(lubavitch.com/lns) The last time Chicago’s Maxwell Street neighborhood saw this much Jewish activity, pushcarts and Model T’s were clogging the streets.
When Chabad representatives Rabbi Bentzion and Chani Shemtov moved into the neighborhood five months ago they came to serve the 2000 Jewish students at University of Illinois at Chicago. They had no idea that their apartment on Halsted Street, right off of Maxwell was in the beating heart of the former “Jewtown,” a Chinatown-like nickname for the Windy City’s answer to the Lower East Side.
“I feel the spirit of the past. You can’t have a mikvah in a place and a matzah bakery in a place without something having an effect. It’s our job to revive the feeling for Judaism in this area,” said Mrs. Shemtov.
Bernice Harris and her son drove the Shemtovs around the old neighborhood, pointing out Jewish landmarks. Mrs. Harris is about to celebrate her ninetieth birthday, but her memories of Maxwell Street’s vibrant Jewish life remain clear and poignant.
“People were poor. Life was hard, but we were happy,” she said.
As a seven year old, Mrs. Harris, then known by her Yiddish name Brina, was her mother’s interpreter and general guide to American life. “My mother wanted me to go to Wittenburg’s matzah factory on O’Brien Street. I had her bribe me. Only if I could get a piece of chocolate covered sponge cake from Mrs. Decker’s bakery.”
Holding her mother’s hand, Mrs. Harris wound through the crowd, past the 40 synagogues and prayer nooks, “shteebles,” past the original Sinai kosher sausage store, Yiddish newspaper office, and the mikvah on Devon Avenue.
Today, Stars of David and menorahs offer glimpses of the past, hidden among the hurly-burly of Market Street, now undergoing gentrification.
On campus, the Shemtovs’ aim is to bring Jewish students out of the woodwork. It topped the job description offered to them by Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, Chabad’s senior representative in Illinois. Seed money for their efforts came from Rohr Family Foundation. Arriving on campus months after fall semester began, the Shemtovs got straight to work. Rabbi Shemtov’s Pizza and Parsha now attracts a solid dozen students each Tuesday.
Ilan Kreimont, an economics major from Buffalo Grove, shows up for a slice and a little one-on-one learning on the side. “Chabad is educating the Jewish community on campus, religiously, not only culturally,” Kreimont said.
Mixing the spiritual and the spirited drives the campus Chabad’s programs. Psych major Rebecca Penwick said that before the Shemtovs arrived “there wasn’t a lot of obvious Jewish pride here. There are all these other clubs pushing ‘Muslim Pride’ or ‘African American Pride’, but I didn’t find a place saying ‘Hey, be proud, we are Jews.’”
By plunking a table in the campus’s main center, feeding students holiday foods, opening their home to students for Shabbat dinners, the Shemtovs are building up Jewish pride and feeding hungry minds. “It’s a process to give students a reason to feel proud they are Jewish, so when something Jewish happening they want to be part of it,” said Mrs. Shemtov.
Tanya Backiev a biology major graduating this semester has already noticed a stronger Jewish spirit on campus. She participated in Mrs. Shemtov’s three-part series on the spiritual side of Jewish femininity. “It’s been nice having all the girls getting to know each other. Until those events, I did not even know they went to our school.”
To attend Chabad’s events, Backiev delays her commute home to Buffalo Grove. For years, most students lived off campus. The addition of more student housing is changing that. This year, about 40% of UIC’s first year students are living on campus. As UIC becomes more residential, Chabad is there to help Jewish students feel at home.
“I’ve only known Bentzy and Chani for a couple months, but I feel like I’ve known them for my whole life,” said Backiev. “I don’t know what I’d do without them. They are my home away from home.”