Jewish congregation keeps century-old schoolhouse alive

CRYSTAL LAKE – From schoolhouse to synagogue, Marian Michaels has been integral in much of the Ridgefield School Building’s 100-year history.

Michaels, who first moved to Crystal Lake in 1959, served as a substitute teacher in the two-room schoolhouse until it closed in 1980. It was not long until she returned, this time as a founding member of the McHenry County Jewish Congregation that purchased the building in 1981.

“Never in a million years,” Michaels said of thinking her classroom would become a place of worship. “When the synagogue bought the building I couldn’t believe it. But it has a great charm to it and how wonderful that it is still being used after 100 years.”

Now Michaels, who was there for the building’s transformation, will have a chance to celebrate the building’s 100th anniversary and the congregation’s 35th anniversary this month. The congregation is hosting a series of events between April 25 and April 27 to commemorate both the building’s and congregation’s slow growth from humble beginnings to a community staple.

As the lone rural schoolhouse still standing from the more than 140 in McHenry County 100 years ago, many believed the building would be abandoned and left to crumble after it closed in 1980 from decreasing enrollment as families left farms for more populated areas.

But the slowly growing area Jewish population saw it as an opportunity to create a community close to home and end the multiple trips to an Elgin synagogue that many families made for services and religious schooling for their children, Michaels said.

“When we first started there were probably six families,” Michaels said. “It’s just been so exciting to see the growth of the congregation through all these years.”

Ellen Morton, education director for the congregation, said that growth has led to roughly 85 families at the synagogue, all who had a part in making this month’s celebration possible.

Some members have delved into the history of the building, chronicling it from the fire that burned down the original single-room schoolhouse in 1913 to its reconstruction as a brick two-room schoolhouse in 1914 and expansion in the 1950s.

Many of the youth members researched the congregation and explored the crawl spaces of the building, even finding a mural of the building from the 1940s, Morton said.

“It’s been a real fun and educational time for us the last few months,” Morton said. “The concept of building community has always been of vital importance to Jewish people.”

The two major events of the celebration are scheduled for April 26 and April 27. On April 26, the congregation will hold an anniversary program starting at 7 p.m. with a silent auction and appetizers and dessert at the synagogue at 8617 Ridgefield Road.

On April 27, the celebration will focus on the building from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with tours of the facility and a panel of historians discussing the building. Lunch will also be served.

Herb Franks, another original member, said the celebration is an important milestone for everyone involved, noting it is also the 10th anniversary of Maralee Gordon as the congregation’s rabbi.

While Franks is happy to take time to reflect on the past and enjoy celebrating the growth of the congregation, he said he hopes the building will be part of the congregation’s past and it will outgrow the facility in the future.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to see what has happened over the years. I feel like a proud father,” Franks said. “We’re bringing up a whole new crop of leaders and my sincere hope is we outgrow the building. But until we do, it is our home.”

Gordon said she has enjoyed watching the congregation grow from her time as a member and education director to her return as the rabbi 10 years ago. She expects to see many old members and familiar faces who have moved away during the celebration.

“This has always been a do-it-yourself congregation. Everyone chips in,” she said. “They work together as a team. It’s great to see.”

Community members interested in the celebration can contact Morton at mcjcoffice@yahoo.com or 815-455-1810.

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