The Doors of Redemption
By Wendy Margolin
Staff Writer - Chicago Jewish Online

As a building inspector, Robb Packer drove by Chicago’s 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 the cornerstones.

It was not until Packer was researching the history of his wife’s family in Chicago that he realized there was a story behind this disappearing Jewish history. He went to the site of his wife’s 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 wasn’t 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.

"I’m just a common guy with a camera who got hooked on the idea of preserving the physical history of our people. It’s an era that doesn’t exist anymore," says Packer.
Packer’s 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. "It’s a cleansing. That’s 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 community’s 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 didn’t do a chronicle, within a generation’s 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 Packer’s research, contact him at (847) 808-8488.

Articles reprinted with permission. All other content 2023 Robb Packer; All Rights Reserved.