Introduction to Doors of Rememberance
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood - The Chicago Jewish News

Chicago has been home to hundreds of synagogues over the years. But for many, their role in the story of Jewish Chicago is in danger of being lost. Robert Packer is trying to do something about that.
Three seemingly unrelated events occurred in January 2003. Their convergence changed Robert Packer's life.

First, Packer and his wife, Fern, decided to make a photographic record of their families' history in Chicago. Packer is an amateur photographer with a darkroom and he thought that a series of black-and-white photos detailing his family's Chicago origins in the stockyards district, and his wife's family's beginnings on Maxwell Street, would be just right for a wall of their Buffalo Grove home.

When Packer went to photograph his in- laws' synagogue, the former Beth Itzchok of Albany Park, also known as the Drake Avenue Shul, he found- nothing. Many of the members had joined its offshoot, Congregation Beth Itzchok of West Rogers Park, but the building was no longer there. The synagogue, founded in the early 1920s, had ceased to exist as a physical presence. In its place was a park.

"There wasn't even a little plaque there saying anything about this beautiful synagogue that was there for 70 years," Packer says.

The second serendipitous event occurred during the course of Packer's job as a building inspector for potential buyers of homes, condos and industrial properties. Going into an unfamiliar neighborhood to inspect a building, he noticed an unusual church with a condo building adjacent to it. He asked around and discovered that the church was once a synagogue, Beth El Congregation, and the condo building had once been its social hall.

"I started wondering how many synagogues were now churches, community centers and condos," he says. "I wondered how many were falling apart due to lack of funds to fix them or lack of community support. I wondered how long it would be before the record of the very existence of Chicago Jewish communities would be erased forever, like Maxwell Street."

With these questions in mind, Packer discovered a newly published book by two Chicago Jewish historians. Called "A Walk to Shul: Chicago Synagogues of Lawndale and Stops on the Way," it was written by Norman Schwartz and Bea Kraus and published by the Chicago Historical Society (see Chicago Jewish News, Oct. 31, 2003).

The slim volume included photographs of many of the buildings that had once housed synagogues-there were more than 70 of them during the area's height as a Jewish population center-in addition to Jewish schools, clubs and communal buildings, along with histories of each congregation and appealing tidbits about life on the old West Side.

Packer was delighted to see that there was a picture of the Jewish People's Institute, where he had gone to nursery school in the early 1950s.

"I thought I had struck gold," he says. Now that he knew the names and locations of the old West Side synagogues, he thought he could find a book with their pictures and discover a photo of the old Beth Itzchok to complete his "family tree" of synagogues.

Packer went to the logical place for such a search, the Asher Library at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. There he met librarian Dan Sharon, who would turn out to be instrumental to Packer's project.

Sharon is well known to Jewish historians and researchers for both the depth and breadth of his knowledge of Jewish life and history, including Chicago Jewish history. If Sharon doesn't know about a book or other reference work, it probably doesn't exist.

Packer found that out when he asked Sharon for a book on vanished Chicago synagogues. The librarian found several. One, on old Chicago churches and synagogues, had 250 beautiful color photos -- 235 churches and 25 synagogues, Packer relates.

Another was a listing of addresses of all of Chicago's synagogues, put together nearly 20 years ago by members of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. It was helpful, but not what Packer was looking for.

"I said, Dan, I'm looking for a book that has all the photos of Chicago synagogues," Packer recalls. "He told me that there wasn't one. He said, why don't you take the photos? Donate them here, and then we'll have a chronicle."

Packer told Sharon that he wasn't much of a photographer. "He said, Can you take a picture?" Packer admitted that he could, and Sharon encouraged him to "do something no one else has ever done."

"Dan is the greatest," Packer says. "He is the whole reason this happened."

"This" is Packer's decision to take up Sharon's challenge to create a photographic chronicle of Chicago's forgotten synagogues.

First, though, he had to find out just where all those synagogues were. He enlisted the aid of three men he calls his Brain Trust: Irving Cutler, Chicago Jewish historian whose 1996 book "The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb" was an invaluable resource; Sid Sorkin, who wrote "12 Bridges to an American City: Chicago's Landsmanshaften," about the city's Jewish fraternal societies; and Schwartz, who helped Packer find the addresses of more than 75 former synagogues.

The three men "were very enthusiastic about my project," he says. "Little by little, I was getting support from people I never knew, who were very excited about the whole idea of providing a photographic history of what is slowly disappearing."

He also spoke to family members of Hyman Meites, who edited a monumental 1924 publication, "History of the Jews of Chicago," and received permission to use their archives.

Packer also spent much time at the Chicago Public Library, where he searched microfiche records from 1910 to 1950 to find the addresses of synagogues.

"I had to create a whole archive from scratch on my own in between working full time," he says. "But it was a labor of love."

Soon he began photographing the old buildings. When he couldn't find one, he tried to find out what had happened to it.

"I photograph what's there," he says. "It might be a shopping mall parking lot. I try to find out what happened. Some of the buildings were torn down-what happened to the members?"

While he was photographing, Parker also worked on creating a "flow chart" of Chicago synagogues beginning in 1847 with the city's very first one, Kehilath Anshe Maariv, and continuing through the present day.

"That was more difficult than taking the pictures, with all the merging and the moving," he says. "Sometimes there was a consolidation of several synagogues into a single one. That's an amazing story that no one has ever done."

One idea kept pushing Packer forward: that a record of Jewish life in Chicago must be preserved.

