitz, who left the funeral business a year ago, and Turk, general manager of a truck-parts company, are optimistic. Last year Lefkowitz invited Khaim Pinkhasik, a Russian-born stained-glass maker, to move his studio into the back of Agudas Achim, and in return for the free space Pinkhasik is working to restore and replace damaged windows. Agudas Achim now offers a Passover seder, a Hannukah dinner, poetry readings in Russian, and excursions sponsored by the city Department on Aging. Turk and Lefkowitz have enlarged the board to eight members, almost all of them under 40. The synagogue plans to combine a state grant and a pending bank loan, totaling $300,000, to redo the first-floor kitchen, bathrooms, and social hall, in hopes that Agudas Achim can qualify as a site for the "golden diners" program run by the Department on Aging. The synagogue owns one obvious asset, a vacant lot to the south, but the board has elected to save the land for future expansion.

Lefkowitz's absence from services continues to be a problem. "A rabbi is the whole reason many people go to shul, and now that's missing," says board member Tomer Bitton. An eruv may help. An area within which Orthodox Jews are permitted to perform certain tasks on the sabbath--like carrying objects or pushing strollers or wheelchairs--an eruv can be bounded by existing features (the lakeshore, the Metra tracks) or artificially demarcated using wire or string. An eruv proposal for Agudas Achim now lies with the chief justice of the Chicago Rabbinical Council's ecclesiastical court.

The High Holidays commence this Friday at sundown with Rosh Hashanah observances. Lefkowitz will rise from his wheelchair and hobble across the street from his apartment and into the sanctuary--that is, if the city inspector opens it to the public. A cantor has been hired for the occasion, and Lefkowitz promises a sermon on the power of relationships. He should be able to speak from experience: only relationships have kept Agudas Achim from tumbling into ruin.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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