A Religious Experience - Part Twelve

In my last installment of "A Religious Experience," I pondered what would become of the beautiful chapel at the St. Scholastica convent if all of the nuns there eventually passed away from old age and the institution were forced to close its doors. As it turned out, I got an answer, of sorts, at the next stop on our Open House Chicago itinerary: Agudas Achim. I had been wanting to include a synagogue, or really any non-Christian house of worship, in my project since its inception, but it turns out that synagogues are even harder to gain access to than churches.

Since they often don't hold regular services in their main sanctuary, reserving them instead for high holiday services when they are so crowded that they sell tickets to guarantee seats, it is difficult to get in to see the sanctuary unless you are attending a wedding or bar/bat mitzvah. When I saw a couple of synagogues listed on the Open House website, I knew I had to work them into our plans, and since Agudas Achim was the closest to our house, we went there first.

Agudas Achim
5029 North Kenmore Avenue
Chicago, IL

The Agudas Achim congregation was formed in 1884 on Chicago's west side. As the neighborhood changed and many of Agudas Achim's members moved to Uptown, a then-upscale community which was attracting newly affluent Jews, the congregation moved as well. In 1922, the wealthy congregants built a spectacularly elaborate synagogue capable of seating 2,000 worshipers. 

Mosaic tiles were imported from Italy for the ark, which houses the Torah, or Hebrew holy texts, and the walls were flanked with rows of stained glass windows. A soaring, cathedral-style ceiling capped off the sanctuary, underneath which rows and rows of seats radiated out from the arch, each engraved with the name of its owner. It was a majestic, timeless space, designed to house a thriving congregation for decades to come.

However, about twenty years later, in the 1940s, the neighborhood started to change again. Jews started leaving the city for new neighborhoods in Skokie and Highland Park, on the North Shore. Gradually, Aguda's Achim's congregation dwindled to a couple hundred elderly members. Though they continued to convene for worship in another part of the building, there was no money to maintain the sanctuary. As the neighborhood declined even further, drug addicts would break the stained glass windows and sneak into the sanctuary to get high, or to steal whatever they could to sell in order to support their habits.

Years of further neglect led to holes in the roof, the floor peeled up, and the interior began to crumble. Miraculously, only the ark seemed to remain in relatively good repair. A glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon in the 1990s, when the descendent of one of the former congregants became interested in the building, and took over its leadership. With his youthful energy, a new rabbi was brought on board, and young Jewish college students were enlisted to help renovate the building.

This stained glass was added during the late 1990s; today it is shattered.

Still, the elderly congregation continued to die off. Even though gentrification is finally coming to Uptown, improving the neighborhood and driving out the drug dealers and addicts, it has not brought with it a new wave of members for Agudas Achim. Recently, the rabbi and the president of the congregation were forced to throw in the towel, and put the building on the market. According to the real estate listing, they hope they will be able to find a buyer for the space that intends to use it for a religious use, but they note that the space could also be converted into condominiums -- it's a tragedy.

Today, the space retains traces of its former grandeur, but it is also dirty and and decaying. Frankly, looking up at the holes in the ceiling and the pigeon droppings on the floor, I was a little concerned that Open House was opening the space to the public. I felt unsafe being there, and though I wanted to appreciate the remaining beauty of the sanctuary, I also really wanted to get out of there and into some fresh air.

Agudas Achim is an example of what happens when magnificent religious spaces fall into disrepair and neglect. Without a vibrant community and a reason for being, even a fabulous building can't be saved. I hate the thought of a developer coming along and gutting the building to turn it into condos, or even worse, tear it down altogether and start over. I can only hope that another religious group will come along with the resources to restore Agudas Achim and allow it to live on as a house of worship, as it was meant to be.

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