North Suburban Synagogue Beth El’s story 70 years in the making

A new book explores decades of a Chicago area synagogue's history.

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Taken at a recent North Suburban Synagogue Beth El gala, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz (third from left, sitting) with most of the past presidents of the synagogue.

On March 19, 1944, Benjamin and Gertrude Harris of Glencoe hosted a meeting in their home to discuss the founding of a conservative congregation on Chicago's North Shore. At the time, there was no such congregation between Chicago and Waukegan.

"I was very young, and I can remember my parents took us to a [local] congregation for Friday night service," recalled Morton M. Steinberg. "My brother and I put on our kippot, and the usher came and asked us to take them off."

Steinberg would become the 19th president of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (NSSBE), which grew out of those initial meetings in the Harris' observant home. His parents were among the congregation's founding families. "I have been here since the beginning," he states, and so he was the obvious choice to become the synagogue's biographer on the occasion of NSSBE's 70th anniversary.

The new book, Tradition by the Lake: A Historical Outline of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El , published by the synagogue, charts NSSBE's story that is at once unique and universal in charting the life of a congregation. It is "a story of dedication, persistence and commitment, of love and devotion, to Judaism and the Jewish people," Steinberg writes.

It began with the Harrises, who gathered families that had moved from Chicago to the North Shore "and brought with them their traditions," Steinberg said in a recent interview. "They wanted a traditional [Conservative] synagogue."

In 1946, as the fledgling congregation found its footing, services were held in various members' homes. The first High Holiday observances were held at the Winnetka Women's Club. In July 1947, the State of Illinois issued them a charter as a not-for-profit organization for NSSBE. The following year, the synagogue found its permanent location in Highland Park in a 22-room estate on seven acres on Sheridan Road.

"When the synagogue bought the mansion it was furnished," Steinberg recalled. "It became a second home with lots of places to run around. We had a great time. The upstairs bedrooms became classrooms. The living room became the library. The dining room is now a children's reading room. The various additions-the school, the auditorium, the sanctuary-came later. NSSBE grew because [the founders] had certain principles and people wanted to pass on their Jewish heritage and traditions to their children."

In NSSBE's first annual report, issued in 1949, Rabbi Maurice Kliers shared his goals for the new congregation: "To build an American Jewish community that is vital, dynamic, rich, and meaningful…to generate the highest ideals of Judaism with the best ideals in Americanism…to enable our children to share Jewish experiences with a sense of joy, appreciation, and creativeness."

That vision endures into the 21th century, noted the recently-retired Vernon Kurtz, who with more than 30 years in the position is NSSBE's longest tenured rabbi. "We are the only Conservative congregation in Highland Park," he said in a phone interview. "We have updated our facilities and grown our programming, but still maintained our original vision-to be a traditional congregation espousing love for the state of Israel, work on behalf of our own community, the Chicago Jewish community and the world Jewish community-and we've tried to educate our children and the families in that manner."

Community is the watchword at a time when incidents of anti-Semitism are on the rise. This makes institutions such as Beth El vital, Kurtz stated. "What we learned after [the shooting in] Pittsburgh is that Jews wanted to be together," he reflected. "In every community, Solidarity Shabbats in the aftermath of the tragedy united hundreds and thousands of people who found solace in being together. Without these institutions, that just can't happen."

Kurtz's tenure at NSSBE is a testament to continuity. "I [recently] had a baby naming," he said. "I had named the mother, officiated at her bar mitzvah, and at her wedding. That's a 'wow!'"

Keeping the Beth El community engaged and vital is one of the challenges facing incoming Rabbi Michael Schwab. "I hope to extend [Beth El's] great legacy as a vibrant and dynamic center for living and teaching Judaism," he said. "We are extremely excited about the future of Jewish life on the North Shore and Beth El's role in engaging Jews of all ages in the beauty, relevance, and meaning of our tradition."

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based writer who writes about arts & entertainment and popular culture for The Chicago Tribune and other outlets.  

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