What’s That Building? Oldest Jewish Congregation In Chicago | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Morning Shift

What’s That Building? Oldest Jewish Congregation In Chicago

The house belonging to President Barack Obama isn’t the only significant building on those Kenwood blocks. Perched right across the street is the KAM Isaiah Israel Sanctuary, home of the oldest Jewish congregation in Chicago.

Crains Chicago Business real estate reporter Dennis Rodkin joined Morning Shift to share details about this historical place of worship for the latest installation of What's That Building. Here are some takeaways from Rodkin. 

History of congregation

The synagogue’s congregation is actually a combination of what were once separate congregations. The oldest dates back to 1847, when a group of German Jews founded Kehilath Anshe Mayriv or "Congregation of the Men of the West." KAM Isaiah Israel came to be when Kehilath Anshe Mayriv merged with the Isaiah Temple congregation, which had built the synagogue in Kenwood in 1924.

The building is younger than it looks

On the outside, the synagogue is handsome brick and stone building topped by a large dome, with a minaret rising above it in the rear. Inside, a domed ceiling emblazoned with the Star of David rises four stories high and light streams through stained-glass windows.

The octagonal synagogue was designed by Alfred Alschuler, a member of Isaiah Temple and the architect behind what’s now the London House hotel.

The synagogue was designed to look centuries older than it appearsis. What looks like huge blocks of rough-cut stone evoke something ancient, but they’re actually an effect achieved by a plaster finish. Alschuler drew inspiration from a fourth century temple in Tiberias that had been unearthed by archeologists only three years before the KAM Isaiah Israel sanctuary was built.

The minaret stands out

The rough-hewn Byzantine look was popular at the time, but KAM Isaiah Israel's minaret distinguishes it from other mid-1920s synagogues. It’s a slender tower adjacent to the main dome and doubles as the exhaust pipe for the building's heating equipment.

Minarets are more typical of Islamic mosques. A member of the congregation shared an old Inland Architect magazine with Rodkin, in which Alschuler wrote about his decision to include “the capped tower of prayer of the Muslim religion.” He writes that “its aesthetic meaning and its picturesqueness were preferable to the factory-like appearance the stack otherwise would have assumed."

The balcony nods to an outdated tradition

Balconies are a traditional element of synagogues: Men sat on the main floor during holy services, and women sat in the balcony. But KAM’s executive director, Debra Hammond, said that as part of the Reform wing of Judaism, the congregation allowed women and men to sit together, making the balcony an aesthetic nod to tradition.

Click the 'play' button above to listen to the entire interview. 

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.