“Perched along a quiet, tree-lined street on this city’s South Side, the worn brick and concrete building on South Champlain Avenue is hard to miss.
“The tall structure stands out among newer construction, a huge cross embedded in its front and wrought-iron Star of David window frames visible from the sidewalk. Casual observers can see the year it was erected, 1923, etched into a cornerstone. The letters that were once affixed above a row of doors are gone now, but their remnants are still legible: ‘Congregation B’nai Bezalel.’
“Over the course of nearly a century, this 10,000-square-foot building in the Woodlawn neighborhood has served many religious communities, first as a synagogue and then as a series of churches. Over time, however, the building has fallen into disrepair — stairs sag, paint peels and stained-glass windows pull away from their frames.
“Despite its appearance, the former synagogue’s service to its neighborhood isn’t ending. In fact, it’s on the brink of a new chapter.
“Artist and teacher Amber Ginsburg and her husband, Dr. Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago School of Law, have purchased the property from the city of Chicago.
“The pair are devoting themselves to rehabilitating and restoring the 98-year-old building to create an art space for them to work, teach and call home — in the process finding a new approach to Jewish life in a South Side neighborhood that was once a thriving Jewish community.
“The project is an entirely private one, without financial support from outside organizations. It’s an expensive and expansive endeavor but the Ginsburgs have soldiered on, inspired by the building’s legacy as ‘a holy place,’ says Tom Ginsburg.
“Once it’s complete, the couple envision a three-story family compound where their three adult daughters can visit, as well as an art club with rental studios for local creatives in need of workspace.
“‘It’s kind of an exercise in rethinking property,’ Tom Ginsburg says. ‘We’re going to live here, but it’s not designed to just be our house. It’s designed to be a community space and a place for creative people to come do their thing.’
The basement, now gutted, will have its own separate entrance and eventually house a woodshop and artist studios. The former worship space on the main floor — a cavernous expanse with a ceiling that reaches at least 40 feet — will serve a variety of purposes, including as a place for family and community gatherings. The third and top floor, once the women’s section of the congregation, will become a private residence for family members.
The Woodlawn property leans on the concepts seen in the KilnHouse project: reconstruction, modification, reimagination of a preexisting place. How exactly to reimagine such space is a question that is also bedeviling the Chicago Loop Synagogue and other historic Jewish houses of worship that have fallen on hard times.
Though they are new to this block, the Ginsburgs lived for 12 years in the surrounding neighborhood and are eager to get to know residents. They’ve joined the local neighborhood association and have spent time with their alderman, Jeanette Taylor. They’d like to have a positive relationship with neighbors and embrace the history of Chicago’s Jews.
“We’re not renting this [space] out, we’re not raising anyone’s rent,” Tom Ginsberg says. “We’re just trying to create a public good … there’s a lack of [studios], and we want to encourage folks to make more art. We want to invest in a project that’s bigger than ourselves.” (Waxman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 7/13/21)
Read the full story at Jewish Telegraphic Agency
A law professor and artist are transforming a decrepit former South Side Chicago synagogue into a green community space, Naomi Waxman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 7/13/21