THREATENED: Shrinking Membership Threatens Chicago Loop Synagogue Faces Uncertain Future

Chicago Loop Synagogue, 1957, Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett, 16. S. Clark St. with stained glass by Abraham Rattner and “Hands of Peace” sculpture by Henri Azaz. Photo Credit: Eric Allix Rogers

“The Downtown economy has sputtered during the pandemic — and the relative emptiness of the streets is also hurting houses of worship. The president of the area’s only synagogue said they, too, are being pushed to the brink.

“Chicago Loop Synagogue was founded in 1929 and moved into 16 S. Clark St. upon the building’s completion in 1957. The synagogue has lost members over the years, going from about 1,400 members in 1992 to 416 now. Dues that max out at $180 a year are not nearly enough to cover the temple’s $400,000 in annual operating costs, congregation President Lee Zoldan said.

“The majority of the congregation are Chicago Jews who belong to synagogues near home but work Downtown and sometimes attend services closer to their offices. With many of those workers still at home, and hardly any travelers from out of town, the synagogue is in a precarious situation, Zoldan said. The lack of financial support means the synagogue cannot offset the costs of operating the three-story space, including covering expenses such as heating and cooling. If people don’t return to services soon, the synagogue won’t last more than 18 months, Zoldan said.

“And if the temple is forced to relocate, it’ll call into question the future of the synagogue’s 30-by-40-foot stained glass window, which attracts tourists from all over the world. ‘Technically, we could pull up our stakes and move; it’s not unheard of. We don’t need this big building for our congregation. But we can’t move this,’ Zoldan said, referring to the window.

The window was designed by renowned artist Abraham Rattner. It is on the second floor and extends to the fourth floor of the open sanctuary. The exterior is protected by plexiglass. Before the pandemic, architecture tours routinely brought nearly 2,500 to see it on weekends. In the window’s left corner there is a sun, along with symbols of creation and a tree of life. There are also 12 squares symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel, Zoldan said. In the center panel near the top, there is a menorah; a fern, known as the Palm of Shins, a symbol from the fall Succoth festival, goes across three panels; a star of David; a sun and a shofar (the ram’s horn used during the high holidays); a moon and planets; and a prayer in Hebrew.

“‘The other synagogues that have gone out of business, they take their stained glass windows and actually bury them because it’s considered like a death. So, we have people that are very distraught about this. They have an attachment, and we have some that are the third-generation coming here,’ Zoldan said.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said he spoke with Zoldan about other options to save the window and the building. Were they to secure landmark status for the building’s exterior, that would include the window and ensure any new owner would have to keep it in place. Miller said losing the Loop synagogue would be a big blow to Chicago’s Jewish community. The Standard Club, considered the social nexus for Chicago’s Jewish elite for more than 150 years, closed in 2020.

“‘Certainly, the Standard Club closing was a blow to all of us,’ Zoldan said. ‘We’re in the position where we are trying to learn from their experience what we should and shouldn’t do. ‘I think a lot of people felt like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was happening,’ so I’m in the position that I want people to know what exactly is going on here, full disclosure, total transparency, so if the worst comes to pass people can’t say we stuck our heads in the sand. I’m screaming from the rooftops.’

“One option to raise money that the synagogue has considered is hosting concerts and educational programming, Zoldan said.

“Chicago Loop Synagogue welcomes donations through its website.” (Chiarito, Block Club Chicago, 5/17/21)

Read the full story at Block Club Chicago

Downtown Synagogue Hopes Worshippers Return Soon To Save Building — And Its Famed Stained Glass Window; Leaders of Chicago Loop Synagogue say the 92-year-old institution might not last another 18 months unless regular worshippers return, Bob Chiarito, Block Club Chicago, 5/17/21

With commuter congregation waning, the Chicago Loop Synagogue faces an uncertain future, Aaron Smithson, The Architect’s Newspaper, 6/8/21

Future in question for Chicago Loop Synagogue and its monumental stained-glass window, Alanna E. Cooper, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 4/14/21

Chicago Loop Synagogue, Open House Chicago

Chicago Loop Synagogue Website

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