In the Beginning
In the 1920s, Conservative Jews gathered for High Holiday services at a Forest Park hall and in the former Oak Park Armory.
In 1934-35, this group received a charter from Illinois to form a not-for-profit religious organization, the West Suburban Jewish Community Center. A rented store on Madison Street—just east of Harlem Avenue in Oak Park—served as the locus for Friday night religious services, Hebrew and Sunday School. A University of Chicago student, Roy Brener, was retained to teach the children and lead the services.
The congregation’s growth during the 1930s led to the purchase and remodeling of a building at 414 Lake Street in Oak Park to serve as our first permanent synagogue, named “West Suburban Jewish Center.”
Rabbi Israel H. Weisfeld became the spiritual leader of the congregation and organized a four-day per week religious school. Rabbi Weisfeld served until spring 1945. For about three years, several rabbis served the congregation, including Rabbi Monroe Levens. In early 1948, Rabbi Moshe Babin assumed the pulpit.
Oh, The Places We Will Go
The Lake Street building was too small to meet the needs of this busy, growing congregation. Plans were made to enlarge the structure. However, a new village ordinance required frontage consents from 51% of the property owners within a radius of 400 feet from the site, which the congregation was unable to obtain. The apparent reluctance of their Oak Park neighbors and the world climate of pervasive and blatant anti-Semitism contributed to the Temple leaders reluctance to take the Village to court.
Wartime constraints on construction materials and labor forestalled the opportunity to build until World War II ended. The 1940s saw a dramatic increase in west suburban Jewish population, as these families made their way from city neighborhoods to the western suburbs.
By 1950, the congregation had 280 families. The proposed expansion site could not meet the needs of the rapidly growing congregation. Consequently, the synagogue pursued alternative sites, eventually locating to its current site in River Forest.
This location was zoned for schools and houses of worship, and was free of restrictive covenants. However, anti-Semitism again became an obstacle to frontage consents. The village trustees succeeded in lobbying for the ordinance on Erev Yom Kippur in 1949. The congregation received the building permit in December 1949. The cornerstone of our current Temple was laid on May 28, 1950.
Construction of the Sanctuary and north wing was finished on June 3, 1951. The entire structure was completed with the addition of Gottlieb Community Hall, the kitchen, and classrooms in October, 1953.
West Suburban Temple Har Zion
The name of the congregation was changed. Before it was named West Suburban Temple Har Zion, the synagogue was named “West Suburban Temple.” Rabbi Moshe Babin led the congregation during this period of growth and expansion.
In 1951, the congregation engaged 29-year old Cantor Harold Brindell. The following two decades were a period of great cultural liveliness for the congregation staging plays and musicals regularly. The Temple held many social events, and a prominent juried art exhibition, the Sisterhood-sponsored “Winter Show.”
Joseph Tabachnik arrived with his young family to lead the congregation in 1964. Under his guidance social, educational, and religious programs were developed to meet the needs of the many young families and other individuals in the congregation.
On November 5, 1967, the Gottlieb Community Hall’s stained glass windows were dedicated. The prominent artist, William Gropper, designed these unique, biblically-themed windows. Funding for their creation and installation was provided to the congregation.
The dedication of a new Torah scroll in June, 1976 was an outstanding event in the life of the synagogue during the 1970s. The congregation commissioned the scroll as a major fundraising event. Many dozens of people participated in the completion of the writing of the Torah, fulfilling this mitzvah with their fellow congregants.
Not Just a House of Worship
In 1976, the synagogue began producing plays and musicals with the assistance of many members. “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” were among the productions presented during the 1970s and 80s.
The 1980s were distinguished by the growth of the congregation to approximately 400 families. In 1984, a redesign and enhancement of the Ark was undertaken – creating a more dramatic and prominent home for our Sifrei Torah.
The increased architectural emphasis upon the Ark reflected the greater emphasis on Saturday morning Torah services in the Conservative movement. The 1980s also saw the development of an annual membership retreat, the “Kallah,” as a source of communal development and spiritual growth.
With the retirement of Rabbi Tabachnik after 26 years, Rabbi Victor A. Mirelman assumed the leadership of the congregation in January, 1990. Under his guidance the pre-school programs have expanded and the religious school moved from Saturday to Sunday classes.
With strong parent support, we now have regular Children’s Services on Shabbat. In 1994 Rabbi Mirelman and West Suburban Temple Har Zion hosted a historic convocation of Lutheran and Jewish leaders. As a result, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America repudiated the anti-Semitic teachings of Martin Luther and the role of these teachings in promoting the Holocaust.
In January 1994, the congregation launched the KADIMA Campaign, an ambitious fundraising program for the repair and renovation of this architecturally-significant synagogue. The $1.4 million renovation, has ensured the vitality of our Jewish home for many decades to come.
In May 1997, our much beloved Cantor Harold Brindell died. His 46 years of service made him a fixture in the hearts of two generations and a leader in the American Conservative cantorate.
On June 1, 1998, Cantor Stewart Figa assumed the cantor’s pulpit.
Rabbi Mirelman retired and became Rabbi Emeritus after 20 years of service in July 2010. Rabbi Robin Damsky assumed the leadership of WSTHZ. Rabbi Damsky served as our rabbi for 5 years; during which time she expanded our outreach to those looking to convert to Judaism; our involvement with the interfaith community; and our awareness as a congregation of the need for environmental sustainability.
In August 2015, Rabbi Adir Glick joined our congregation as our 7th rabbi and spiritual leader.