The Congregation of the Men of the West

Stand for Israel  |  December 3, 2019

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Chicago
Pilgrim Baptist Church, Chicago

Today marks the 201st anniversary of Illinois becoming a state, a day which probably only interests those of us working in The Fellowship’s Chicago office. But with a little bit of historical digging, we found some Illinois-related facts that our readers — both Christian and Jew — might find interesting.

Twenty-nine years after Illinois was granted statehood, Chicago’s first Jewish congregation was founded, and its name was something else —Kehilath Anshe Ma’Arav, which translates to “Congregation of the Men of the West” (since Chicago was considered pretty far west for an American city of the time). The congregation called several sites home during the next few decades, including the space above a downtown department store. During the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the synagogue escaped without a scratch. Sadly, three years later, it would be destroyed in the forgotten “Chicago Fire of 1874.”

In 1890, the congregation moved into a new building that had been designed by the famed architectural team of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (Adler was a member of the temple). It was housed there until 1924, when the building became the home of Pilgrim Baptist Church. And for those who are fans of Christian music, you no doubt know that a decade later, in the 1930s, Pilgrim Baptist Church is where musical director Thomas A. Dorsey became known as the “Father of Gospel Music,” for first creating this strain of worship. The church, which would be gutted by a fire in 2006, would go on to host gospel music being sung by such luminaries as Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, James Cleveland, and the Staple Singers, as well as sermons given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Truly this historic building and the worship it has witnessed through the years has built and continues to build bridges between Christians and Jews.

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