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Celebrating 120 years of worship

Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media
Margaret Frisch Kle(center) Rabbi Congregational Kneseth Israel synagague teaches children about traditional foods synagague ElgSunday morning.

Michael R. Schmidt~For Sun-Times Media Margaret Frisch Klein (center) Rabbi of Congregational Kneseth Israel synagague teaches the children about traditional foods at the synagague in Elgin Sunday morning. Once a month the Torah School gets children involved in a program called "Judaism Rocks". This month they focused on the 120th anniversary of the synagague, Elgin's oldest. Children played games ate traditional food and interviewed some of the elder members of the synagague.

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:34AM

Another in an occasional series about area religious congregations celebrating major anniversaries.

“I heard it three times just yesterday: ‘I didn’t know there was a synagogue in Elgin,’ ” laughs Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein.

Not only does the City in the Suburbs have its own Jewish synagogue — Congregation Kneseth Israel, at 330 Division St. on the edge of downtown’s “Holy Hill” church district — but CKI is celebrating its 120th anniversary. And it’s doing so despite the challenge of combining Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed Jews in the same congregation and keeping them all happy — somewhat akin to a Christian church trying to hold Catholics, Baptists and Unitarians all under the same roof.

The anniversary celebration will climax next weekend with an appearance by comedian Robert Klein at Elgin Community College on Saturday, Feb. 9, to be followed on Sunday, Feb. 10, by a catered brunch and entertainment by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band Quartet.

The celebration actually began with a unit marching in last summer’s Elgin Fourth of July Parade and officially will end with this year’s parade.

Why make such a big deal about 120 years, when most religious congregations — St. Joseph Catholic Church down the street, for example — wait until the more round number of 125 years? It’s a uniquely Jewish thing, explains Klein, who came from Boston last August to become CKI’s spiritual leader.

“The traditional Jewish blessing for someone celebrating a birthday is, ‘May you live to be 121!’ — one year older than Moses,” Klein said. “Also, we have just about 120 families in the congregation now. So we are 120 families celebrating 120 years.”

Before Civil War

Although CKI was not formally organized as a synagogue until 1892, some of those families can trace their roots almost as far back as the earliest non-Indian gentile families who settled Elgin.

According to an exhibit researched by the Elgin Area Historical Society called “The Jewish Experience in Elgin,” which is now on display in the synagogue, the first Jews to settle in Elgin were Leopold and Joseph Adler. These brothers born in Germany arrived in 1858, just 25 years after the Gifford family founded the city.

A number of Jews, mostly from Germany, arrived over the next few decades, followed by a wave from Russia and Eastern Europe in the later 1800s.

From the beginning they were a varied group, according to the exhibit. “Some arrived penniless; others had grown up among servants. Some probably arrived with scarcely a word of English; others came with Ivy League degrees. Some sold oysters; others struggled to keep a kosher home. Some were junk dealers, others were scholars, sometimes in the same family.”

The community would go on to turn out many of the Elgin area’s business leaders — the owners of the Illinois Watch Case Co., Seigle Lumber, Perlman’s Jewelry, Rifken Furs, Brody Manufacturing, and Singer’s and Brenner’s clothing shops, among many others, plus numerous doctors and lawyers.

Some CKI alums even went on to become known nationwide. Musician Bobby Rosengarden led the band on ABC-TV’s “Dick Cavett Show” in the 1960s. Marshall Goldman taught at Harvard and became an often-quoted expert on the Russian economy.

A large number of Jewish doctors came to Elgin in the early 1900s to work at what is now the Elgin Mental Health Center.

In 1892, the Jews of Elgin formed the first Illinois synagogue west of Chicago, which they called Congregation Tifereth (“crown of”) Israel. It met in a hall at 166 Dexter St.

A Synagogue Sharei Thor formed soon afterward. They and yet a third group “had many disagreements, sometimes to the point of fisticuffs,” the exhibit says. But in 1910, they merged to form Congregation Kneseth Israel, “kneseth” being the Hebrew word for “gathering” or “assembly.”

After renting spaces on Ann Street and at 450 Dundee Ave., the congregation bought a building at 77 Villa St. They built the present building from scratch at 330 Division St. in 1948, then expanded it in 1958. In 1961, a Jewish section was consecrated for burials at Bluff City Cemetery.

All of the above

When it comes to beliefs, lifestyles and worship styles, is the congregation Orthodox, Conservative or Reformed?

“Yes,” answers Klein.

“We’re full spectrum,” she said. “Whatever you are, you’re welcome here.”

Although the first settlers seemed to be rather Orthodox — strictly keeping the kosher laws and believing the Torah scriptures came directly from the mouth of God — CKI’s center of gravity shifted in the late 20th century more to the middle-of-the-road Conservative Jewish way of thinking.

“Most people really want to pick one (belief or rule) from Column A and one from Column B,” the rabbi said.

“For example, you might be Reformed in your theology but keep a kosher home,” said the current congregation president, Rochelle Fosco.

The fact that CKI has both a female rabbi and a female president shows how far some things have changed since those Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Russians arrived in the 1880s. At one time, women had to sit in a separate part of the sanctuary from men during worship.

When she was young in the 1950s, Fosco said, boys were officially entered into Jewish life at age 13 through the bar mitzvah ceremony, although there was no parallel thing for girls. But CKI began doing bat mitzvahs for girls, too. “I had my bat mitzvah four years ago, at age 63 — just about 50 years late,” Fosco said. “My parents might have been spinning in their graves. But I think they would have been proud of me, too.”

“When the Saturday morning Shabbat service starts, often there will be 10 men there, and I will be the only woman — and I’m the one leading it,” Klein said.


The changes haven’t always been accepted by everybody. About 10 years ago, some members split off and formed Congregation Shirat Shalom that met on the estate of wealthy contractor (and Holocaust survivor) Robert Leroy, just across the Elgin-Hoffman Estates border. But Fosco doesn’t like to talk about that experience.

Other synagogues have sprung up in McHenry County and Aurora, and a Reformed congregation formed in Hoffman Estates. Fosco said CKI includes members living as far away as Schaumburg, Cary, Marengo, Batavia and even Wauconda.

Klein said 16 new families, many with children, have joined just since August. But keeping empty-nesters and baby boomers active remains a challenge. She said attendance at Shabbat services has been going up since she arrived but still remains a meager 20 or so each on Friday night and Saturday morning.

The ratio between that number of weekly worshippers and CKI’s 280 or so total members is very small by the standard of most Christian churches. But Klein said pretty much everybody does show up on the High Holy Days in the fall, and recent special events drew 60 people each. About 100 are expected for next weekend’s Sunday brunch and concert.

“People want to engage in Judaism, but they want to engage on their terms and on their timing,” Klein said.

“The real challenge is to make Judaism relevant and meaningful so that the next generation wants to affiliate. People are hungry to talk about the big questions, like ‘Why did I get cancer?’ and ‘Where was God during the Holocaust?’ We usually go home by noon on Saturday, but one day recently people stayed around talking until 1:30.”

Robin Seigle, a member of the anniversary planning committee, said that “When I come, I have never met some of the people. But I just feel like they’re family.”

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