Take a walk around California or Kedzie Avenues on Chicago’s North Side, and you’re bound to see men wearing kippot — also called skull caps — or black fedora hats. You’ll also see women with their hair covered, big families walking together and many synagogues. It’s the West Ridge neighborhood, also known as West Rogers Park, and it’s one of the most diverse areas in the city.
Curious City listener Alice Henry grew up in West Ridge nearly 30 years ago, and her parents still live there now. Their family was a bit of an anomaly because they are Reform Jews, a stream of Judaism that’s less strict about keeping all the traditional rules that make up Jewish life.
The neighborhood has had a large Jewish population since the late 1940s. And for many decades, there was a range of Jewish life there: from Jewish atheists to those who adhered strictly to biblical and rabbinical law.
But over the last few decades, Jewish West Ridge has become more observant, more religious.
It got Alice wondering, “When and why did West Ridge become such an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood?”
There wasn’t one event or a specific timeframe that saw a change in the area. However, starting in the 1950s, debates within the Jewish community began to reshape Orthodox Judaism in Chicago — and helped create today’s West Ridge.
The first wave
Jewish people first arrived in Chicago from Germany in the 1830s and ’40s. In the 1880s, Jews arriving from Eastern Europe settled on the Near West Side around Maxwell Street.
Over the next few decades, peddlers with pushcarts became businessmen with brick-and-mortar stores. This step up in economics and social acceptance brought a migration west to the Lawndale neighborhood, which became one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in the country.
After World War II, the GI Bill helped many Jewish veterans go to college and purchase homes. Families began buying homes in West Ridge.
Rabbi Leonard Matanky is the spiritual leader of Congregation K.I.N.S., a synagogue at the corner of California and North Shore that lies in the heart of Orthodox Jewish West Ridge. He and his family have been in the neighborhood for more than half a century.
“My family moved to West Rogers Park in 1966,” he said. “Sacramento wasn’t paved between Lunt and Pratt, right where Lerner Park is today. It was almost like an alley. During that time, there were these massive sunflower fields where the large buildings known as Winston Towers were then built.”
Devon Avenue was a major shopping corridor for the Jewish community, where you could find everything from bakeries and bookstores to high-end goods.
“The community was very different at the time, but it was still a very, very strong Jewish community,” Matanky said.
Matanky said the level of observance to Jewish law and customs varied widely at the time. In the 1930s and ’40s, as Jewish immigrants and their children were establishing new communities, some wanted to leave the old ways behind, imagining an America without Orthodox Jews. This idea was especially enticing to a group of people who for centuries were not allowed to own land, vote, go into most professions or even live where they wanted to because of their religion.
So by the 1950s and ’60s, with the dream of physical and economic safety fulfilled, most American Jews — including those in West Ridge — were practicing newer, less stringent forms of Judaism than their parents and grandparents. For some, eating lox and bagels became the only tie to their faith and their heritage.
In the mid-20th century, a series of debates took place within the Jewish community that would eventually have a big effect on Orthodox Judaism in the city and the nature of modern West Ridge.
As the older generation that had founded many of the city’s Orthodox synagogues died off, the younger generation faced a decision about how to move forward. “There were discussions of perhaps joining with the Conservative Movement or the Reform Movement, which were both on the ascent,” Matanky said. “There was a compromise that was reached. And that compromise was that there would be mixed seating, family-style seating in the synagogue. And other than that, [it would be] a regular Orthodox service.”Matanky said that was the general practice in the community for many years. In Orthodox Judaism there is no mixed or family-style seating. Instead, men and women are separated during prayer services. There’s an opaque partition — usually made of fabric or frosted glass — called a mechitza separating the sections.
But the compromise created by these “traditional” synagogues wasn’t destined to last. Between a famous Michigan court case and larger shifts happening in American Judaism, people headed toward one side of the debate or the other.
While there isn’t an exact date when West Ridge’s Jewish population became dominantly Orthodox, the gradual movement began in the 1960s, when the small number of Jews who continued to live an Orthodox life were joined by a sizeable group of young spiritual-seekers raised in secular homes looking for a deeper connection to their religion and their roots. That trend has continued to this day.
