Our Story

How we started and how we’ve grown.

Our story grounds us in our past and guides us in the present.

As recounted by past president and Beth Emet historian, Sophie Black z”l

Beth Emet began on a cold night in January 1950 when founding Rabbi David S. Polish z”l, was told that he could not lead services at his Reform congregation, Temple Mizpah.

Outspoken for his support of the State of Israel, Rabbi Polish sought a new spiritual home. The rabbi, his wife Aviva, and their two children joined with 40 other families to establish the first Reform congregation in Evanston.

Under the leadership of national leaders Rabbi Peter Knobel z”l now Rabbi Andrea London, Beth Emet has evolved into a leading Reform congregation.

Our full name, Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, refers to freedom of speech from the pulpit, a right Rabbi Polish was denied by his former synagogue.

Keeping with the congregation’s commitment to freedom and liberty for all, champions of progressive ideas have found a welcome place on Beth Emet’s bimah, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1958.

We have great leaders, and we are all leaders.

Each of our Rabbis have bestowed their wisdom, love, and guidance upon Beth Emet. Our Rabbinic leadership is a reflection of our needs and values as a congregation. Rabbi’s build upon each other’s wisdom and legacy to help us make our community and the world around us a better and more spiritually aligned place.

Explore the history of the rabbinical leaders of Beth Emet.

Rabbi David Polish was the founding Rabbi of Beth Emet and its spiritual leader from 1950 until his retirement in 1980. Rabbi David Polish came to Chicago as the rabbi of Temple Mizpah as the Associate Rabbi.

At that time anti-Zionism was very intense within Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Polish found himself caught in the crossfires of Zionist and anti-Zionist beliefs, Beth Emet became a breakaway congregation.

Beth Emet, under Rabbi Polish’s leadership became known as a new kind of Reform Congregation, which talked a good deal about the return to tradition, of commitment to Jewish national ideas, to Zionism, and particularly to the concept of freedom of the pulpit so that a rabbi in our congregation did not feel inhibited — did not have to feel inhibited about maintaining a position on Jewish values or on Universal values for that matter.

Rabbi Polish was also the founding president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and a founder of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, an organization whose statement of principles he drafted.

Rabbi Polish brought Beth Emet through the period of defining what it means to be a Reform Jew. As a congregation, and a broader movement, we figured out what was important to us and why we existed as a reform Congregation.

Rabbi Polish was a contemporary pillar of the Reform Rabbinical movement, he set a foundation for the Beth Emet community as a rabbi which then Rabbi Peter Knobel continued to expand.

In 1958, Beth Emet had the privilege of hosting a lecture series.

During the lecture, we hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Theodore Bikel, and Dr. Abba Lerner. We knew how important it was to house MLK that when he was prohibited from getting a hotel room anywhere in Evanston, one of our very own congregants housed him in their home.

(Fun Fact: each lecture cost 50 cents!) 

Rabbi Knobel served Beth Emet, first as senior and then Rabbi Emeritus, from 1980 to his passing on August 20, 2019. He was a man of many accomplishments from scholarship on the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah to prayer book editor and leader of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

For the long-time members of Beth Emet, he was best known as a learned and kind person who thought of others first and did his best to improve the world around him.

“For a man of such vast accomplishments and prodigious gifts…one might expect a certain amount of conceitedness or vanity. Yet Peter Knobel was a mensch who was supportive of, and placed the greatest emphasis on, the accomplishments of others, not his own,” said Rabbi Andrea London.

“I can think of countless examples of his publicly praising others; it seemed he never missed an opportunity to elevate those around him.”

He co-chaired the CCAR Project, Lay Involvement in the Development of Liturgy, sponsored by the Lilly Endowment and the Nathan Cummings Foundation and he chaired the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Ad Hoc Siddur Editorial Committee which produced Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Movement’s new prayer book.

Beth Emet played the role of guinea pig while Rabbi Knobel was the head of this Mishkan T’filah project. Beth Emet had the privilege of trying out and giving feedback on some of the many adaptations that were eventually added into the new prayer book.

Under Rabbi Knobel’s leadership, we as a congregation focused on strengthening our relationship to each other and to the community at large. We established a Chevra Kadisha, (a practice that previously had only been practiced in Orthodox communities), and practiced Tahara (religiously preparing the body for burial). To this day, the Progressive Chevra Kadisha performs this service anonymously as g’mitlut chesed (an ultimate act of lovingkindness) to honor the dead and to comfort the living who remember them.

During this time, our Men’s group and Synagogue Sisterhood were very strong forces of community and connection for Beth Emet members. Not only did we strengthen our relationships with each other, we also strengthened our relationship to social action and the broader community in Evanston.