He likes to cite figures showing that in the 1930s, Chicago had 290,000 Jews and 300 synagogues; in 2003, there were 260,000 Jews but, with the exception of West Rogers Park, only seven or eight synagogues left in Chicago proper.

The city's spotty record on historical preservation also propelled him on. "Within a generation, there won't be any physical or cultural evidence that the Jewish population lived in Albany Park or Lawndale or South Shore," he says. "Chicago is literally tearing down a cultural, ethnic and religious group that was very important to the growth of the city. Within a generation, there won't be any evidence that we existed."

That's the case with the Maxwell Street neighborhood, once a center of Jewish life, Packer says. "There's no evidence of what it was, not even a plaque. It's happening everywhere, in every former Jewish community in Chicago. We contributed culturally, religiously and architecturally to the community, and within a very short time the physical evidence will no longer exist."

"Chicago only protects landmarks selectively," he says. He is pleased by commemorative plaques erected at the former site of KAM, the city's first congregation, and the Jewish People's Institute on Douglas Boulevard, but believes that other buildings have been torn down with no markers to indicate that they ever existed.

"I understand that the city has to change, but not even to leave some kind of a plaque ..." he says.

He also found that many of the former synagogues have been turned into churches-and that many are in serious need of repair. Often, the churches don't have the money to renovate the old buildings.

At the former South Side Hebrew Congregation at 74th and Chappel in the South Shore area, now a Baptist church, Packer talked to the pastor. "It was a magnificent, beautiful synagogue and now the ceiling is caving in," he says. "The church can't afford to replace the roof." Packer plans to use his completed photographs to host a fund-raiser to help the church put on a new roof.

"Most of the pastors at the churches I've visited are very skeptical," he says. "They're wondering, why does this Jewish guy want to take a picture of my church? But I'm tenacious, and a few have opened their doors to me."

Among the buildings he has photographed are the former Congregation B'nai Zion in East Rogers Park, where his family belonged during his childhood. Last year, the synagogue closed its doors, merging with another congregation.

More than 50 churches, Packer estimates, still have the original stained glass windows from when they were synagogues. After he finishes his current project, he plans to undertake another detailing these windows.

In fact, Packer now plans to create a three-volume project. The first book will be the photographic record of old synagogues, the second will deal with Jewish communal buildings, and the third with stained glass windows. Taken together they will give "a cultural, archaeological and physical history of the Jews of Chicago," he says.

Even as he works on the project, Packer sees the Jewish community changing. He finds irony in the fact that two Chicago synagogues with the same name are both in danger of closing. Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Uptown has been struggling for years and still needs much renovation. And Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken-Agudath Achim Congregation on South Houston Avenue has recently puts its building up for sale and is in the process of buying another synagogue building in a different neighborhood.

The changes now extend to the suburbs, Packer says, noting that he recently photographed Congregation Bnai Emunah in Skokie, which is selling its building and merging with Congregation Beth Hillel in Wilmette.

Cutler, the Jewish historian, says Packer's project is valuable. There are only two books on Chicago's historic synagogues, he says, the one that covers Lawndale and another, called "Faith and Form," that discusses synagogue architecture.

"Outside of that, there's nothing," he says, "so this is a very useful project. There are a lot of old synagogues scattered all around-the North Side, South Side, suburbs-but outside of Lawndale, there are photos here and there but not a collection of them."

Another of Packer's mentors, Norman Schwartz, says that Packer's photographic collection comes just at the right time. "I started taking pictures of synagogues in 1985 and sometimes when I went back, a lot of them were already torn down," he says. "This is what's going on, and by documenting them we preserve the history. We don't have too many histories of synagogues unless the synagogue has moved to someplace else. If these pictures had been taken earlier, we might have documented some cornerstones, at least."

He says that a reader told him that his photograph of a historic synagogue had missed an architecturally significant detail atop the roof. When he went back to take a new photo, he found the building had already been torn down.

Packer's project "is helpful," he says. "It's nice to have (photographs of) these old things."

The difficulties Packer has encountered have only made him more determined to finish the project. He is putting together a slide show of the synagogues he has photographed and plans to take it to local synagogues and other institutions as soon as it is complete. There's talk of a show of his photographs at the Skokie Library. And he hopes to have a book out in time for next year's High Holidays. The working title is "Doors of Redemption: The Forgotten Synagogues of Chicago."

"When people look at my pictures, they evoke emotion," he says.

But Packer is not content with a simple photographic records. He wants to flesh out the photos with stories.

He has secured a research assistant at the University of Chicago, a student in history of religion and sociology who is helping him with his research for a class project. Her work will be helpful, but Packer is also relying on the local Jewish community for more aid.

"The true stories of the synagogues and temples are not in the buildings or even in the book of photographs," he says. "The real stories are behind the doors of these synagogues-the memories of parents and grandparents, the bar and bat mitzvahs, the families, friends and neighbors. These are the real stories."

Packer is reaching out to Chicago Jewish News readers to complete those stories. He is inviting all readers to send him photographs, artifacts (for instance, High Holiday tickets or synagogue newsletters) and any other memorabilia from Chicago temples and synagogues.

"The book is a skeleton," he says. "The readers who show their support would clothe it."

On a strictly personal level, Packer says the project has given his life an additional dimension.

"I needed to figure out the whole reason I was put on earth," he says. "Now I know what my purpose was. This was the reason-to be an active participant in saving a part of Chicago's cultural history."

Robert Packer invites all Chicago Jewish News readers to send him their photographs, stories and memorabilia connected with any Chicago- area synagogue. Contact him at (847) 808-8485 or by e-mail at

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