A Visit to Chicago’s Oldest Chabad Congregation

By Menachem Posner

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Founded in 1875, Anshei Lubavitch lives on in a kosher nursing home

We marched past sagging stoops, colorful bodegas, overgrown vacant lots and a busy transit station. With the Chicago winds in his face, Dr. Arthur (Avraham) Lubin strode with purpose. It was a walk he had taken hundreds of times in the past 40-odd years, as he almost single-handedly cared for a historic Chabad synagogue now housed in a kosher nursing-home facility in a once-Jewish neighborhood.

Having taken this route more than 1,500 times, he clearly knew it well. As we walked, he shared tidbits of local lore about many houses, businesses, and landmarks that we passed. He noted that for decades the neighborhood has been ripe for a resurgence, but it lagged behind other parts of the city that had undergone gentrification in recent years.

Our destination was within sight of Lake Michigan’s gray waters, turbulent in the early winter winds. Upon entering the home, we were greeted by the odor of cleaning agents, food and central air-conditioning. Taking the stairs two at a time, Lubin—a tall man in his 60s—led us into the bowels of the building, past carts stacked with trays of breakfast, a beauty salon, therapy rooms, and fitness centers.

There, at the end of the hall, is a small room that houses the historic Anshei Lubavitch synagogue, which had been founded in 1875 on the West Side, only four years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Since the mid-1980s, the synagogue has been located in the Birchwood Plaza nursing home, just a few blocks away from its previous location in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

‘I Feel So Blessed … ’
An applied-mathematics professor, Lubin first came to the congregation when he lived in a nearby apartment as a young professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, a suburb that lies further north along the Lake Michigan coast.

When the last of the neighborhood stalwarts passed away, after consulting the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—the congregation packed up their Torahs, some less-worn prayer books and a few prized pieces of furniture, and moved into the facility, which has welcomed them with open arms.

This was the exception rather than the norm, as virtually all synagogues in formerly Jewish parts of the city have closed.

For years, residents of the facility would make up the bulk of the minyan every Shabbat morning, with Lubin and occasional locals or visitors rounding out the public prayer quorum of 10 men. The last few months, however, had been rough, and we came with a gaggle of young yeshivah students, who would lead the prayers and ensure that there would be a minyan.

The room is cozy, paneled in ornate wood and decorated with heavy Judaica, mostly harking to the mid-20th century and earlier. The original synagogue furniture is all dark mahogany, a tad out of place amid the ecru-colored millwork.

We were greeted by several elderly men half-sitting, half-laying in gurney beds. As I shook each of their limp hands, I had to listen closely to hear their replies of “Good Shabbos.”

I took a prayer book and sat down. On my right was a lanky fellow who introduced himself as Moshe. He had been encouraged to attend the services by Rabbi Yoel Wolf, who directs the closest Chabad center, Chabad of East Rogers Park. He was proud to share that his ancestors had been among the original founders of the congregation. On my right was an elderly gentleman reviewing the weekly Torah portion. An ordained rabbi with few family members, he was a resident of the home.

Within a few minutes, more congregants were wheeled in, and the services began. Most of the participants were too frail to read and did not have prayer books in front of them.

Behind the mahogany mechitza (partition) a female resident had been wheeled in and took her place with a prayer book in hand.

Lubin occasionally called out page numbers or simple instructions in English. “We’re going to read these verses together now—all 26 of them,” he announced before we began a chant of Psalm 136.

The task of reading the Torah was shared by Lubin and the students, who took turns. When services concluded, Kiddush was recited over grape juice. Cups of juice, individually wrapped slices of banana cake and Styrofoam bowls full of pungent herring were passed around. Almost no one partook.

As if in response to my unspoken question as to who would eat the copious piles of cake and herring, Lubin motioned for us to follow him.

We trooped up the stairs and walked from room to room, visiting the Jewish residents and distributed juice, cake, and fish to each one (and their appreciative roommates).

“Hey Mary, look how many visitors you have today,” he said to one resident, motioning to me, Moshe, and the yeshivah students. “We all came to wish you a good Shabbos. Lots of health to you!”

“I feel so blessed that you brought me the Kiddush,” said one woman as she blinked back her tears. Visitors are rare for many of the residents here.

In one small room with two beds, an elderly widow whose husband had recently passed invited us to sing some Jewish songs with her. Judging by the certificates and photos taped to the walls, it was clear that she had been a Jewish educator many years ago. “One more song boys, one more song,” she said before finally letting us continue on our rounds.”

When the trays were empty, we returned to the sanctuary to retrieve our coats.

As we walked back home (it’s a three-mile walk each way), we chatted about the residents and the impact the presence of the synagogue had on their lives. Rabbi Yehuda Goldman, the senior Orthodox rabbi in Chicago, who passed away in 1993 at age 103, lived his final years in Birchwood and attended every Shabbat.

Lubin shared that the facility’s psychiatrist had told him how meaningful the Shabbat visits were for the residents. “It means that they are not alone in the world; there is someone walking over just to chat with them, even if it is just for a few minutes.”

He told me about one resident who was fed peanut-butter sandwiches while living in a chair in the apartment of someone who was taking his Social Security checks as “room and board.” Through the efforts of a local Chabad activist, he was brought to Birchwood, where he became a regular synagogue attendee.

‘My Duty to Keep It Going’
For the Lubin family, caring for Anshei Lubavitch has been a labor of love, inspired in large part by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman and Chayah Sarah Hecht, who led the synagogue for decades. Dr. Lubin would report regularly to Rabbi Hecht, who was by then leading a congregation in Peterson Park. Even after the Lubins left the neighborhood in 1977, Dr. Lubin continued to attend Anshei Lubavitch and was instrumental in resettling it into Birchwood.

Much of the burden was carried by his late wife, Leba Chana (Eloise) Lubin, who passed away on Oct. 30. An interior designer by trade, she was a natural nurturer and a sensitive friend to many. Despite the ups and downs of the neighborhood, the freezing and wet weather, and the loneliness she endured on Shabbat mornings, she encouraged her husband’s weekly visit, knowing that he was needed at Birchwood.

Their eldest son, Rabbi Shalom Lubin (now a Chabad rabbi in Parsippany, N.J.), recalls attending on Yom Kippur as a 7-year-old and seeing the numbers tattooed on the arms of many of the residents.

“That night I realized that I was needed in shul, and that my presence really mattered,” said Rabbi Lubin. “I knew that night that the old and frail men and women in shul were counting on me to keep our tradition alive. And I knew how good it felt to be a part of it.”

Now, Dr. Lubin is occasionally joined by his grandsons, but more often than not he walks alone.

“On three separate occasions, the Rebbe intervened to try to preserve this historic congregation,” he reflects. “Somehow, it became my duty to keep it going, and that’s what I do to the best of my ability.”

Photo 1: Menachem Posner and Dr. Lubin hold up a Yiddish sign of unknown vintage that once graced a previous location of Anshei Lubavitch. (Photo: Brett Walkow)

Photo 2: Dedication plaques on antique furniture tell the story of generations of devoted congregants who supported Anshei Lubavitch through the centuries. (Photo: Brett Walkow)

Photo 3: Most of Anshei Lubavitch’s Torah scrolls were either found unusable or given to other congregations. The two that remain are housed in an ark that contains some pieces of an earlier ark built by a carpenter who survived the Holocaust and went on to rebuild his life in Chicago. (Photo: Brett Walkow)

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