Congregation Or Chadash, which has primarily served Chicago's LGBT Jewish community, will hold its final Shabbat service as an independent synagogue Friday, June 24.
The synagogue, which opened in 1975, will merge with Temple Sholom, 3480 N. Lake Shore Dr., in July. Sholom officials hope the merger will invigorate its LGBT group, Am Keshet, which has primarily focused on social-action projects and would like to expand its programming. Sholom serves about about 1,000 families.
Or Chadash has about 60 members. Its Torah scrolls will be transferred to Sholom and its remaining assets will be used for LGBT-related programming there.
"We knew that this moment was going to come," said Or Chadash Co-President Lilli Kornblum. "If not now, it was going to happen within the next three to five years."
The merger comes for a number of reasons, among them declining membership numbers, difficulties cultivating new board leadership and a mission that was beginning to no longer reflect the realities of most Jewish and LGBT communities. While Jewish LGBTs were struggling to find acceptance at the time of Or Chadash's founding, liberal Jewish movements and congregations became openly accepting of LGBT individuals and couples in subsequent years, reducing their possibility for social isolation in mainstream synagogues.
Rabbi Cindy Enger said that the merger was the result of a shifting and evolving landscape. "The world that gave life to the beginning of Or Chadash 41 years ago is not the world we live in now," she said. "The reality has called for Or Chadash to change. To me, this feels like a huge win, but of course there's also the bittersweet-ness that comes with something ending."
"We kind of put ourselves out of business," Kornblum added. "We needed to find the next version of ourselves."
Co-President John Griffith said, "Right now I'm excited to see it happen. I'm obviously a little sadthis has been my Jewish home and it's been a strong part of my life for years. But Or Chadash did fulfill part of its mission, to provide a space to be queer in a safe Jewish community."
Member Don Olson, who joined in 2006, said about the closing, "I'm sad about it. I've cried over it. It's been my home for the past 10 years. I really liked most how we did the High Holy Days. I don't think we'll find someplace that did them like that again."
Co-founder Norman Sandfield said, "Forty-plus years ago, when gay religious groups were forming, the philosophy was that if we did our job right, we would indeed put ourselves out of business. Now, after all these years, we don't want it to happen."
Or Chadash has not been alone in facing these existential challenges. LGBT-focused synagogues in many American cities have struggled, reducing their number of services, embracing non-LGBT members or merging with larger congregations. Synagogues in New York City and Los Angeles were able to acquire their own buildings in recent years, but those were largely exceptions. Even mainstream synagogues report difficulties in attracting and retaining new members.
"Membership has dropped because the world is changing," said Sandfield, who partially blamed the internet, noting that many people cultivate their social network online and don't necessarily need a religious community to meet or catch up with friends.
"When I was young, I went to temple for two reasons," he added. "The first was that my mother made me. The second was that, like everyone, I was going to meet the boy, girl, whoever, that I was going to marry."
Sandfield admitted that the loss of the synagogue, for many, involved grieving. "It's like the loss of a family member," he said. "One thing you can do is mourn, but then you can celebrate a long life."
Or Chadash, which was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame ( now the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame ) in 2006, first called itself The Jewish Group when its first members came together after seeing an ad in the Chicago Reader in 1975. They had their first religious service in April 1976 and began meeting at Second Unitarian Church ( 2U ) in Lake View the following year.
Past President Carla Cenker recalled going to services for the first time in the early '90s. "I wanted to reach out to lesbian and gay Jews," she said. "I parked at Sport Mart, got a parking sticker and walked up the stairs at 2U. I met three 'Cindys' that nightone of them was Cindy Enger. I was there because I wanted to feel Jewish in a gay environment. I was living out in Palatine at the time, and I was gay in a Jewish environment."
Enger, who was then working as an attorney, was involved in Or Chadash's board leadership for many years, including a stint as the board president.
"At that point, there was a core group of us really exploring what it meant to be a synagogue. There was a lot of interest in delving into those questions," she said. That was one of the sparks that inspired her to become a rabbi.
"Growing up, I had a deep love of Judaism, but I don't know that I would have thought of becoming a rabbi had I not had the opportunities to lead services and participate that I did at Or Chadash," Enger added.
