Sep 21, 2010

Three Synagogues in one space

There is an interesting article in the New Observer about how three synagogues, each of a different sect of Judaism, have moved in to one building and share the same space.

That is, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogues are all cooperating with each other to keep the place going, and they are careful to work together as well as possible and not step on each others toes too much.
Defying denominational labels that often distinguish American houses of worship, three Jewish congregations - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - have found a way to peacefully coexist on the corner of California and Sherwin avenues. They celebrate the High Holy Days together, yet in their own way, under one roof.

"I don't believe in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. I believe in Jewish," said Rabbi Doug Zelden, the leader of Or Menorah, the Orthodox synagogue that shares the building. "The Torah ... says serve God with joy - joyous Judaism."

The rare union transcends differences that historically have divided American Jews. It also illustrates the power of friendship - an especially poignant example during the High Holidays, when many Jews have sought to heal broken relationships.

"That is the message of the High Holy Days: enjoy coming together," said Rabbi David Spitz, the part-time rabbi for the Reform congregation, Temple Menorah. "It's always been magic to me. No matter how far away we might be from our traditions when the High Holy Days come, together Jews assemble and pray and feel a camaraderie with each other. Now that we have our brothers and sisters right beside us, it basically heightens the feeling of one community."

Born out of necessity, the unconventional federation has paid off for everyone involved, especially Temple Menorah, a once-bustling Reform congregation founded in 1946, when many progressive Jews left the South Side and moved north. A similar northward migration to the suburbs caused the population to shift again in the 1980s. A westward migration of Orthodox Jews from the East Rogers Park neighborhood filled the void.

To make ends meet, the temple rented space to an all-girls Orthodox Lubavitch Hebrew day school.

Last year, Zelden went in search of space within walking distance of many Orthodox families' homes, because Orthodox Jews must walk on the Sabbath. Zelden, who had coached bar and bat mitzvah candidates at Temple Menorah, approached the Reform congregation's leaders about sharing space.

Zelden said he had no intention of transforming the temple into an Orthodox-only sanctuary. In fact, he welcomed a third branch of Judaism when the Ner Tamid Ezra Habonim Egalitarian Minyan, a Conservative Jewish group, began to rent rooms for its prayers.

"We're not going to ask anyone to leave," Zelden said. "We want Temple Menorah to survive. We want the egalitarian minyan to survive. We want them to be here. It's part of our legacy."

But to make the federation work, each congregation must make accommodations and respect each other's varying positions on the spectrum of tradition and openly work to overcome differences before resentment builds.

Temple Menorah's former gift shop has been converted into a kosher kitchen to serve the egalitarian minyan, while the refrigerator in the synagogue's main kitchen has been divided between kosher and non-kosher. Orthodox members eat off paper plates to observe the strict separation of meat and dairy on the dishes.

On the Sabbath, the Reform congregation surreptitiously lights its candles after dark, behind closed doors and away from Orthodox children who are taught Sabbath candles should be lit at home before sundown. The Reform members also turn off the lights after the more observant Orthodox, who can't use electricity, have gone home on Friday nights.

In return, Or Menorah helps pay the bills and secure a future for the legacy of Temple Menorah, where the list of death anniversaries, or yahrzeits, recited every Friday night is longer than the list of living members.

"That's why it must be perpetuated," Zelden said. "It's a Jewish institution and landmark in the community."

Lisa Yondorf, a member of Temple Menorah for 26 years, said she is grateful to the leaders of all three congregations for being open to the arrangement.

"It demonstrates a certain amount of goodwill that people who don't exactly see eye to eye on how to practice, we all get along together," she said.
The building in question, Temple Menorah, is about 2 blocks from my family's house. The building has sat mostly empty for a long time. I remember passing Temple Menorah in the evening hours and seeing groups (usually various denominations of gentiles of different ethnicity and race) coming out of the building after having rented the halls for their events.

And while the phenomenon of different Jews cooperating with each other and finding a way to co-exist in a friendly way, rather than fighting with each other over who is more right and wrong, in Chicago at least it is nothing new. I don't know about other cities, but in Chicago many of the Conservative and Traditional shuls (I dont know about Reform) have had a "mechitza minyan" (Orthodox) elsewhere in the same building operating happily.

Rabbi Doug Zelden, the rabbi of the Orthodox minyan described in the article above, led one of these "mechitza minyanim" for many years downstairs in Ezras Israel (a Traditional shul) and is a real "stand up" guy and decent fellow.

The only thing really new about it is that there are three of these minyanim sharing the same space in this case, rather than just two.


  1. Actually, the most amazing thing about this shul is the additional things going on in there that aren't on Shabbos. Not only does it have 3 different kinds of minyanim, but during the week, the "Yechi" Lubavitch girls school is in the building, and on Sunday mornings, they rent space (not the sanctuary) to a Nigerian church group to hold services.

    Also, as I read the article, I realized that I have a connection to all 3 minyanim: we've known Rabbi Doug for a number of years; my wife's best friend back in Chicago is very involved in the egalitarian minyan; and my zaide's cousin was the founder and rabbi (now a long-term Rabbi Emeritus) of the original Reform shul.

  2. May this be a lesson for us in EY who are religious and can't even co-exist with other religious Jews!

  3. Just after I saw this here, I saw the following on VIN.

  4. strange with the timing.. I wonder if someone didnt like the good press...

  5. I cannot understand how a shul could set a reserved place in the fridge for non-kosher food. Let people do what they want at home. This is absolutely ridiculous.
    It is like Tea Party accepting marxism as legitimate.


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