The Maxwell Street area on the Near West Side of Chicago evokes images of pushcarts, Yiddish and faded photographs of immigrant ancestors who came over from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, at least for a certain segment of the city’s Jewish population. Yet in the aftermath of World War II, the Jewish presence in the neighborhood virtually disappeared as Jewish families started moving to the growing suburbs.

Now, nearly a century later, in the backdrop of live music, dancing, sushi and cocktails, the ribbon was cut in front of the new Rohr Chabad House in that very same neighborhood. Chabad serves 1,500 Jewish students at the University of Illinois at Chicago and about 300 Jewish medical students at nearby Rush University.

The center is housed in a stately, four-story brick residence. The main floor features a synagogue, classrooms, guest accommodations and a library. One flight up houses an elegantly appointed social hall and a student lounge, offices and a state-of-the art kitchen. The upper two floors serve as the residence of Rabbi Bentzy and Chani Shemtov, who have been leading Chabad at the university since November of 2007.

The rabbi explains that their Chabad center had been operating out of a tiny condominium, where they lived with their three boys, all under the age of 5. They had a hard time finding a suitable location near the campus, which is hemmed in by the Dan Ryan Expressway to the east, the Eisenhower Expressway to the north and the Stevenson Expressway to the south.

Rabbi Bentzy and Chani Shemtov with Lon S. Kaufman, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost at UIC.
Rabbi Bentzy and Chani Shemtov with Lon S. Kaufman, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost at UIC.

“Eventually, we resorted to distributing fliers to homes in the area, asking if anyone was willing to sell,” says Shemtov. “We got a positive response, and that is how we got this magnificent location.”

The new building was dedicated by the Rohr family in memory of late philanthropists Sami and Charlotte Rohr. It was also sponsored by Uri and Bassi Laber of Miami, and Brian and Katie Taylor of Chicago.

At the Aug. 28 ceremony were Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois; and Lon S. Kaufman, vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost at UIC, who spoke about how Chabad has successfully organized Jewish life on campus and given Jewish students a place they could call their own.

Shemtov says the building is already buzzing with activity as they welcome new and returning students, and as they prepare for this month’s holidays. The center’s web site, www. chabaduic.com, displays details on upcoming celebration s like “Sushi and Games Night” in the sukkah, as well as regular Monday-morning minyans and a “Pizza & Parsha” lunch-and-learn hour every Tuesday at noon. The Sukkot events may be the last time the rooftops will be used until spring as the weather in the Windy City can turn chilly early.

Kevin Kalika, a senior who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, credits Chabad with giving him a Jewish focus as he embarks on adulthood. He looks forward to attending events at the new center and inviting his friends to come along, except, he says with a grin, “most of them are probably there already.”

The reception was held on the new center's rooftop, which will again be used for the communal Sukkah.
The reception was held on the new center's rooftop, which will again be used for the communal Sukkah.