Closing Chicago’s ‘Lox Box’
A Windy City Jewish tradition for 50 years—bagels and lox, delivered to your door—may soon disappear
The same is true across Chicago, even though the region’s Jewish population is increasing. According to the Jewish United Fund’s 2010 Metropolitan Chicago Jewish Population Study, Chicago’s Jewish population has increased to 291,800 from 270,500 in 2000. However, the Chicago Jewish Star points out that the survey’s healthy number includes areas far from Chicago’s city core, which is home to the area’s older, established synagogues. In 2010, the paper ran a cover story about “non-Orthodox attrition,” reporting that a half-dozen Chicago-area synagogues were closing, merging, or moving. These changes reflect the aging of mostly Conservative and Traditional shuls, where lox-box fundraisers once thrived.
Orthodox synagogues are flourishing in the area, as the same Star article explains, but these congregations—as well as Orthodox day schools and yeshivas—are looking at larger-scale, more lucrative fundraisers, not labor-intensive, one-house-at-a-time lox-box campaigns. Today, these organizations are planning sporting events, concerts, and Chinese auctions to bring in funds.
Efrem Popel has chaired the Chinese auction at Beis Medrash Mikor Hachaim for about 10 years. He described this event as “a glorified raffle, which has raised as much as $30,000.” Popel sees no place for lox boxes with the younger crowd at his Orthodox shul: “The lox and bagel breakfast is of the previous generations,” he said. “It’s just not a draw for us. Our crowd would rather buy cookies, cake, and a Starbucks coffee on a Sunday morning.”
Fewer synagogues and organizations coordinate lox-box fundraisers. Costs are up. Sales are down. It’s harder than ever to find volunteers to pack and deliver the boxes. And the target audience is shrinking, and aging. To Stern, lox boxes that sell for over $25 are just too expensive for most people: “The cost of food has almost doubled, and many vendors can no longer provide free products,” she said. “It’s pitiful that some synagogues sell so few lox boxes. Why even bother?”
Still, Redfern suggests that lox boxes are worth the time and effort. Congregation Beth Shalom is one of the three largest Conservative synagogues in the area, with over 1,200 families. In March 2011, its men’s club sold a whopping 1,400 lox boxes, including over 500 that were donated to the poor. “Our lox box sales net a 30 percent profit and make the difference between having money and not having money,” said Redfern. “Without it, we couldn’t do scholarships, go to conventions, or bring in a speaker for a Holocaust program.”
When Redfern explains lox-box fundraisers at the annual National Federation of Jewish Men’s Club meeting, people from most regions haven’t the vaguest idea what he’s talking about; although similar campaigns exist elsewhere, the lox box holds a unique place in Chicago’s Jewish history. When Redfern explains that lox boxes can bring in a profit of between 20 percent and 40 percent, people pay attention.
But if larger congregations like Redfern’s Congregation Beth Shalom can maintain healthy lox-box fundraisers, the declining membershp and continued closures of many of Chicago’s non-Orthodox synagogues would seem to indicate that lox boxes are on the way out.
At the campaign’s peak in the 1990s, Congregation Kol Emeth sold 650 lox boxes a year. Fern Katz remembers: “They sold for around $18, and we had a 50 percent profit. But we have an older congregation; we didn’t have the drivers and runners. So, we ended lox box in around 2006.” In the end, she explained, “it was difficult to get people to work—numbers of sales had dropped to half, costs were up, and we didn’t want to charge more than $20.”
Manpower is a huge issue. Sandra Silverglade was an active participant in her Ilana Na’amat chapter’s lox box—one of the first Na’amat chapters to do one. “We stopped selling lox boxes about 15 years ago, because our babies had grown and women went to work,” she explained. “It made more sense for us to write a check to Israel and not do tedious work to sell a product.”
Silverglade laments the loss of camaraderie that accompanied the end of their Na’amat lox-box operation. “It was a way of bringing women together, a group thing. We’re less unified now,” she admitted. “Lox boxes created a closeness, a friendship, where we would help each other. We delivered packages and raised funds—and we had a blast!”
For the past several years, the sisterhood of Congregation Ezras Israel, a traditional synagogue on Chicago’s North Side, has considered ending its lox box. In the 1970s and ’80s, Ezras Israel packed around 1,500 people in three High Holiday services. Today, it is an aging shul of approximately 270 member units. Its lox box sales peaked at 500 boxes in the mid 1990s; they hope to sell 150 boxes this fall. Doris Rosenberg, 90, who chairs the sisterhood’s lox-box committee, explained: “Last year we netted around $2,700, a small percentage of our synagogue’s overall operating budget. But it helps.” Even the sisterhood’s indefatigable Pearl Glotzer, who sells 40 boxes on her own, cannot counterbalance the trend of lower sales. Glotzer acknowledged: “A number of people have passed away, so we lose out on those sales.” The synagogue may eliminate delivery routes, but it will keep the tradition alive, for now.
Tradition is at the heart of the lox-box culture, and people who love to do lox boxes insist that when their shuls merge or die, lox boxes will be the last thing to go. As Harvey Gold, executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom put it, “We’re going to sell lox boxes until we run out of lox.”
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