This was a real pickle, even for a Chabad rabbi.

How do you tell congregants that for the next year-and-a-half—while their new building was being constructed—that services, classes and events will be held in a different venue, an unusual venue, a ... well, a funeral home?

As it so happens, Rabbi Dovid Flinkenstein, co-director of Chabad of Wilmette on Chicago’s North Shore, didn’t have to break the news. At their 20th-anniversary dinner in June 2012, the entertainment wound up relaying the plan. The rabbi had booked none other than a comedian, who got wind of the temporary location change and, suffice it to say, reeled off a few one-liners that night.

“He played it up,” acknowledges Flinkenstein. “But for the most part, people were not deterred. A Chassid makes his surroundings. This is what we had to transform”—a place associated with sadness into “a place of joy, of holiness, of celebration.”

And so, last fall, Chabad took its Torahs, ark and bimah, along with other accoutrements for services and programs, across the street to the Weinstein Funeral Home, where they set up shop in one of the home’s two chapels.

‘Neighbors Helping Each Other’

The Weinstein Funeral Home, a Dignity Memorial Provider, has served the 300,000-strong Jewish community of Chicago and its North Shore suburbs for 120 years. Since 1970, it has been located at 111 Skokie Blvd. in Wilmette, Ill.—a sprawling brick building with leafy surroundings—serving fourth and even fifth generations of families.

About 20 years ago, Flinkenstein moved Chabad into a small strip mall across the street. First, they rented space in two storefronts, alongside a dry-cleaners. In 2006, they purchased the entire strip. Last year they demolished it and began new construction.

“When you have a synagogue that opens across from you, you have an immediate relationship,” says Marshall Kayman, 76, who has worked at the funeral home for 14 years after a long career in clothing sales. “We quickly became neighbors helping each other out.”

Weinstein offered use of its sizable parking lot for Chabad attendees and encouraged the rabbi to set up the annual sukkah there as well. Chabad provided a convenient place for Weinstein staff to go for a service, Kiddush, class or to lay tefillin.

Flinkenstein says “it was a perfect shidduch [match].”

When administrators at the funeral home heard Chabad had outgrown its current space and bought more storefront property to erect a brand-new building, they invited the rabbi to set up shop there.

The new Chabad center will have a real presence, from Jerusalem stone and a sleek exterior to 18-foot ceilings and two-dozen stained-glass windows inside.
The new Chabad center will have a real presence, from Jerusalem stone and a sleek exterior to 18-foot ceilings and two-dozen stained-glass windows inside.

“Look, we have two chapels,” Robert Sheck, 49, who has worked at Weinstein for 24 years, told the rabbi. “You can use one of them for Friday-night, Saturday and Sunday worship.”

Flinkenstein recalls the precise language: “ ‘Rabbi, it would be our pleasure to help you.’ ”

He still sounds in awe of the fact that the funeral home offered the space at no cost—and the larger of the two chapels at that. And the chapel had been recently renovated, with new carpet and chairs. “It was incredibly generous of them,” he states.

After consulting with the Chicago Rabbinical Council on certain matters of halachah (Jewish law), Flinkenstein accepted the offer. Many of his constituents could continue to walk to shul, and anyone who visited would inevitably note the progress being made on the new facility: a “win-win.”

‘A Tricky Adventure’

But first, some issues had to be ironed out.

There was security—how to get into the chapel over Shabbat. Fortuitously, non-Jewish mortuary students let worshippers into the building and help out in other ways. More complicated was how a Kohen (priest) would pray, as they are forbidden to come in contact with, be under the same roof as, or at times even be in the same building with a dead body. That problem was structurally solved: The chapels were technically separate buildings with separate roofs and entrances, so Kohenim could enter one chapel regardless of what was happening in the other.

And then came the Friday dilemma, when both chapels were often used during the day for funeral services, comprising a completely different setup than the evening one for Chabad. Once the mourners left, the rabbi and Weinstein staff would rearrange the chairs, and put up the mechitzah, aron kodesh and other necessities—a “tricky adventure,” according to Kayman.

Finally, they had to contend with another potential obstacle: getting folks past the idea of entering a funeral home on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

“There is a sadness to it,” concedes Sheck, “but it’s also a celebration of an individual’s life. It’s thinking outside of the box, and Chabad has taught us that—to think outside of the box.”

Brenda Goffen, who has been coming to Chabad with her husband for five years now, agrees. “A funeral home is a sacred space. Many of us have had to lay to rest friends and family there, but that’s part of life. So it didn’t feel so unusual.”

What did feel different was something else entirely: “Is there any place in the world where you could walk into a funeral home and smell the cholent bubbling?”

Goffen, a mother of two and grandmother of three, calls themselves “regulars.” She says when she first started attending, she knew two people; now she knows practically everyone.

“I’m 72 and coming to this later in life, but it’s been beautiful for us, really like a family.”

At the groundbreaking for the new building last fall are, from left, Marshall Kayman, Robert Sheck and James Herzog of Weinstein Funeral Home, with Chabad of Wilmette Rabbi Dovid Flinkenstein
At the groundbreaking for the new building last fall are, from left, Marshall Kayman, Robert Sheck and James Herzog of Weinstein Funeral Home, with Chabad of Wilmette Rabbi Dovid Flinkenstein

She specifically notes this year’s Simchat Torah celebration, dancing in and out of the funeral home, watching the children somersault across the floor, and running up and down the stairs to the basement getting all the food together. Chabad has “so much soul,” she stresses.

Peter and Nancy Kaufman enrolled their daughter, Julia, in Chabad’s Hebrew school when she entered first grade. She became a bat mitzvah last year, with a Kiddush sponsored at the storefront site in her honor.

As for the current situation, Nancy Kaufman notes that “it might seem a little odd on the surface, but it’s across the street and they needed the space.”

Her husband adds, “If you didn’t know it was a funeral home, you’d think it was a synagogue. There are plain colors, with a plain design and fabrics. It’s like a blank palette. The ark is there, the bimah; all the trappings from across the street are in there, and they are familiar.

“I think it was serendipitous, a mitzvah. The stars came into alignment. The rabbi has had this vision as long as we’ve known him, and now he’s able to build it. The fact that the funeral home was able to open its doors in the meantime ... it opened its doors to life.”

Flinkenstein, who has run Chabad of Wilmette for 21 years with his wife, Rivke, says Weinstein even allowed them use of an entire office suite in its basement.

As appreciative as the rabbi is, he looks forward to the new building’s completion, slated for March. Chabad is about $300,000 away from the total project’s cost of between $2.5 and $3 million.

He says the space will have a real presence, from Jerusalem stone and a sleek exterior to 18-foot ceilings and two-dozen stained-glass windows inside, “each on a theme central to Judaism and that leads to action. It will be an inspiring place for every Jew, a warm and welcoming place.”

Flinkenstein’s daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Moshe and Esther Leah Teldon, arrived this summer to lead youth programming and help jump-start a roster of activities: “While the concrete is being poured, we’re working on the inner foundation, the life and soul of the Chabad center.”

Kayman remains “thoroughly amazed at how well it’s all come about.”

“We feel we can only grow from this relationship,” says the Weinstein representative. “And we hope it will continue for many, many years.”