He published papers and articles on such subjects as Assisted Suicide, Cloning, Reform Zionism, Reform Judaism, Dietary Laws, Spirituality, Rites of Passages, Judaism, and Homosexuality and Same-Sex Marriage. He also served as a member of the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative on Peace in the Middle East and was the Past Chair of the Institute for Reform Zionism. He was also the editor of Mishkan Moeid: A Guide to the Jewish Seasons and Navigating the Journey: The Essential Guide to the Jewish Lifecycle recently published by the CCAR Press.

Read more about Rabbi Knobel z”l

Rabbi Andrea London is a nationally recognized Jewish leader who has served at Beth Emet since 2000 and was named the congregation’s Senior Rabbi in July 2010.

Rabbi London is deeply engaged in all aspects of congregational life, including worship, lifecycle events, counseling and support, adult education, youth education and programming, social action, and interfaith relations. She strives to teach and encourage individuals and communities through contemplative, social, and spiritually based actions.

Social justice activism is an integral part of Rabbi London’s rabbinate. She has led several social action trips, including two congregational trips to hurricane-devastated areas on the Gulf Coast, where Beth Emet teens and families repaired homes and community centers and forged relationships with Reform Jews and members of a local church.

In April 2013, teens from Beth Emet and Second Baptist Church in Evanston, led by Rabbi London and colleagues from Second Baptist Church, spent their spring break on a six-day “Sankofa” bus journey to civil rights sites throughout the southern United States. (Sankofa is a West African word meaning “go back and get it.”) During the trip, the group explored the history of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, using various racial and religious lenses through which we experience the world to understand the roles that race and racism play in our world and how we might be change agents in the quest to create a more equitable and compassionate society. Rabbi London is committed to continuing the work of racial justice.

Rabbi London has long promoted learning, dialogue and action on Israel and Zionism. She has been a strong proponent of congregational participation in the Reform Movement’s EIE high school program in Israel and regularly invites speakers from diverse backgrounds to offer challenging perspectives on Jewish/Muslim and Israeli/Palestinian issues. She is the chair of J Street’s rabbinic cabinet.

Rabbi London has also worked to build bridges between Chicago-area Jews, Christians, and Muslims. She has chaired the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs’ Jewish-Muslim Community-Building Initiative that works with the Chicago-area Muslim community to build relationships and understanding through educational, artistic, and religious activities and to stand up for each other when our communities face discrimination, threats, intimidation and acts of physical violence.

Jewish spirituality plays an important role in Rabbi London’s rabbinate. She is a graduate of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s rabbinic cohort and its Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training program. She has initiated a variety of programs on spirituality at Beth Emet, including an ongoing Shabbat afternoon spirituality group and a yoga minyan.

Read more about Rabbi London

Growth from 2017, Onward

Beth Emet officially welcomed the member families of Temple Menorah in 2017 after their Rogers Park synagogue on the corner of California and Sherwin, had ceased operations. Founded in 1946, when many progressive Jews left the South Side and moved north, Temple Menorah menorah served the local Jewish community in Rogers Park for nearly 70 years.

Similarly, Temple Judea Mizpah (TJM), a warm and welcoming Reform Jewish community, was exploring options for a new home after nearly 60 years in serving the local communities in Skokie.

Each congregation brought members who were both warm and welcoming and added to the depth and breadth of the Beth Emet community.  Also included in the combinations was an expanded Torah scroll collection, a Holocast Torah from Czechoslovakia, the symbolic flame sculpture that was the signature landmark for the TJM building and a stained glass window that was given as a gift for the retiring TJM rabbi, Karl Weiner.

Former Temple Menorah and TJM congregants have both been terrific additions to our community, serving on the Board and in other leadership roles, contributing to the Mitzvah Appeal and other campaigns, singing in the choir, bringing the long-standing TJM tradition of entertainment provided by The Players, attending services, and supporting other events. We are fortunate to now have both congregations woven into the fabric of Beth Emet’s diverse and multi-generational membership.

Beth Emet’s congregation of mindful Jews committed to social action and making a difference in the world is rooted in the origin of our gathering.

Our story is why we’re committed to the deeply internal mindfulness work that will help us grow as individuals within our group and how each of our rabbis have created a foundation for the next.

Whether you’re just walking into our story or have lived it, you’ll see that Beth Emet’s story is one of grit and ingenuity. Our community continues to firmly believe that all voices have the freedom to speak and engage in respectful discourse.

We believe and live this to our core.

Become Part of Our Story

Membership Info