My interest in photographing former Chicago synagogues dates back two years, stimulated by a chance drive-by and a book. Although it wasn’t on my scheduled sites, I stopped at 33rd and Indiana streets to photograph the fire-ravaged ruins of what was once KAM, the first Jewish congregation in the city. At about the same time, I’d purchased Chicago’s Forgotten Synagogues by Robert Packer after some Internet research.
The former KAM, S. Indiana Avenue
My project began simply out of an interest in the temples for which our family had worshipped, including South Shore Temple, South Side Hebrew Congregation and Isaiah Israel before its merger with KAM. Rabbi Morton Berman, who led the pre-merger Isaiah Israel, was married to my mother’s cousin. Further research, however, found a much larger web of family connections and the intense desire to discover more about the synagogues of bygone days.
As immigrants from Romania at the beginning of the twentieth century, my father’s family joined the First Roumanian Congregation. Although they lived on the South Side, they trekked up to S. Union Avenue in the Maxwell Street district to worship. Coincidentally, the now-vacant building and former church is the lone remaining former synagogue in the area. His family is buried in the First Roumanian section of Jewish Waldheim. The congregation moved to a huge new sanctuary on W. Douglas Boulevard (to be covered in “There Used to be a Synagogue Here: West Side”) in the mid-1920s.
The former First Roumanian Congregation, S. Union Avenue
The family joined South Side Hebrew Congregation, then located two blocks north of their residence on S. Michigan Avenue, after its construction in 1915. The sanctuary burned down in the 1920s, and the lot remains vacant. The religious school next door, where my 98-year-old uncle Adolph attended, still stands as the Jubilee Temple on E. 59th Street. After a move to South Shore, the family joined South Shore Temple on S. Jeffery Boulevard, now the Old Landmark Church of God Holiness in Christ.
The former South Side Hebrew Congregation Hebrew school, E. 59th Street
My mother’s family also had varied temple memberships. My grandfather worshipped at South Side Hebrew Congregation, which relocated to S. Chappel Avenue. Now a Baptist church, it is across the street from Bryn Mawr School, the alma mater of my father, uncle, cousin and Michelle Obama. My mother attended a few religious schools, finally being confirmed from Chicago Sinai Congregation on South Parkway (now King Drive). It is now Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church.
The former Chicago Sinai Congregation, S. King Drive
KAM is better known today as the synagogue across the street from the Obamas’ house. Most people leave off “Isaiah Israel” as well. Through a series of mergers, four congregations – KAM, Isaiah Temple, Temple Israel and Congregation B'nai Sholom (the second Jewish congregation in the city) – became today’s KAM Isaiah Israel. I’ve photographed five former homes of these congregations, including the former Isaiah Temple designed by Dankmar Adler. The present synagogue, designed by Alfred Alschuler, was completed in 1924 as Isaiah Temple, shortly before it merged with B’nai Sholom Temple Israel. KAM moved from its S. Drexel Boulevard location (now Operation PUSH headquarters) in 1971.
The former Isaiah Temple, S. Vincennes Avenue