CHICAGO (JTA) – Perched along a quiet, tree-lined street on the south side of this city, the worn brick and concrete building on South Champlain Avenue is hard to miss.
The tall structure stands out from more recent constructions, a huge cross encrusted in its facade and wrought iron Star of David window frames visible from the sidewalk. Casual observers can see the year of its construction, 1923, etched into a cornerstone. The letters that were once affixed above a row of doors have now disappeared, but their remains are still legible: “Congregation B’nai Bezalel”.
Over the course of nearly a century, this 10,000 square foot building in the Woodlawn neighborhood has served many religious communities, first as a synagogue and then as a series of churches. Over time, however, the building has fallen into disrepair – the stairs are sagging, the paint is peeling, and the stained glass windows peel away from their frame.
Despite its appearance, the old synagogue’s service to its neighborhood does not stop. In fact, it’s on the verge of a new chapter.
Artist and teacher Amber Ginsburg and her husband, Dr. Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago Law School, purchased the property from the City of Chicago.
The couple are dedicated to the rehabilitation and restoration of the 98-year-old building to create an art space where they can work, teach and feel at home – in the process of finding a new approach to Jewish life in a South Side neighborhood that was once a thriving Jewish community.
The project is entirely private, without financial support from outside organizations. It’s an expensive and expansive endeavor, but the Ginsburgs have persevered, inspired by the building’s legacy as a “holy place,” says Tom Ginsburg.
When complete, the couple envision a three-story family resort where their three adult daughters can visit, as well as an art club with rental studios for local creatives in need of workspace.
“It’s kind of an exercise in rethinking ownership,” says Tom Ginsburg. “We’re going to live here, but it’s not designed to be just our home. It is designed to be a community space and a place for creatives to come and do their work.
The Ginsburgs come from very different Jewish backgrounds. Tom came of age at Congregation Beth Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley, California. Amber’s parents were “hippies,” according to her husband, who had little connection to institutional Jewish life.
Now, they attend services at Mishkan Chicago, a progressive non-denominational congregation, and participate in several minyanim, or prayer communities, including Yavneh at UChicago. They are planning to hold a dedication ceremony at the end and may host minyanim in the future.
The Ginsburgs have been working on the project for about a year and expect the rebuild to take at least another 10 months. Right now, project assistants are buzzing with power tools and plenty of questions, occasionally stopping to gobble up slices of pizza.
The basement, now emptied, will have its own independent entrance and will eventually house a carpentry and artists’ studios. The former ground floor worship space – a cavernous expanse with a ceiling of at least 40 feet – will serve a variety of purposes, including as a place of family and community gathering. The third and top floor, formerly the women’s section of the congregation, will become a private residence for family members.
B’nai Bezalel was founded in 1904 (accounts differ depending on its original location) and merged in the 1920s with two other synagogues: the Beth Jacob and Anshe Mizrach congregations, according to the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. The merger gave rise to a new name: Beth Jacob B’nai Bezalel Anshe Mizrach. Worshipers from 1919 to 1920 gathered on Drexel Avenue and 62nd Street at a Jewish retirement home, the Drexel Home for the Elderly.
In 1955, the congregation moved to the South Shore, across from another conservative synagogue, the Habonim Congregation. B’nai Bezalel withdrew in the late 1960s.
The rise and fall of the community of B’nai Bezalel mirrors that of the Jewish population on the south side, which was home to a large and diverse population of Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in the 1950s, according to Irving Cutler’s 1996 book. “The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to the Suburbs. Around 1960, Black Chicagoans began to settle in the area in large numbers. As a majority of Jewish residents migrated to the suburbs, synagogue membership fell in many parts of the South Side.
In the years that followed, many churches used the building, including Freedom Temple Church of God in Christ, Woodlawn Community Church, and All Nations Worship Assembly. Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer – a long-standing local institution originally founded by famous gospel singer Dr. Charles George Hayes – held worship services in space until 2019.
The Ginsburgs discovered many relics during the demolition. Rows and rows of dusty benches bear large stars of David. Other Star of David designs run throughout space, left in place even as churches enter and exit the building. The couple are keen to donate as many benches as possible. They also found a genizah, a storage area for old and worn religious books before burial, which has remained hidden under a stage for 70 years. The couple plan to display the books to highlight the building’s history.
Building may be Amber Ginsburg’s biggest construction company, but it’s not the first. In 2014, she oversaw a University of Chicago project called KilnHouse, a 380-square-foot collaborative ceramic center made from a shipping container on campus.
The Woodlawn property is based on the concepts seen in the KilnHouse project: reconstruction, modification, reimagining of a pre-existing place. How exactly to reinvent such a space is a question that also disrupts the Chicago Loop Synagogue and other historic Jewish places of worship that have seen hard times.
Although new to this block, the Ginsburgs have lived for 12 years in the surrounding neighborhood and are eager to get to know the residents. They joined the local neighborhood association and spent time with their city councilor, Jeanette Taylor. They would like to have a positive relationship with their neighbors and embrace the history of the Jews of Chicago.
“We do not rent this [space] outside, we don’t increase anyone’s rent, ”says Tom Ginsberg. “We are just trying to create a public good… there is a lack of [studios], and we want to encourage people to do more art. We want to invest in a project bigger than us.
The post A crumbling old synagogue on the south side of Chicago turns into an innovative new community space first appeared on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Law professor and artist transform old decrepit South Side Chicago synagogue into green community space