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Jewish Leaders See Revival of Faith, Culture in Rogers Park

By Benjamin Woodard | March 28, 2014 8:07am
 Magid Alan Goldberg (l.) and Rabbi Yoel Wolf teach from the Torah Wednesday at Goldberg's new Jewish learning center, Beit Yichud, on Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park.
Magid Alan Goldberg (l.) and Rabbi Yoel Wolf teach from the Torah Wednesday at Goldberg's new Jewish learning center, Beit Yichud, on Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

ROGERS PARK — Longtime arts maven Alan Goldberg believes Rogers Park is on the verge of a Jewish revival.

The neighborhood by the lake was once the center of Jewish culture in Chicago, Jewish leaders said, before many Jews left for the suburbs. The neighborhood west of Ridge Avenue — known by many as West Rogers Park — became more synonymous with Judaism, especially with its more visible Orthodox community.

But Goldberg said more Jews are coming back to his neighborhood. He opened Beit Yichud, a Jewish learning and spiritual center, last summer in the former Mess Hall and art gallery he owned and leased on Glenwood Avenue.

"I've been donating this space for arts purposes for 12 years, and during that time I've been studying Jewish spirituality," said Goldberg, who also helped to establish the Glenwood Avenue Art District.

 Shneur Kagan, 16, (l.) stood at a Morse Avenue corner in Rogers Park during Hanukkah last year to "spread the light" of Judaism, he said.
Shneur Kagan, 16, (l.) stood at a Morse Avenue corner in Rogers Park during Hanukkah last year to "spread the light" of Judaism, he said.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

Now, as an ordained "magid," or teacher of Jewish mysticism, he said he decided to donate the small storefront at 6932 N. Glenwood Ave. to the burgeoning Rogers Park Jewish community "for a spiritual use, instead of for the arts."

Goldberg isn't the only Jew saying that the neighborhood could be on a cusp of a Jewish rejuvenation.

"I think the story of Rogers Park is the story of cities in America. ... The younger generation is starting to come back to the cities — and not necessarily going to the suburbs — for good or for bad," said Rabbi Yoel Wolf, who moved from New York last year with his wife, Rivky, and opened Chabad of East Rogers Park in their third-floor apartment in the 6800 block of North Lakewood Avenue.

The center hosts holiday celebrations, religious studies and lectures, and weekly Sabbath meals. As membership grows, Wolf said, he plans to open a full-time synagogue in the neighborhood.

"I don't think that in anybody's wildest dreams this will become the next Jewish neighborhood," he said. "But I think this will be ... a wonderful place for Jewish families."

One of those families, Katie Vogel and husband Nate, recently moved back to Rogers Park after graduating from Loyola University and spending time in Israel.

Vogel, 28, said she has seen more young Jews come to the neighborhood for a lot of the same reasons other residents call the neighborhood home — the beaches, affordable rent and ample public transportation.

"It's a part of a large pattern of young people fleeing institutional life in favor of something that is more authentic and grassroots," she said.  "It's about community-building [and creating] a Jewish community on their own terms."

If Rogers Park does achieve a Jewish identity akin to the established Orthodox community in West Rogers Park, it won't be the first time it's happened.

Through the middle of the 20th century, Rogers Park was known for its Jewish culture and heritage.

Synagogues could be found throughout the neighborhood, like in the building on Morse Avenue that is now home to the Mayne Stage. Both Lakeshore Elementary School on Pratt Boulevard and the empty lot to the east, near Sheridan Road, were synagogues.

"It just really was the center of Jewish Chicago," Vogel said, and "it really has the potential to be so again."

Goldberg, the magid, said he moved to Rogers Park in 1968 when most Jewish families were on "the way out."

"That was when a lot of the Jewish population left," he said. "The young folks moved out of here; a lot of the old hippies moved in. Then there was a recession in 1979, you know, and the neighborhood really didn't recover."

The old housing stock deteriorated. Income levels dropped. The synagogues closed.

But since that time, the Jewish population in the entire Chicago area has been growing faster then the general population — to 292,000 in 2010, according to the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago’s Community Survey. That's an 18 percent increase since 1982. Much of the increase has come from Jews settling in Chicago who weren't born here, the survey found.

While specific neighborhood data isn't available, more than 70,000 Jews now live on the North Side, defined as neighborhoods between the Loop and Rogers Park/West Rogers Park, the survey found.

Many leaders are convinced that figure represents an increase in the number of Jews living in Rogers Park.

Since 2003, Rabbi Menachem Cohen, 45, has led Rogers Park's Mitziut, a nondenominational Jewish spiritual community.

The group's events, similar to what's offered at Beit Yichud and Chabad, have drawn hundreds in recent years.

Cohen said the group's growth has been bolstered by the "diverse and vibrant neighborhood, full of arts, music and theater."

And, he said, Rogers Park should never be any different.

"In some ways, I'm really excited a lot of younger Jewish people are living in the neighborhood, but I don't want it to become homogenous," Cohen said. "I'm glad that there's a community of like-minded Jews that we can share the holidays and the life cycles together.

"I like having a solid Jewish part of a community — and I hope it stays that way."