'We need to create meaning': Elgin synagogue marks 130 years of change and diversity

Editor's note: An article in some Monday editions should have read Congregation Kneseth Israel formerly was affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Embracing change and diversity has been essential to how one suburban Jewish congregation has managed to stay relevant and thriving for 130 years - and even grow during the pandemic, its leaders say.

Since 1892, Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin has been the beating heart of the Jewish community in the Fox Valley. The synagogue, considered the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in Illinois, is commemorating its 130th anniversary starting this month with a number of events, including an a cappella performance blending Jewish and secular music this past weekend.

Over the years, leaders say the congregation's mission has changed to reflect the spiritual needs and demographics of its members. They come from 30 communities in and around the Fox Valley, spanning 11 school districts and four counties - Kane, McHenry, DuPage and Cook.

"In an age when too many congregations are faltering, it is not enough to survive; we need to create meaning to appeal to a wide range of people in order to thrive," said Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein. "We've always been a regional congregation."

Klein said using new technological tools to provide services during the pandemic and re-imagining the traditional Torah (Hebrew) School helped keep the membership engaged at a time when participation at many other worship houses was waning.

The Samuel Strickman family was among the early members of Congregation Kneseth Israel, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary this month. Courtesy of Congregation Kneseth Israel

Early settlers

The first Jewish families to settle in the Fox Valley were farmers, merchants and tradesmen. There has been a Jewish presence in the region dating back to the 1800s, according to the synagogue's website.

Many early Jewish settlers in the area helped supervise the production of uniforms in Chicago's garment district for Civil War volunteers. There was no center established in Elgin then, but a small group of Orthodox Jewish residents began worshipping in homes.

A minyan - quorum required for Jewish communal worship consisting of 10 men in Orthodox Judaism - was formed and later organized the first Illinois synagogue west of Chicago in 1892. In the early days, women weren't allowed to worship alongside men.

"The early Jews were very religious ... so women didn't have a role in any way," said Susan Johnson, the congregation's first female president in the late 1970s and 1980s, and the 130th anniversary chair. "At one time, only men were allowed on the board of directors, only men were allowed to participate in services."

Members worshipped on the second floor of an Elgin building, calling themselves Congregation Tifereth Israel. The name changed to Congregation Kneseth Israel when the synagogue merged with another local group.

Embracing Zoom worship services during the pandemic is how Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin stayed engaged with its members. The synagogue is marking 130 years. Courtesy of Congregation Kneseth Israel

Embracing diversity

The congregation's home for the first 20 years was a building at 77 Villa St. in Elgin. But as membership grew, talk of building a new synagogue and a Jewish community center began.

The synagogue's current home at 330 Division St. was built in stages beginning in 1948. Today, the building houses a sanctuary, library, lounge, multipurpose social hall, gift shop, classrooms, offices and a large kosher kitchen.

Membership slowly began to diversify with the influx of new immigrants in the 1950s. Now, its roughly 120 member families come from various ethnic, religious and age backgrounds.

"We embrace diversity, with members who were born in 17 countries, people who are part of interfaith families, people of differing intellectual and physical abilities, older people, younger people, members of the LGBTQ+ community, multiracial families, and the full range of Jewish religious observance," Klein said.

Though Congregation Kneseth Israel formerly was affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a lot has changed with the makeup of Elgin's Jewish community, and the congregation has evolved from its Orthodox roots to become more liberal, now refusing to conform to any labels.

"We're not affiliated with any of the major movements or streams," Klein said. "I refer to it as fiercely independent."

Embracing new ideas hasn't always come easily.

"Sometimes it's not the religious leaders that hold you back; it's the community," Johnson said about how some members still resist having worship services on Zoom.

Some changes have been welcomed with more enthusiasm than others.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic restricted in-person attendance in March 2020, the synagogue piloted a new program for Hebrew school students. Instead of having to attend the traditional 90-minute class every Wednesday, students now have the flexibility of individualized, 30-minute weekly online sessions with a Hebrew coach, said Heather Weiser, the congregation's director of education.

"It's Hebrew school re-imagined," she said. "One of the things that makes our Torah School special is in teaching about the relevance of Judaism today."

Last year, the congregation participated in a national grant, Scientists in the Synagogue, linking the exploration of science and Judaism.

A performance by "ListenUp!" Jewish a cappella group kicked off Congregation Kneseth Israel's 130th anniversary celebration Sunday. Courtesy of Congregation Kneseth Israel

Building community

According to recent Pew Research Center studies, synagogues and churches are struggling to retain participation and membership.

But, Klein said, her congregation continues to thrive by providing meaningful observance and lifelong learning.

"Community is about being connected," Klein said, "especially coming out of the pandemic, when people want to see their friends again. They want to know that they matter. That their lives have meaning."

Programs marking the 130th anniversary aim to do just that.

An open house is planned on the first day of Torah School at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

The synagogue will host conversations with best-selling author Anita Diamant on the weekend of Sept. 9-11, at its center and at Gail Borden Public Library. Diamant's novels include "The Red Tent," "The Boston Girl" and the nonfiction work "Period. End of Sentence."

She will discuss her Jewish life cycle books as part of the Oneg Shabbat, the social hour after Friday night services, and her fiction writing on Saturday evening at Congregation Kneseth Israel. On Sunday afternoon, she will appear at Gail Borden Public Library. All three sessions will be available on Zoom.

Other anniversary events include:

• Scribe Neil Yerman, 9 a.m. Oct. 16.

• Mulberry Street (Billy Joel tribute band) at Congregation Kneseth Israel, 7 p.m. Nov. 5.

• Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, 4 p.m. Nov. 20.

• Jewish student a cappella group from Northwestern University, at Congregation Kneseth Israel, Dec. 18.

There also will be other opportunities to celebrate with upcoming programs, learning opportunities and the High Holy Days, leaders said.

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