Congregation Beth Shalom began as the Northern Illinois Jewish Community Center in 1965, when a group of families in DeKalb and Sycamore established a religious school. For the next two years, until the construction of our own building, Sunday School was held in DeKalb’s Jefferson Elementary School, and Hebrew school was held in parents’ homes. But before the building, there was a community, and a brief history of that community should help readers to better understand Congregation Beth Shalom.
Before World War II, the Jewish community consisted primarily of the families in the area’s business community. Among them were the Blitzbau, Brody, Dunn, Gordon, Iskowitz, Katz, Prober, and Mabel families. These business families welcomed other professionals in the later 1950’s and then jewish professors and public school teachers, almost a decade later, as Northern Illinois University and the public school systems expanded. The character of the community embraced these three groups in DeKalb, Sycamore and the surrounding area.
The community started to organize in the 1950’s with the creation of men’s and women’s B’nai B’rith organizations. B’nai B’rith encouraged social and civic activities. Thus, members ultimately moved into the larger non-jewish community to give the precursors of today’s multicultural programs through the “Dolls for Democracy” presentations, initiating Brotherhood Week gatherings, and seeking awareness of and sensitivity to, the Jewish presence in the area by presenting local school districts with calendars showing the Jewish holidays.
During these decades, Jewish families did not have a facility in which to meet. As a community, they met instead in public parks and in private homes. Chanukah parties were sometimes held on the second floor of the building on the corner of Fourth and Locust Streets in DeKalb. High Holy Day services were held in various places in DeKalb: The Wesleyan and Newman centers near the NIU campus, and Cole Hall and O’Connell Theater on the NIU campus.
Formal Jewish education for the children was problematic. Each week the children went to the rather distant synagogues in Elgin, or Rockford, for Sunday and Hebrew schools, first in individual cars, then in a chartered bus (meeting in front of the Prober’s house in DeKalb). By the mid-1960’s, some felt the families needs could be better served by establishing their own congregation.
These families spent many hours vigorously discussing the character of the congregation and its building. The Katz family contributed the land on Russell Road in DeKalb for the building. During spirited meetings, community members decided on the building blueprint, on the name, and on the nature of the congregation. On the Brody family’s urging, Hillel, the Jewish student organization, was included in there Center. Because many had strong bonds with Elgin and Rockford synagogues, the building was called the Northern Illinois Jewish Community Center (NIJCC).
These original, strong bonds with other congregations were symbolized by the fact that for a decade after the building’s construction the Torah scrolls were kept in a portable ark. Only in the mid-1970’s did the congregation commission the crafting of an ark that would stand permanently in the Center sanctuary. That ark, known affectionately as “Arnold’s Ark,” was dedicated to Professor Arnold Fox, whoo prepared congregation children for Bar and Bat Mitzvah from the mid-1950’s through the 1990’s. (Girls were originally confirmed.) Our two Torahs have a history of their own: the larger scroll belonged to the community for many years and had been kept in Sterling, Illinois; the smaller scroll was donated by Noel Feldman. The congregation celebrated the first Bar Mitzvah — for Mark Frisch — in the building in 1968.
Many other changes have occurred since the first Board of Directors — Charles (Chuck) Ackerman, Harry Brody, Arnold Fox, Joelyn (Joey) Frisch, Ben Gordon, Joe Katz, and Walter Wernick — started the community on its steady course. Over the years, the congregation sought various options to serve the religious and cultural needs: rabbis from the Hebrew Theological Seminary in skokie; student rabbis from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati; and, currently, a rabbi who serves us on a part-time basis. In 1988, the congregation changed its name to Congregation Beth Shalom / Northern Illinois Jewish Community Center. Undoubtedly, we will explore other options to best serve the religious and cultural needs of the congregation in the years to come. We are proud of our past, and look forward to our future!