Except for a brief stint by a visiting rabbinic student, the congregation was entirely lay-led until hiring its first part-time rabbi, Suzanne Griffel, in 1997. She left in late 2003 and was replaced by Rabbi Emeritus Laurence Edwards. Enger, who had been with a congregation in Washington State, came in after Edwards retired in 2013. Enger is Or Chadash's first gay rabbi; both Griffel and Edwards are straight.
"At the time I joined, it seemed members wanted more of a 'full-service congregation'a service every week, life-cycle events, a robust adult education program, to give examples," said Griffel. "They also wanted to have someone who could connect Or Chadash outside in the larger LGBT and Jewish communities. Lay people didn't necessarily have the time to do that."
Past President Steve Weiser, who now lives in Wisconsin, credited Griffel and Edwards with invigorating his participation in the congregation. "I didn't feel comfortable going to a mainstream synagogue, and I wanted someplace where I could meet other LGBT Jews. I wasn't comfortable at Or Chadash at first, but what really got me involved was when I met Suzanne. It wasn't meeting my own spiritual needs until they had a rabbi, and for me Or Chadash was at its highpoint with Suzanne and Larry [Edwards]."
Cantorial soloist Judith Golden said she grew up in a congregation with strong lay leadership, so she enjoyed planning services with various members. "But all three rabbis each contributed a lot to the culture and the functioning of the congregation," she added. "Whatever I was bringing to the table was always welcomed. This was a very special 14 years for me."
Or Chadash moved into a traditionally "Jewish" space in 2004, when Or Chadash began holding services in the chapel at Emanuel Congregation in Edgewater. When members first saw the stone bricks in their new space, they informally named it the Stonewall Chapel.
"There were several pieces to that move," recalled Past President Carol Goldbaum. "We wanted a Jewish space, and Emanuel really pursued us going there. We were in transition between rabbis at the time. The fact that they had a separate chapel for us and our own office really made it feel like a true home."
Or Chadash had its share of challenges beyond membership numbers and finances. Members came with different Jewish backgrounds, traditions and levels of observance that could conflictsome members came from Orthodox backgrounds, others were from classical Reform, among myriad differences. Cenker, who also eventually became a rabbi and now lives in St. Louis, recalled that, at her first meetings, "The food on the snack table was as far from kosher-style as you could get."
"It was a strength and a weakness," said Edwards. "It's always easier when any community is more homogeneous, so we were faced with the question, 'Can we make one thing out of a plurality?' I don't think we ever would be able to answer that. In that sense, Or Chadash was always a work in progress. But that's the same for most Jews or Jewish communitieswe have an obligation to wrestle with questions and find the meaning."
Enger likened navigating such differences to being in a Jewish community in a smaller town where there is only one synagogue, adding, "That's what a synagogue does. We have to ask ourselves, 'What do I need, and what am I willing to give up, in order to make this work?'"
"That was one of the things I loved about Or Chadash," said Griffel. "I can remember lots of fascinating ritual committee meetings where we were faced with those questions of respecting some people's backgrounds without alienating others."
Kornblum praised Or Chadash's ability to "be a full-scale temple on a low-budget and with a low-profile. We were able to celebrate our religious heritage, despite a number of limitations."
Many of the logistics of the merger have to be ironed out yet, she said. "Admittedly, given our size and Sholom's, it's going to be much the opposite of O.C. But we'll be part of a large mainstream congregation and have the advantages that that entailsclergy, education, social-action projectsbut we'll still have our own LGBT services at times and maintain a safe space for LGBT Jews."
Griffith added, "Temple Sholom has been very excited about the prospect of merging with our congregation. From the senior rabbi on down, they've been enthusiastic, which has helped with the planning."
Sandfield said he has confidence in the merger, saying that the new plan still provided for a safe place for LGBT Jews to go. "I hope we keep the things that have made us valuable. I think the congregation has done everything we can to keep us alive and I really give the leadership credit," he said.
Edwards said that Or Chadash's joining with a mainstream synagogue demonstrated that it had indeed made a meaningful contribution to Chicago's LGBT Jewish life.
"By making our presence felt, we were saying, 'Here we are,'" he said. "It is a 'Jewish' thing to break out of the closetcoming out is a mitzvah. It's something one has to do to reflect how human beings reflect the divine. Any idea of Judaism that is going to make sense is going to be able to see that. Two verses in Leviticus is not going to be the answer to any question."
Note: Reporter Matt Simonette has been a member of Congregation Or Chadash since 2003.