“I became the rabbi [at K.I.N.S.] in 1994. And they returned once again to having a mechitza. And that was also part of that general movement that we see across America, where there has been an ascendancy of the Orthodox movement,” Matanky said.
By the 1990s the original residents of West Ridge either passed away, headed to warmer climates or moved out to the suburbs. Younger, more religious families start buying those houses and shaping the neighborhood to be more conducive to an Orthodox lifestyle.
Orthodox life today
The influence Orthodox Jews have on the West Ridge neighborhood can perhaps be most visible during Shabbat. That’s the Jewish Sabbath, or day of rest, that begins every Friday at sundown.
“On Shabbat what we focus on is recognizing God as the Creator. And so we cease activities that would be considered creative in nature,” Matanky said.For thousands of years, Rabbis have argued with each other about what exactly “creative” means. It’s boiled down to 39 categories of things you don’t do on Shabbat.
“One of them, for example, is lighting a fire. For example, when you turn on a car, there’s a spark, that’s a fire, [so] we can’t turn on that car on Shabbat,” Matanky said.
Another big one is carrying things outside the home, like keys, groceries or the kids. This can be a challenge for Orthodox Jews who need to get to synagogue or do things outside the home on Shabbat. But Orthodox communities, like the one in West Ridge, have stretched the rule by building what’s called an eruv, a large area demarcated by anything from wires, fences, roads or natural boundaries like rivers. For example the northern border of the West Ridge eruv is the CTA Yellow Line tracks just north of Howard St. The western border is the North Shore Channel that runs between Kedzie and McCormick. Everything inside the eruv is considered the same as being inside your home, meaning you can carry things on Shabbat as long as you’re within its boundaries.
Matanky said the eruv in West Ridge was built about 30 years ago.
“We have opportunities because of the eruv and it also strengthens communities because Orthodox Jews want to live in a community that has an eruv versus a community that might not,” he said.
Alderperson of the 50th Ward, Debra Silverstein, is part of the Orthodox community, and she’s lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years.
She said she’s seen a lot of growth in the area in just the decade she’s been in office.
“We’ve had many more synagogues opening up,” she said. “I was actually at an event just this Sunday, and one of the trivia questions that we had [was] ‘How many synagogues are on Touhy Avenue?’ And the answer was 13.”While the Orthodox community has grown significantly in the last couple of decades, this is a very diverse ward.
“We have Indians, Pakistanis. We have Croatians. We have Rohingya. In our schools, we have 40 plus languages at each school,” she said.
Silverstein said different groups within West Ridge get along well, but she acknowledged that they don’t really mix.
“I do think that the communities stick with their own communities,” Silverstein said. The Ward office often tries to organize events to bring residents together, according to Silverstein. “But it’s not always the easiest, it’s a challenge,” she said.
Still, people show support for each other at important moments. A few years ago, there were a number of anti-Semitic attacks in the neighborhood. Silverstein said it brought the community, Jewish and non-Jewish, together.
More about our question-asker
Alice Henry is an environmentalist currently living in Vancouver, British Columbia.Alice and her family practiced Reform Judaism, which is less strict than Orthodox Judaism about following the traditional rules of the faith. When her parents moved to the West Ridge neighborhood almost 30 years ago, there weren’t many Orthodox families on their block.
“We were aware that there was a history of a large Orthodox community here in West Rogers Park, but … it seemed to be slowing down,” said Alice’s mom, Nina Henry, a retired social worker. “We had some neighbors that were Orthodox, but it was not what I had heard or expected it to be. … I thought we were going to be the only Reform Jews on the block!”
Over time, however, the neighborhood grew more Orthodox Jewish, and Alice’s family felt like somewhat of an anomaly in the area. That got Alice curious about this history of the community all these years later.
Nina and Alice’s dad, David, still live in the West Ridge home in which Alice grew up.
Jason Marck is Curious City’s senior audio producer.