If you walk around the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, you might notice a large, domed building with a minaret located across the street from former U.S. President Barack Obama’s home. Until a larger sign was added to the front lawn, most people assumed it was a mosque. However, it is actually KAM Isaiah Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Illinois.
In the early nineteenth century, German Jews began settling in Chicago. By 1847, enough Jews arrived in Chicago to start a synagogue, so Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (KAM for short) was founded. Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv means “Congregation of the Men of the West” in Hebrew. As more Jews continued to settle in Chicago, more synagogues emerged. The current congregation in Hyde Park, KAM Isaiah Israel, is a merger of several of Chicago’s oldest synagogues: Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (KAM), B’nai Sholom (which originally formed as a split from KAM), Isaiah Temple, and Temple Israel. That is why the current name of the synagogue is KAM Isaiah Israel. KAM began as an Orthodox synagogue, but soon joined the newly formed Reformed Jewish movement.
KAM Isaiah Israel’s current building at 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd. was built in 1924 by Isaiah Temple, before it merged with the other synagogues. The reason why it looks like a mosque is because Byzantine Revival architecture was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This style tries to imitate the mosques and churches of Constantinople (the capital of Byzantium). Byzantine Revival architecture that specifically mimics Islamic architecture is known as the Moorish Revival style. Many Jews built their synagogues in this style during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of hearkening back to their Middle Eastern roots. Because of its architectural significance, KAM Isaiah Israel’s building was designated a Chicago landmark in 1977.
I went on a tour of KAM Isaiah Israel during Open House Chicago, an annual event in Chicago in which different museums, public buildings, houses of worship, etc. open their doors to the public for a weekend in October. Unfortunately, this year, the event will be limited to online and outdoor events, due to COVID-19: https://openhousechicago.org/. Prior to COVID-19, KAM Isaiah Israel also offered private tours of the synagogue upon request. Currently, the synagogue has been livestreaming its services, and plans to continue doing so for the upcoming Jewish High Holidays. On my tour, I was told that because of the domed ceiling, the acoustics of the synagogue are beautiful, so it might be worth listening to a livestreamed service.
As an added bonus, here is a photograph of another Moorish Revival building in Chicago, located at 600 N. Wabash Ave. It is of the former Medinah Temple, built in 1912 as an auditorium for the Shriners, a group related to the Freemasons, which often employs Middle Eastern terminology and designs. Currently, the building houses a Bloomingdale’s department store, but that was supposed to end in 2020, so we shall see what happens. The building became a Chicago landmark in 2001.
Sources and Further Reading
Open House Chicago. https://openhousechicago.org/ (accessed September 5, 2020).
Ori, Ryan. “Landmark Medinah Temple to be Redeveloped – Again – by ‘Mayor of River North.’” Chicago Tribune. June 14, 2019. https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/ryan-ori/ct-biz-medinah-temple-friedman-properties-ryan-ori-20190607-story.html (accessed September 5, 2020).
“Our Building and History.” KAM Isaiah Israel. https://www.kamii.org/history (accessed September 5, 2020).
Rodkin, Dennis. “What’s That Building? Medinah Temple.” WBEZ. September 12, 2018. https://www.wbez.org/stories/whats-that-building-medinah-temple/3e8d9257-2f34-4126-953b-f4aee23d31a4 (accessed September 5, 2020).