Buffalo Grove’s Beth Am to observe bittersweet High Holidays
Congregation Beth Am is looking for a new home after agreeing to sell its current building to the Buffalo Grove Park District. The district plans to use the building for a performing arts center. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 21, 2012 2:27PM
BUFFALO GROVE —Even after it becomes a house of the arts, Congregation Beth Am will still have its building for a few days a year as its house of worship.
Sunday, Sept. 16, will likely mark the last Rosh Hashanah that Beth Am congregants will observe as the full-time occupants of their current building, at 225 N. McHenry Road in Buffalo Grove.
The synagogue is close to finalizing a contract with the Buffalo Grove Park District to sell its building. But even after the district turns the facility into a performing arts center, Beth Am plans to still come back and observe the High Holidays in its sanctuary.
In the long term, however, Beth Am president Michael Schwartz said the congregation is still a long way from determining a permanent home.
“There (are) questions that everybody’s asking,” Schwartz said. “‘Hey, where are we going, where are we going?’”
“They want to know where things are,” he continued. They want to have some finality.”
Even when the park district takes over, the district agreed to leave the sanctuary untouched until at least Nov. 30 of next year. That agreement allows Beth Am to come back for next year’s Rosh Hashanah services as well.
While Schwartz admitted that the congregation will miss its longtime home, he said the most important mission is keeping the Beth Am community together wherever the next home will be.
“We love who we are, and we love who we are with,” he said. “It’s the people who make this.”
Beth Am, which in Hebrew means “house of the people,” is working to close on the $3.7 million building sale to the park district. Pending approvals from Village Hall, the district plans to renovate the facility into a 37,000-square-foot center for performing arts, classrooms and extra office space.
Dan Schimmel, executive director of the district, said the conversations and negotiations began in the spring, as soon as he learned of the congregation’s interest in selling. The facility is viewed as the solution for a need the district has identified for years: a new performing arts center. Residents have voted against referendums to build a center.
“It’s a nice facility,” Schimmel said.
Schwartz said the synagogue’s directors began discussing the possibility of selling as Beth Am’s membership steadily decreased in recent years. Beth Am currently serves 365 families, he reported, a steep drop from the 700 families during its peak years in 2004 and 2005.
“We have a lot of the solid-core folks,” he said. “But the demographics have changed. It just doesn’t make economic sense to stay where we are.”
The congregation formed in 1979 in a Mount Prospect home and rented space from Mount Prospect and Wheeling churches as it grew. In the late 1980s, Beth Am acquired its first home near the intersection of Dundee Road and state Route 83. It purchased the large McHenry Road building in 1999.
“They expanded by a ton of families,” Schwartz said.
But as the economy and membership began to slip, the congregation formed a relocation committee to search for a new facility. Schwartz said about 80 percent of the congregation lives within five miles of 225 N. McHenry Road, Buffalo Grove.
“We’re not closing out any options at this point,” he said. “It’s a rather emotional decision. You don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”
If all goes as planned, Beth Am will turn the keys over to the park district June 30. Schimmel said the district will seek bids for the renovation work in the spring, and will eventually enlarge the stage and the classrooms.
There are no dates for opening performances, but Schimmel said the district will work like they are coming soon.
“It looks like a lot of time, (but) it won’t feel like a lot of time,” he said.
Currently, the district uses Ivy Hall School for its three annual children’s shows, the Raupp Museum for its teen theater productions, Emmerich Park for the 500 students in its dance classes and Stevenson High School for the Buffalo Grove Singers and the summer musical.
“All that will be consolidated,” Schimmel said.
Having the Beth Am building would give the park district room to increase its dance classes, move day camps there, and add programs it does not offer currently, he said. The building also could hold a “black box theater,” which he explained is a performing smaller of about 100 seats.
“That will be a very exciting edition to this project,” Schimmel said. “It is the opportunity for us to do some things that are a little more experimental.”