An Anchor for Jewish Life: Downtown Chicago


by R. Wineberg - CHICAGO, IL

January 29, 2003

In architect Daniel Coffey’s drawing of the Center for Jewish Life in Downtown Chicago, large panes of glass are all that stand between most of the building and the sky. “Glass, especially in the sun, evokes images of light and water and openness,” Coffey says of the design. “So even though different colored glasses are marking different sections of the building, the sense you get is not of a contained force but of boundless energy and life.”

Light, water, and life, with only the sky as the limit, seem to capture the essence of the Center for Jewish Life, a proposed 15,000 square foot full-service community center and synagogue in the heart of Downtown Chicago. The building will serve as a “nucleus around which the community will grow,” says Rabbi Meir Chai Benhiyoun, director of Chabad in Downtown Chicago and the driving force behind the building.

It’s an ambitious project that has garnered the support of a broad and diverse group of Chicagoans. Daniel Nack, general manager at Salvatore Ferragamo in Chicago and a member of the campaign committee, says he’s never seen a project draw this level of support from so many people. “The center will be filling a very real need. People are realizing that, and supporting it.”

Home to some 40,000 Jews, Downtown Chicago has no mikvah, very limited kosher facilities, and few synagogues. “All the shuls in the area combined, have seating capacity for perhaps 4,000,” Nack says. “That’s simply not enough.”

Since their arrival in Chicago in July of 1987, Rabbi Meir Chai Benhiyoun and his wife, Rivka, have made it their goal to “revive Jewish life Downtown.” They started out in an office in the Loop business district, opened a second location in a townhouse in Lincoln Park three years later, and relocated from there to a house in the Gold Coast neighborhood, where they are settled until the completion of the new center.

As it turned out, Jewish revival in Downtown Chicago was not only an item on their agenda; it was also in the plan of the man who would become the strongest proponent of the campaign for the center, Chicago’s Mayor, Richard M. Daley.

“The mayor’s agenda since his election in ’89 has been to improve the Downtown area and bring families back in, where many had been moving to the suburbs,” says Illinois State Senator Ira Silverstien, who is on the campaign committee for the building. “He sees religious groups as instrumental in this project because they improve the area and bring families in.”

The mayor, who met with Rabbi Benhiyoun soon after the latter’s arrival in Chicago and struck up a friendship which continues to this day, has been a strong supporter of Chabad’s activities in Downtown since the very beginning, Benhiyoun says.

Calling Chabad in Downtown Chicago “a beacon of light and hope for this city,” the mayor told the crowd at a 1994 Chabad dinner that he believes “spiritual needs are being met in this community and will be met [through Chabad’s work]. Chabad is dedicated to the reawakening of Jewish life in Chicago—this is what makes a city,” he said.

The very next day, Benhiyoun recalls, he got a call from the mayor, who wanted to know, “What can the city do for you?”

Benhiyoun, who was then running a thriving Chabad operation from a small rented townhouse in Lincoln Park and an office in the Loop, didn’t hesitate: We need a building.

Essentially, Benhiyoun observes, he shares a common goal with the mayor—trying to draw families in and educate people in their religion. From his end, Mayor Daley immediately appointed a high-level committee to search Downtown Chicago—likely one of the toughest real estates in the world—for a property for Benhiyoun’s proposed center. His high-profile support of Chabad activities and the building campaign have

attracted media attention and inspired support in a wide range of places, some of them unexpected.

In 2000, after a search of several years, Daley’s committee had found the perfect site for the proposed center: Chestnut Station, a former post office turned cinema complex, empty and unused—but not on the market. Intense negotiations ensued, after which the owner, Nicholas Janes, finally agreed to sell it to the Center for Jewish Life.

“I request recognition for selling the building for $400,000 less than other offers,” he wrote in a letter of intent to committee. “I am not of your faith. I am 75 years old and have [two small children]. I want someday for my children to know I respect your faith, and I know they will.”

Small miracles such as Janes’ unexpected support have spurred the project’s growth, but Benhiyoun says it has been the mayor’s enthusiasm that clinched the deal.

“I support Chabad because they take people who have lost their identity and through faith, they give them direction,” the Mayor said at a cocktail party at which the final signatures for the property were obtained. “The center is a necessity for our city, and will be a great addition to the city.”

Fifteen thousand square feet of community facilities, including 2 mikvahs, a large synagogue, social hall, kitchens, café, library, day care center and offices is certain to become the “anchor for Jewish Life in Downtown Chicago,” says Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Chabad in Illinois. But longtime members at Chabad of Downtown Chicago say it goes even beyond that.

Daniel Nack, who walked in on Chabad three years ago looking for a place to say Yizkor, says the love and warmth exuded by the small community is unusual in his experience. “They’re building big, but the work is being done on an individual level as well,” he observes, noting that Ahavat Yisrael—love of fellow Jews—is the primary motivation in all of Chabad’s activities. “A building like the Center for Jewish life will enable Chabad’s activities to expand and reach so many more people with that spirit,” he says.

With the old movie theater demolished, the campaign for the Center for Jewish Life continues, as Benhiyoun and his committee work to raise the funds needed to complete the building.

Their goal, an estimated 8 million dollars, says Benhiyoun, may take longer than expected in today’s rough economic climate, but the Rabbi and his committee have no doubt the project will come to fruition in the near future.

“The city has a beautiful development going on in Downtown,” Ira Silverstien says. “The Center for Jewish Life is going to make it even better.”

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