|The Doors of Redemption
By Wendy Margolin
Staff Writer - Chicago Jewish Online
As a building inspector, Robb Packer drove by Chicagos defunct synagogues
hundreds of times without ever knowing they existed. In fact, most people, even
those who currently occupy these magnificent structures which have been converted
into churches, communal centers, and condominiums do not know that Jewish worship
once echoed throughout the buildings. In some former synagogues, the only remnant of
Judaism is the Hebrew letters fading in the old stones or the Hebrew date etched into
It was not until Packer was researching the history of his
wifes family in Chicago that he realized there was a story behind this
disappearing Jewish history. He went to the site of his wifes former shul,
Congregation Beth Itzchok in Albany Park, and found nothing at the address but a park.
(Today the congregation is located in West Rogers Park). "There wasnt even a
plaque saying that for 75 years there was a magnificent shul here," says Packer.
On another occasion, Packer was inspecting a building and noticed a condominium across
the street with the words Beth El Congregation written above its entryway.
With a little research, he learned that the building was formerly the Hebrew school to
Congregation Beth El (now at its fourth location in Northbrook) when it was first buil
on the Near North Side.
Packer was astonished to learn that no one ever took
notice of the history that was right at his fingertips. His discovery became an
obsession as he began to collect photographs and data on these forgotten synagogues.
"Im just a common guy with a camera who got hooked on the idea of
preserving the physical history of our people. Its an era that doesnt exist
anymore," says Packer.
Packers research, which started with 65 addresses taken
from microfiche of old phone books, led him to some 300 synagogues and other Jewish
communal buildings. He plans to develop the photographs and vignettes into a slide show
presentation and eventually a book. He titled the project The Doors of Redemption because
people go to shul to redeem themselves. "Its a cleansing. Thats how I felt when
I grew up," he says.
Without the evidence of Jewish life
that Packer has collected, he says it is only a matter of time before many
of the buildings vanish. Some have already been torn down, as areas like Maxwell Street
have been the site of construction, and others that are used today mostly as churches hav
not been maintained.
Packer cites the Chicago Jewish communitys history
of transience as the reason for so many abandoned synagogues.
"When the Jewish community leaves, the whole neighborhood, with all of its
shuls and community centers, is gone within a couple of years. Chicago
is perhaps one of the greatest examples of demographic change."
"The story of this collection of photographs is not in the physical structures
themselves, but in the viewer who encounters them," says Packer. "The true story
of these seemingly forgotten synagogues is in the individual stories
behind The Doors of Redemption and these stories are written by
the readers who see in the book their synagogues, lives and memories."
"If I didnt do a chronicle, within a generations time there would be no
trace that there was a Jewish people in these areas of Chicago, while we were once
such an integral part of the fabric," says Packer. "At least there is a record that we
existed as a physical entity."
Though the physical edifices of the Jewish
communities in Chicago may be vanishing, Packer says the Chicago Jewish
community as a spiritual entity will endure.
To contribute information to Packers research, contact him at (847) 808-8488.