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New 'Dual' Synagogue One of Few in World For Both Ashkenazi, Sephardic Jews

Skokie's Kehilat Chevevei Tzion, which opened Sunday, has separate worship spaces for Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.

The Kehilat Chevevei Tzion synagogue opened in Skokie on Aug. 18, 2013. Photo: Pam DeFiglio
The Kehilat Chevevei Tzion synagogue opened in Skokie on Aug. 18, 2013. Photo: Pam DeFiglio

Leaders of a just-opened synagogue in Skokie have learned that making different groups of worshippers comfortable can involve both big things--like having two different sacred spaces--and little things. 

Rabbi Shaanan Gelman pointed out the striking Kehilat Chevevei Tzion building has a worship space for Ashkenazi Jews (those who lived in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe) on its north side, and one for Sephardic Jews (who originated in Spain and the Middle East) on its south side. 

Thats's the big thing the synagogue did to make its members, who hail from different parts of the world, feel welcome. But Gelman demonstrated a small thing while standing at a wooden podium. 

"Ashkenazi Jews (who come from Central, Eastern and Northern Europe) read from the torah on a slanted surface like this," he said, indicating the podium's wooden surface, which was sloping down toward him. With a gesture he showed how he would unfurl the torah scroll's two posts, lay them on the sloping surface and read from them.

"But Sephardic Jews (who come from Spain and the Middle East) read the torah on a flat surface," he continued, adjusting the wooden components of the podium so that the surface was flat instead of slanted. Sephardic torahs are read while standing  upright in their cases on a flat surface. 

Both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic sides of the Orthodox Jewish synagogue have the adjustable podiums, so either torah can be read in either space.

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A tour of both sacred spaces in the building, at 9220 N. Crawford, Skokie, shows one other notable difference. The Ashkenazi space, which is larger to accommodate the congregation's larger number of Ashkenazi members, has its men's and women's sections side by side, while the Sephardic section seats the men in the front and the women in the rear.

"The women told us they preferred that," Gelman said. 

He knew of only two other synagogues that have separate worship spaces for Ashkenazi and Sephardic members of a single Jewish congregation--one in New York, and one in Florida. 

“Our congregation noticed that we were not adequately tending to the needs of the entire Jewish community,” said Gelman. “Jews from Morocco, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries who came to the United States to escape religious persecution have been challenged to fully integrate into a largely Ashkenazic community.”

Services on both sides are conducted in Hebrew, with announcements in English. 

Beyond the two separate worship spaces, the rest of the 31,000-square-foot building is a common area for all worshippers to use together. There's a large foyer, a huge room that can be used for social events or meals and youth classrooms downstairs. 

Most worshippers enter the temple from the rear, which Gelman said architect Raffi Arzoumanian, of Skokie, designed to be more modern, with the architectural elements becoming more classic, and drawing the viewer back in time, as one moves toward the front of the building. Amrami Group built the building. Both the architect and builder are members of the congregation, Gelman said. 

He declined to name the cost of the building, but said the congregation's 170 families raised funds for its construction. The congregation is about seven and a half to eight years old; Gelman, 33, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y. and grew up in the Bronx in New York City, has been rabbi for seven years.

He is married to wife Tziporah and they have four children, ages 10, 7, 5 and six months. Like them, many of the congregants are young parents with larger families, often with three to six children, he said.

For them, there are youth classes in the lower level. Most of the children go to religious school and learn Hebrew there, Gelman said. 

The new building is quite a change from the days when congregants originally gathered for prayers in each other's basements, starting in 2005, and then worshipped at a converted beauty salon prior to building the new synagogue.

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