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Jewish history of West Rogers Park explored in new documentary

A new documentary, Driving West Rogers Park: Chicago's Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood, produced by award-winning filmmaker Beverly Siegel, chronicles the neighborhood's colorful history through photos and rare footage.

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Devon and Artesian in the 1950s. Courtesy of Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society.

Eighty years ago, the first synagogue was established in West Rogers Park. Since then, West Rogers Park has come to be a Jewish neighborhood complete with kosher markets, Jewish institutions, and schools, and more than 20 synagogues.

A new documentary, Driving West Rogers Park: Chicago's Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood, produced by award-winning filmmaker Beverly Siegel, chronicles the neighborhood's colorful history through photos and rare footage. Siegel hopes to "instill a feeling of community pride" through the film.

"I want to promote an understanding of the history of the neighborhood," Siegel said. "I want people who moved here later to be able to understand the context of the neighborhood and what it was like before. I want to inspire enthusiasm for the activism and advocacy necessary to keep the neighborhood desirable."

Siegel has created two other documentaries about Chicago's Jewish history, through which she discovered that West Rogers Park defies historical population patterns.

"What's unique about West Rogers Park is that after 80 or 90 years, it's expanding as a Jewish community," said Dr. Irving Cutler, author of The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb, in the video. "In less than a half century, the other big Jewish communities in Chicago, like Maxwell Street and Lawndale, disappeared completely."

West Rogers Park attracted many members of the Jewish community because of its large single-family homes.

"There was a certain status to West Rogers Park in the early days," Siegel said. "It was considered an aspirational place to live."

The Jewish population of West Rogers Park peaked in the early 1960's, with approximately 47,000 Jewish residents. By 1973, the population had dropped to 30,000.

1992 proved to be a turning point for West Rogers Park's Orthodox community, when the neighborhood's eruv (urban area enclosed by wire boundary for purposes of Shabbat) was built.

"[The eruv] helped the Orthodox community see West Rogers Park as a place they could stay and thrive," Siegel said. "We started to see people from the suburbs moving back to West Rogers Park because they didn't have to sacrifice their comfort. You could be observant, live in a nice neighborhood, and have a big house."

In 2010, the Jewish population was 24,000, and is on the upswing.

The Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park (JCCWRP) has played a major role in keeping the neighborhood appealing. Successful ventures initiated or furthered by JCCWRP include turning a parking lot into a park, opening new storefronts, a new public library, and developing a new park.

"Our goal is to raise awareness of community initiatives to benefit the neighborhood and to build a constituency that will lend its voice as advocates for positive change," said Dr. Howard Rieger, president of JCCWRP and former president and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America.

JCCWRP's work is highlighted in the documentary.

"It's part of the story I wanted to tell because the rebirth of Jewish West Rogers Park has been part of a deliberate efforts by local leaders," Siegel said.

The 25-minute film will be screened at the event "Driving West Rogers Park into the Next Generation" on Sunday morning, April 29, at Congregation KINS in West Rogers Park. Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, JUF's president, and Rieger, will headline a panel following the screening.

JUF/Jewish Federation -- a lead funder of the documentary and an ongoing supporter of JCCWRP, as well as a host of Jewish schools and community organizations that have anchored West Rogers Park for decades -- will co-sponsor the event with JCCWRP.

The event, beginning at 9:30 a.m., is free and open to the public. RSVPs are requested. To register, email jccwrp@gowrp.org.

"What's unique about West Rogers Park is that after 80 or 90 years, it's expanding as a Jewish community... In less than a half century, the other big Jewish communities in Chicago, like Maxwell Street and Lawndale, disappeared completely."



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