By Chicago Tribune
Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov and his wife, Chani Shemtov, arranged apples, honey cake and other symbols of the Jewish New Year at their apartment near Halsted Street and Roosevelt Road.
A century ago, the bustle before the High Holidays — a period which started Friday evening with Rosh Hashanah and ends Sept. 28 with Yom Kippur — would have been common, replicated in thousands of Jewish homes on the Near West Side. But by the 1950s, the community — once home to 40 synagogues — had all but vanished.
Now, after a long hiatus, Jewish activity is percolating again around University of Illinois at Chicago, a result of gentrification and more students living on campus.
“We knew there was a lot of opportunity here, along with the history,” said Shemtov, who moved from Brooklyn almost two years ago to open Chabad, an Orthodox organization, to reach out to the area’s roughly 1,300 Jewish students.
“When you walk around, you can still see the site of an old matzo factory and Hebrew letters etched on a building at Polk and Ashland,” he said. “You can feel the old neighborhood.”
Chabad joins Hillel, the Jewish student center, in the resurgence. When Hillel opened its headquarters at Morgan and Taylor Streets in 1990, it was the area’s first new Jewish institution in two generations. But it’s only in the last couple years that the place has been buzzing with activity into the evening, said Marla Baker, Hillel’s executive director.
“We used to essentially beg people to come to Shabbat dinner,” she said. “Now we get 80 to 100 on a Friday night, and it’s at the point where I look around and say, ‘I don’t know how I’d fit one more person in this place.’ ”
That was an often-voiced sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when waves of Russian and Eastern European immigrants arrived daily. Kosher butchers, Hebrew schools and Yiddish theater sprung up to serve the population, which had swelled to more than 50,000, according to Irving Cutler’s book “The Jews of Chicago: From Shtetl to Suburb.”
The newcomers were drawn by religious freedom and economic opportunity. In its heyday, the Maxwell Street market boasted 2,000 vendors and many well-known Chicago names — Chernin Shoes, Morris Mages Sports, Vienna Sausage — trace their roots to the commercial strip.
After World War II, the Jewish community moved again, this time to suburbia, and the old neighborhood had little to offer except nostalgia.
After such a long decline, no one could have ever envisioned a dozen young people gathering at the Shemtovs to make candied apples — symbolizing hope for a sweet year.
Samantha Leshin, a psychology major from Mokena, said she stopped by to be with friends and because of the welcoming atmosphere.
Chani Shemtov, not much older than her guests, asks maternally, “Are you taken care of for the holidays?”
Jonathan Schneider of Bethesda, Md., finds himself at Hillel or Chabad almost every day — “even if it’s only to hang out and read the papers” — rather than as a seeker of spirituality.
“I’ll go out of my way for religion on the High Holidays,” said Schneider, a graduate student. “Otherwise, there’s got to be some kind of food involved.”
It is clear that the Shemtovs understand that the way to students’ souls is through their stomachs — not just during the holidays, but year round. One of the most popular events is Pizza and Parsha, which is a discussion of the weekly Torah portion.
At Hillel, too, food is an entry point for students to celebrate and explore their identity. Baker, who has been at Hillel for 15 years, cites the 2007 opening of Stukel Towers — a dorm with almost 750 undergraduates — as changing the character of UIC and reviving a more vibrant Jewish community.
It’s one reason barbecues, once held midday, have now been moved to the evening.
“By 3:30, this place used to be quiet,” she said. “Now, we’re just getting warmed up.”