Jewish Congregations Form an Unlikely Alliance to Save Temple | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Jewish Congregations Form an Unlikely Alliance to Save Temple

On the north side of Chicago, the number of Orthodox Jews is growing. Meanwhile, less-observant Jews are dwindling in number, and their temples sit empty and for sale. But several congregations have made unlikely alliance to save one Temple. It hasn't always been easy.

Perhaps nowhere better demonstrates the compromises between all the groups that use Temple Menorah than. the kitchens.

McLEOD: That's the Kosher side. And you'll notice the grape juice, apple juice, everything is Kosher.

John McCleod is president of Temple Menorah's reform congregation, which owns the building on California, north of Touhy. He's pointing to the left half of a giant refrigerator.  And then he points to the right half.

McLEOD: And that's the Reform side.
WBEZ: Not much on the Reform side.
McLEOD: No, the Reform, we don't eat so much. I don't know how we stay so heavy.

McCleod's reform group shares this kitchen with an Orthodox congregation that started two years ago. Normally, the Orthodox would keep a strict separation of meat and dairy throughout the kitchen.  But here, space is limited, and lots of people use the kitchen, from less-observant Jews, to non-Jews. So instead, they separate Orthodox from non-Orthodox

McLEOD:  They use paper plates, they don't use our plates...

Ironically, there is an all-Kosher kitchen in the room next door.  But that one is reserved for the use of a third congregation that worships here: a group of Conservative Jews who decided a few years ago to sell their temple a mile-and-a-half south of here.

Sound complicated? Maybe, says McCleod.  But it's remarkable, given how icy relations once were in this part of town, between the different strains of Judaism .

McLEOD:   There were times in this neighborhood when they would see us coming into this temple, and we would say 'Good Shabbos,' and the Orthodox kind of ignored us, they just didn't want to have anything to do with us. This was almost like a Catholic church to them.

During McCleod's twenty-or-so years coming to Temple Menorah, he's watched the Reform membership dwindle to where it couldn't afford the buliding. So the congregation decided that instead of selling the temple, it would get creative.
 
One way it did that was by bringing in a new, and fast-growing, Orthodox Congregation called Or Menorah, under Orthodox Rabbi Doug Zelden.

ZELDEN:  It's unique to have a Hasidic Orthodox group, an Ashkenazic Orthodox group, a Conservative group, a Reform group. We're the only building in the world that has daily activities from all those groups.

Rabbi Doug, as he's called, actually turned down three Orthodox temples that offered to take his congregation in when it was looking for a place to worship. He says Temple Menorah was the right choice, even if it was owned and operated by less-observant Jews.

ZELDEN:  This was a Jewish building that needed to be saved.
 
Fridays are the busiest nights at Temple Menorah. The Reform group gathers in the East Annex at 8 o'clock, right after the Conservative group wraps up its nightly service in the same room.

SPITZ: Shabbat shalom one and all. Why don't we start service with song?

On this Friday night, about a dozen people show up to service, led by Rabbi David Spitz. And as I leave this room, walk up the corridor, I begin to hear the chanting of Rabbi Doug's Orthodox Congregation in the main sanctuary.

I can't go in with my recorder. The Orthodox forbid the use of electronics on the Sabbath because turning them on is considered work. But if you were to go inside, you'd find a very different kind of service from what's happening in the East Annex. Men and women sit on different sides of the room, separated by a wooden screen in the central aisle. The service is also entirely in Hebrew.

John McLeod says the divider between the sexes was difficult to accept.

McLEOD:  It's just something that's very symbolic of what... goes against the grain of the Reform movement.

Still, the Reform and Conservatives are willing to overlook it to keep the building open. But all these efforts may not be enough. Temple Menorah is still for sale.

Rabbi Doug says the Orthodox congregation might be able to buy it from the Reform group. He says if they do, they'll continue to keep Temple Menorah open to all groups.


Music Button:  Traditional, L'Cha Dodi: The Diwon Remix, http://www.diwonmusic.com/

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