Robb Packer has made it his mission to document every building ever used as a synagogue in Chicago. He knows of just under 500 buildings meeting criterion, of which 350 to 400 are still standing—but you wouldn’t know that just by looking.
Most of the places Packer’s documented are now Baptist or Catholic churches, mosques, or schools, but frequently they’re just empty and crumbling. “They’re not lost; they’re just forgotten,” says the building-inspector-turned-historian.
Packer’s interest began about ten years ago when his wife wanted to create a photographic history of her family’s journey to America. He set out to search for more information on their old synagogue, which had been torn down. He’s published two books on Chicago’s synagogues with a third on the way, maintains forgottensynagogues.com, and lectures regularly.
“When I used to do my talks, you would see these older people,” he says. “The lightbulbs just turn on, the light in their eyes; you’d see them going back to another time. People that were feeble, you’d see them growing stronger, talking, asking questions. It was amazing to see people come alive for a few hours a night.”
Packer also keeps track of community centers, seminaries, and even Jewish orphanages. Among them is the site of Packer’s old preschool: the Jewish People’s Institute on Douglas Boulevard, which now houses the Lawndale Community Academy.
If nothing else, Packer’s books are a testament to the unexpected histories behind many of Chicago’s buildings. Take, for example, the old site of Congregation KAM in Kenwood; it’s now the national headquarters of Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH.
His ultimate goal is to inspire people to care about preserving a Jewish cultural legacy that’s been forgotten. When a building gets torn down, he says, “it’s like seeing your children disappear.”
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