KENOSHA – When much of the local Jewish community doesn’t live near its 1928 synagogue building, when most rooms have no air-conditioning, and when there’s no elevator for older congregants to get to the second-floor sanctuary, what else can you do?
It’s time to move to a modern facility, right?
Not in Kenosha. After a mostly completed $1.5 million capital campaign, covered largely by congregants, about $1.1 million in renovations are well underway. The 125 families of Kenosha’s Beth Hillel Temple have decided they’re already home.
So many problems. The bathrooms were a disaster. You couldn’t get a casket up the stairs for a funeral. The floors needed carpeting. The chairlifts on two flights of stairs were so old, they’re almost impossible to fix, said Rabbi Dena Feingold, this Reform congregation’s spiritual leader since the 1980s.
Even a treasure chest of more than $1 million can’t fix everything. Items from the wish list that made it are new carpeting almost everywhere, air conditioning in the sanctuary and removing old organ pipes for space. Particularly exciting – tearing out old bathrooms to install an elevator shaft. Goodbye, unfixable chairlifts. Hello, elevator!
Proximity to Illinois
With its 125 families, the congregation is larger than it was when Feingold started here in 1985. Feingold says growth in Kenosha and its proximity to Illinois deserve a lot of the credit.
“It’s the story of what happened in Kenosha,” she said, though she did add that it probably helped to have a welcoming synagogue.
Kenosha became a bedroom community for Chicagoans in the 1990s and currently about 20 percent of her congregants are from Illinois, she said. In fact, she said – admitting a clear shonda – she has more Bear fans than Packer fans.
The Beth Hillel Temple building is an elegant, imposing fixture in Downtown Kenosha, looking more like an old, stately courthouse than a synagogue. It originally served as a Jewish Community Center, with a gym and space for the synagogue upstairs. It was built with a gym and basketball court because, back in the 1920s, Jews were not welcome at the nearby YMCA, according to longtime congregant Judith Warren.
Today, the building is all synagogue; in the 1950s the gym became a social hall and classrooms.
Why not move?
John and Robin Plous, father and daughter, come from a family that has been bound up with the synagogue for five generations. John’s grandfather was the first president of the congregation and his dad, as a teen, had a summer job carrying bricks to help build the building.
The building is roughly at the center of where congregants live, though not near many of them. Also, the building wasn’t getting any younger.
“Every couple years the discussion comes up, should we repair or should we sell and move?” John said, referring to talk on committees, on the board and among congregants. “Who would buy the building and for how much money?”
Congregants considered different options, like possibly merging with a neighboring synagogue. Or they could build a new building and move there.
“For people like me, in my family, it’s emotional,” said Robin. “Whenever they talked about the possibility of moving, emotionally it affected me a lot.”
But even this family admits the congregation’s decision to stay here was not just an emotional one. It also came down to numbers. It wasn’t clear the congregation could sell their old Downtown Kenosha building for a good price.
So congregants hammered out a long range plan that went in a different direction. “We made this commitment, maybe 10 years ago, after many, many discussions, that we were going to make a commitment to our building and fix it,” Feingold said.
In 2009, a committee – the rabbi and congregants Terri Thornton, Zak Jakobs, Rich Zies and Warren – traveled repeatedly to Chicago for daylong sessions with a nonprofit that helps religious institutions with historic structures, called Partners for Sacred Places.
“We’ve done almost everything that Partners for Sacred Places suggested that we do,” said Warren, who has been working on the project with many other congregants for the last nine years. “We’re very excited. It’s a dream come true.”
The congregation started raising money in about 2013. Construction started after the High Holy Days and is to be completed this summer.
The capital campaign sought $1.5 million and now has about $220,000 to go. The funds are for renovations, but also for the future of the congregation. Feingold is thankful she’s got congregants who are experts on capital campaigns and construction.
“It’s really taken the entire congregation, people cleaning out areas where the construction is coming,” Warren said. “Everybody’s been chipping in, not just monetarily but helping out.”
The next dream is to renovate the kitchen. It’s got an original stove and cupboards, so it’s time.