Chicago’s uptown neighborhood is better known for Vietnamese restaurants and crime than the home of one what was once one of the city’s most stunning synagogues. Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation, which sits closed on a residential street opened its doors this weekend as part of Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago festival.
Designed by Henry Dubin in 1922, the building has fallen into such disrepair that it’s hard to ignore the water damage and the holes in the stained glass windows. But visitors can still see what once made this space elegant.
The focal point of the sanctuary, whose pews seat 2,000, is the grand ark, with bold Hebrew letters declaring — ominously and inspiringly — “Know before Whom you stand.” On the ark, two hands, configured for the priestly blessing are circumscribed by a Star of David, which hovers above floral forms which are aflame. (Asked by a reporter if this represented the burning bush, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz, who sat in a wheelchair greeting guests, admitted he hadn’t noticed it before.)
The synagogue, as the Chicago Jewish News reported in June 2012, was shuttered by a “bitter dispute” between Lefkowitz and the congregation’s former president. The feud has “involved a bet din (Jewish court), accusations of embezzlement, excommunication and more,” according to the article. “The matter is not settled and the building is padlocked.”
According to a synagogue website, which Lefkowitz maintains, “Today, Agudas Achim stands tarnished yet unbowed. Structurally sound, this more than three quarters of a century old building needs a great deal of repair to make it fully functional.” Tarnished is an understatement, to be sure, and it remains to be seen whether the building — and its congregation — will return to its prior glory, or whether it will become a new set of condos.