• Megann Horstead

Congregation Beth Shalom looks to past, future as it enters 45th year


Founding members of Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville say their synagogue's 45th anniversary is a time to reflect on the past and think about the future.

The congregation has called Naperville home since its inception in 1972, staying grounded in its roots while promoting interfaith unity, hosting ecumenical groups and engaging with the community.

It began with a small group of couples and was known informally as the Naperville Jewish Community Organization, said Raye Isenberg, of Naperville, one of the founding members.

"In the beginning, (our congregation) didn't have a name," her husband, Sheldon Isenberg, said. "It was a group gathering to celebrate the holy days."

The reasons people joined the temple varied, they said. For some, it might have been proximity. For others, it might have been the style of worship. For Russ and Yonah Klem, of Naperville, it was about the needs of their family.

"We wanted to make sure our children had a Jewish education. We took matters into our own hands. We were not alone," Yonah Klem said.

While they visited other synagogues in the Chicago area over the years, the Klems said Beth Shalom just felt like the best fit early on.

Over time, the Naperville congregation outgrew the homes and other temporary quarters it was using.

"As soon as word got out, we started attracting people," Raye Isenberg said. "The city (of Naperville) was growing rapidly."

That's when the congregation decided to branch out.

"One of the first decisions we made was having a school for kids," Sheldon Isenberg recalled. "It was at La Francesca."

By April 1985, the congregation purchased a building to host its own sanctuary. When members realized a short time later they were outgrowing that space as well, plans to build the city's first synagogue were made. Construction began in August 1997, and the congregation moved in 12 months later.

Today, Congregation Beth Shalom has about 280 members.

"In some sense, we've outgrown the space," Raye Isenberg said, noting they can't hold some meetings because there's no space at times. "It's a good thing and a bad thing."

Yonah Klem, noting there were times when the school was more crowded, said now it's less so.

"What's remained the same is we are a geographical center because we're the only (synagogue) in town," Klem said. "In Naperville, we have a wide variety of people who come. I think we've done a stellar job of coming together."

But Isenberg said it wasn't always easy raising Jewish children in Naperville.

"There were incidents of anti-Semitism, bullying, name calling," she recalled. "Principals handled it within school and a did a good job. If we felt it should be handled outside of school, we were able to work that out."

Klem said another challenge came from the public school districts, which did not always consider the Jewish holidays when creating class schedules.

"It got to be dicey because as the kids went to school, (they) were conflicted," she said.

That's no longer the case, Klem said.

"Our kids were in high school a long time ago," Yonah said. "I don't hear from families that it's bad now."

Her husband, Russ, agreed.

"I think (that was true) when it was a small Jewish community," he said. "(It) is not really applicable now."

Sheldon Isenberg said while their children are now adults with children of their own, they've returned so their children can go to Congregation Beth Shalom.

"I'd say, there are roughly 20 people who were children and returned to raise their family," he said.

Recent increased tension stemming from the election and hate crimes occurring around the country have prompted the congregation to increase collaboration with the Islamic Center of Naperville.

Bernie Newman, a synagogue member since 1984, said the congregation's dedication to interfaith unity has a long history.

"We have actually worked with the Islamic Center of Naperville for many years," Newman said. "This has been really helpful when challenges arise in one of our communities."

Congregation Beth Shalom regularly hosts interfaith programs open to the community, including interfaith dinners since 2011.

Raye Isenberg said she used to lead some of the congregation's interfaith work by lecturing at various churches on Jewish teachings, rituals and practices.

Newman said there are frequent requests from groups wanting to learn more about Judaism.

"Many of the stories (from the Book of Genesis) are common to many religious groups," he said. "It reinforces that idea that we come from the same. Everyone's from the same family."

The goal, Newman said, is that efforts to promote interfaith unity will resonate with people.

"What we hope to achieve is to increase peace and learning to reduce bigotry," Newman said. "The point is once people have an understanding of a religion, they tend to have more of an understanding (of the bigger picture)."

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