In 1976, as the country celebrated its bicentennial, the Chicago Jewish community had its own celebration: a Jewish exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry titled, "My Brother's Keeper," sponsored by the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
The exhibit was a popular draw and in the last hour of the final day on January 2, 1977, its chairman Muriel Robin joined a group of volunteers standing before a case in which a Torah from the World Parliament of Religions at the World's Fair of 1893 was on display.
Joining hands in front of the Torah with Moshe Samber, Marcia Josephy, Burt Robin, Moselle Mintz, and Norman Schwartz, the six decided right then and there to continue the legacy of the exhibit through the "discovery, preservation, and dissemination of information concerning the Jewish experience in the Chicago area."
And so the Chicago Jewish Historical Society (CJHS) was born.
This year is the 40th anniversary of CJHS. They are marking it with a gala celebration on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 3, at Congregation Adas Yeshurun in Chicago, featuring the preview of a new video documentary by award-winning Chicago filmmaker Beverly Siegel, Driving West Rogers Park: Chicago's Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood , exhibits, speakers, and kosher treats. General admission is $10, and admittance is free for CJHS and Adas Yeshurun members.
"Jews have played an important role in the history of Chicago and we want to collect, preserve, and share that history with our community so future generations will have access to it. We are very proud of that history and we want people to know about it because without our work, that history disappears with each generation," said CJHS Co-President Rachelle Gold, who serves alongside Jerry Levin.
With administrative offices at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, which oversees the society's Chicago Jewish archive (available by appointment only), they also administer an oral history archive containing hundreds of histories of local Jewish Chicagoans that have been transcribed and maintained. The most recent interview for the oral history archive was one of Dr. Irving Cutler, a founding member of CJHS and author of the seminal The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb , (Until recently, Cutler regularly led tours of Chicago neighborhoods). The archives contains an interview of attorney and President Emeritus of CJHS Walter Roth, whose books include Everyday Heroic Lives: Portraits from Chicago's Jewish Past .
CJHS also offers robust programming four times a year, in addition to popular guided tours during the summer. Past tours include Chicago's South and West Sides and the group has even ventured outside Chicago to Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Springfield, where they saw the "Lincoln and the Jews" exhibit.
The Society publishes the award-winning quarterly journal Chicago Jewish History, whose entirety dating back to 1977 is available online. "This is an important vehicle for sharing history and involving the public. A subscription is included in membership. Leading libraries, including the National Library of Israel, subscribe to the journal," said Gold.
In addition to the quarterly, CJHS has published a facsimile reprinting of the 1924 Hyman Meites "History of the Jews of Chicago," several historical monographs, and "A Walk to Shul: Chicago Synagogues of Lawndale and Stops on the Way," by Bea Kraus and Norman D. Schwartz, whose second edition will be coming out within the next year, according to Gold. CJHS also produced Siegel's 1997 documentary, Romance of a People: The First Hundred Years of Jewish Life in Chicago, 1833-1933 .
Currently, CJHS has over 500 members, and a board consisting of 20 members meets monthly-but like many organizations, they are concerned about bringing in the next generation. "Our average age is 60 and older. Many of our founders have died or can no longer be active and we are trying to bring younger people into the Society," said Gold.
One way they are reaching young people is through an award CJHS bestows to local high school students at the Chicago Metro History Fair whose projects have a Jewish topic. Recipients receive an honorarium and they are featured in the quarterly journal. This past summer, CJHS also hired a graduate student in history at Loyola University to do research for an article in the journal on Jews who immigrated to Chicago in the 1870s. He was given access to a cache of materials including letters and pictures that were donated to the Society, according to Gold.
Perhaps most significant are the recent addition of three younger board members to CJHS. Alissa Zeffren, 32, a history teacher at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, is one of those members. "I love the people and the passion that they have and the knowledge they have is so amazing," she said.
Zeffren was drawn to CJHS to learn more about the neighborhoods and lives of people like her grandparents who lived on Chicago's West Side. "Becoming involved in CJHS is a nice way to recapture some of those personal stories of Chicago Jews that have these very rich histories," she said.
Other young members include Jacob M. Kaplan, co-founder of the Forgotten Chicago website, and Rabbi Dr. Zev Eleff, a scholar of American Jewish history and Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie.
"I don't think we'll be able to recreate the core community of the founding membership and of the first generation born in America, but people like me and Jacob and Zev will continue to gravitate towards the society because we want CJHS to continue," said Zeffren.
For information on the gala, visit www.chicagojewishhistory.org or (312) 663-5634.
Abigail Pickus is a writer and editor living in Skokie.