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Our History

Your neighborhood synagogue, wherever you live!

Founded in 1880...

Emanuel Congregation, a Jewish Reform synagogue affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, was founded in 1880 by 14 German and Czechoslovakian families and incorporated in 1898 as "Emanuel Congregation of Chicago." It is said that "Emanuel" was chosen after Emanuel Redlich, the "matzah man." As the shames, or synagogue director, Redlich went from house to house collecting the $2.00 a family monthly dues, as well as the Matzah order.

In the Beginning 

The founding families of Emannuel rented Schlotterhauer Hall, on the second floor of a dry-goods store at 338 N. Sedgwick Street (at Blackhawk) as their first meeting place. Since everyone spoke German, all prayers, sermons, board meetings, and school classes were conducted in German. English eventually replaced German in 1901. The Congregations first leader was Rabbi Adolph Dushner, who served from 1880-1881, and he was succeed by Rabbi Darmstadter. In a short time, Phoenix Hall on Division Street was rented as the Congreagtion's home, but was replaced in 1886 by the purchase of a Swedish church at 280 N. Franklin. Thirty families contributed the $10,000 purchase price. The first wedding at Emanuel took place at the new location in 1886, and the daughter of the this marriage became the first bride in the Buckingham Palace building.

Reform Judaism

In 1893, Emanuel was swept up in the growing trend towards reform Judaism, and the synagogue board voted to to adopt the Reform Prayer Book- the Einhorn Siddur Olath Tamid, and the Congregation resolved to worship with uncovered heads. In 1894, Emanuel merged with Or Chodosh, completing this transformation from Orthodox to Reform Judaism. The merger grew the congregation such that new a new, larger facility had to be considered. Emanuel sold the former church and rented temporary space in a Baptist church at the corners of Belden and Halsted until a new building could be constructed. For 15 years, the chapel and basement floors of the church were used for Emanuel's services and religious school.

By 1896 Emanuel's membership was waning and the board decided that a more accessible location was needed. A lot at Burling and Belden was purchased, but construction was stalled; by 1904 it was apparent that Jewish demographics were shifting yet further north. In 1907 the Congregation sold the Burling lot and purchased a lot on Buckingham Street near Halsted. The cornerstone of the new synagogue was dedicated on June 23, 1907. To raise funds for the the buildings, a week long bazaar was held in the vestry rooms, which was not only a huge financial success (about $6,000 was raised), but also a unifying social event. Along with the new building, the synagogue inaugurated Friday evening services and the Union Prayer Book replaced the Einhorn prayer book.

Early Leadership

A series of rabbis led Emanuel after Rabbi Darmstadter, including Rabbi Charles Austria, E.B.M. Browne, Julius Newman, Dr. Emanuel Shreiber, and Leo Mannheimer. When Rabbi Mannheimer became ill, Rabbi Felix A. Levy was chosen to succeed him in 1907. Rabbi Levy was chosen partly because "he did not require a large salary or demand a contract, and because he spoke fluent German." Much loved and admired, Rabbi Levy was to serve the Congregation until 1956, and remained as Rabbi Emeritus until his death in 1963.  He became an important figure nationally as well, elected as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1936-37.


In the early 1900's, affiliates emerged. The Gemeinde Frauen Verein orgainized in 1897, became a charter member of the National Association of Temple Sisterhoods. The Men's Club, today Emanuel's Brotherhood, was organized in 1908, and was also a charter member of the Men of Reform Judaism. Other affiliates included the Fidelai Group (for young women), the YMJA (for young men), and the Kadimah Group, which became in 1928 the Emanuel Junior Alliance, today's Youth Group.


During the 1920's Emanuel grew to such an extent that it had to use the People's Church-Uptown Temple for High Holy Days, an arrangement that lasted until 1954. It also experimented with Sunday morning services, but soon returned to traditional Shabbat services on Saturday. The Great Depression affected many congregants, but Emanuel remained intact through the devotion of its members. New challenges emerged during the Nazi regime in Germany and World War II, as Emanuel tried to help newcomers bridge language and customs. Many young Emanuelites went to war; and on the home front congregants dedicated themselves to supporting the war effort. The monthly newsletter became a tie between home and the battle front.  Jeannette Decker, hired as temporary help in 1927, became the Congregations's first Executive Director, inventing the position herself.

War and Post-War Years

By the early 1940's it became apparent that Emanuel had outgrown its space, and plans began for a new building. In June 1944 a lot was purchased at Sheridan Road and Surf Street; but before plans were completed it was noted that the bulk of the Jewish population had again moved northward. The Congregation sold the lot and purchased land at the Congregations's current location, 5959 N. Sheridan Road in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood. The new synagogue was finished in 1954 and dedicated in 1955. In the same year, Rabbi Levy was succeeded by Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman. Rabbi Schaalman escaped Nazi Germany by being awarded a scholarship to Hebrew Union College. Rabbi Schaalman founded the first Reform youth camp, Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin; the Union now has nine such camps. An internationally known scholar, Rabbi Schaalman has served the Reform movement on national level for many years. Rabbi Schaalaman's colleague, Robert Handwerger, was Emanuel's first cantor. Rabbi Schaalman remained at Emanuel as Rabbi Emeritus until he passed away in 2017.

Recent Years

Emanuel has been the home of many Jewish organizations. For nearly ten years Emanuel hosted the Chicago Jewish Day School, which shared classroom and other space for its activities, until it moved into its own campus in 2018. Until 2016 Emanuel was also the home to Or Chadash, a gay and lesbian oriented congregation. 

Rabbinical Tradition. Emanuel is especially proud of its long tradition of nationally recognized reform rabbis. When Rabbi Herman Schaalman retired in 1986, he was succeeded by former assistant Rabbi Joseph Edeheit from 1986-92. Rabbi Edelheit was especially interested in social action and the AIDS epidemic. Rabbi Schaalman served as interim rabbi during a year of the transition. The Congregation then engaged Rabbi David Sofian from 1993-2003, who was regarded as an exceptional teacher. As the Reform movement tended toward more conservative practice, Rabi Sofian introduced some of these ideas to the congregation. Rabbi Sofian was succeeded by Rabbi Michael Zedek, a nationally known scholar and speaker, from 2004-2016. Rabbi Zedek was deeply involved in civic affairs, and served on a number of national and international boards. Rabbi Zedek also serves as a host of the weekly radio program, "Religion on the Line." Rabbi Zedek retired in 2016 to become Emeritus at Emanuel.

From July, 2016 to June 2021, Rabbi Craig Marantz assumed the position of Senior Rabbi. Rabbi Marantz received a Master's Degree in Education at Stanford and a Master's Degree in Jewish Education at the Reform College in Los Angeles. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1999. After serving as Director of Education at The Temple in Atlanta he assumed the role of Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel Omaha. In 2006 he became Senior Rabbi at Congregation Kol Haverim in Glastonbury, Connecticut. His rabbinic focus is on helping people to make Judaism matter to themselves and the community.

Today, Cantor Michelle D. Friedman leads services as well as teaches Bar/Bat Mitzvah students. Cantor Friedman is an energetic and patient teacher, and is an important asset here at Emanuel. The efforts of our clergy and educators are supported by our dedicated administrative staff.

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