'No reason to be sad. ... Reason to be proud': Jewish congregation saying goodbye after 47 years

A Northwest suburban Jewish congregation's final gift to posterity will be the dedication of its Torah, which survived the Holocaust concealed in a concentration camp in Poland, to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

Congregation Am Chai, which has lately gathered in leased spaces in Hoffman Estates and Mount Prospect, will disband at the end of this month's High Holidays after 47 years.

The congregation's original rabbi, the late Morris Fishman, was a World War II chaplain who found himself helping concentration camp survivors. It was in that role he found his future wife and took possession of the long-hidden Torah, congregation President Cindy Placko said.

"It is also a Holocaust survivor," she said.

When Fishman began serving what was then called the Woodfield Jewish Congregation in 1971, he saw it had only one Torah and so gave it the one he'd found in Poland.

The congregation will present that Torah to the museum at a special service Friday, Sept. 28, at Brookdale Senior Living Solutions in Hoffman Estates, two days before its final gathering for the Sukkot holiday.

Leaders of Congregation Am Chai said its imminent disbanding is a result of dwindling membership, a natural progression of its decision not to have a building of its own after 1980. That limited its ability to attract new families after early members either moved away or died, Placko said.

  Rabbi Michael Tillman speaks to members of Congregation Am Chai in Mount Prospect on Wednesday. After 47 years, the congregation is disbanding later this month. Mark Welsh/

Though this is the year the lingering handful of members from across the area decided to go their separate ways, the question has been asked at least every year or two since the '90s, she said.

"There's some disbelief of how many years we squeezed out of that," laughed Placko, who was a young girl when her family moved from Ohio and joined the congregation in the mid-'70s. "Nobody's happy that we're doing this, but nobody's arguing that we're doing this."

Rabbi Michael Tillman, who has served Congregation Am Chai since 2001, sees these final weeks as a time to celebrate nearly half a century of accomplishments.

"Congregations are like people; they have a lifetime," Tillman said. "There's no reason to be sad. There's reason to be proud. It's a model for future congregations in smaller-sized communities."

  Rabbi Michael Tillman speaks to a member of the choir Wednesday before the start of Congregation Am Chai's final Yom Kippur service. After 47 years, the congregation is disbanding later this month. Mark Welsh/

The congregation's original name was derived to acknowledge its proximity to Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall being built nearby in 1971. The founding families met first in a Roselle storefront for nearly three years before taking over a "box of a building" in Hanover Park that had probably been a church previously, Placko said.

The congregation never seriously contemplated buying another after selling that building in 1980. It was then that it was renamed Am Chai, Hebrew for "the people live."

The group has gathered at several different locations since the early '80s, most recently at Brookdale Hoffman Estates near St. Alexius Medical Center for smaller events and the community room of St. Raymond de Penafort Parish in Mount Prospect for larger ones.

"I think the absence of the building made the congregation more about the people than keeping a building alive," Placko said.

Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs for the children of her generation helped keep the group from breaking up in the '80s. When they went away to college, there were several years largely devoid of young people until they returned home and began marrying and having children of their own.

Because the remaining members have drifted as far away as Elgin, Lake in the Hills, Lombard, Buffalo Grove, Palatine and Evanston, there has been no commitment to move as a group to another established congregation.

"The practicality of that is not probable," Placko said.

She compared the bittersweet inevitability of this breakup to a first love, which most people recognize can't last but still inspires wistfulness over its end.

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