Temple B'nai Israel, founded in 1904 ~ 5665

This is the first in a series of periodic communications designed to report news and comments relating to the 100th anniversary of the Founding of Temple B'nai Israel in Aurora, Illinois. Each issue will include a segment of our history and also alert you to important centennial events in 2004.

What is a Synagogue?

In many respects, a synagogue is an amalgam of its members and the Rabbi that serves and leads them. As we enter 2004, Temple B’nai Israel will observe the one-hundredth anniversary of its founding. During good times and bad and a multitude of wars, our synagogue survived 100 years in serving its community.

The history of the early years is in many ways locked in the memories of those who have left us. What we do know is that some time in 1904, members of about 20 Jewish families assembled as a group for the first time to pray together. The exact date is unknown, but if one presumes that the celebration of the High Holy Days sparked that first gathering, the date of Rosh Hashonah that year was September 10. For the next 23 years, worship and education were conducted in rented quarters located on the upper floors of buildings in downtown Aurora. During that period Barnet Yellin, a local resident and scion of the well known Yellin family, served as Ba’al Tefilah and religious school teacher for many years.

In the early years the congregation was known as B’nai Avrohom, “Sons of Abraham”. A perusal of Aurora City Directories in the early 1900s does not show that title in the list of religious organizations, but in the mid-1920’s and for several years later the name “Sons of Jacob” appears in the Directories.

The first contracted Rabbi arrived in 1912. The records indicate his last name was Spiro. His first name is lost to memory. Along with rabbinical duties, he was the first dispenser of kosher meat, a schochet. In those early years through the 1920s kosher meat responsibilities were an important part of the rabbinic job description.

In 1914, Rabbi Shapiro was retained. Again, there is no record of his first name. A ketubah for the Aurora wedding of Morris and Sarah Weisman performed in January 1918 carries his signature but the first name is indistinct.

A disturbing event in 1916 more firmly united the Jewish community and led to the eventual establishment of a formal organization chartered by the State of Illinois in 1923. and to the subsequent construction of its own building in 1927. High Holiday services in 1916 were held in Dillenberg Hall. While services on the first day of Rosh Hashanoh were underway, the owner of the space indicated that the congregation had to leave early because he had rented the facility for a dance that evening. The angry reaction of those in attendance led to a movement, initially led by Charles Sheer, that resulted in the formation of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Aurora (Y.M.H.A.). Leadership, in addition to Sheer, included Dr. Samuel Klein, Abe Adler, Julius Zidell and J.M. Custer. Dues were set at 25 cents per person per week and a new hall was rented to be used for Y.M.H.A. purposes.

A summary of events in the 1920s will appear in the next issue.

Aurora and the world at the turn of the century

 Aurora was first settled in 1833-34. The power of the Fox River led to the establishment of water powered mills on its bank. In 1837, the first manufacturing enterprise was established, and by 1900, manufacturing was an important contributor to the growth of the community. Of special importance was the founding in 1849 of the Aurora Branch Railroad, which later was named the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the subsequent establishment of the car fabrication and repair shops in the city in 1856.

Oral history indicates that the first Jews came to Aurora around 1850 as part of the German-Jewish emigration to the U.S. in that decade. Few of these original immigrants settled for long. Perhaps four families were present at the 1904 founding. The most notable of these families was the Alschulers, who placed their imprint on the City for almost 150 years. However, their involvement in the cohesive growth of the Jewish Community, with a few exceptions, was minimal.

The Jewish families that founded the synagogue largely reflected the huge Jewish migration from Eastern Europe that began at the turn of the Twentieth Century. These Jews often arrived as peddlers or as craftsmen, such as shoemakers. The peddlers, once settled after a few years, opened retail businesses.

In 1904 Aurora’s population approximated 25,000. A review of the Aurora City Directory for that year lists about 20 Jewish businessmen in the central section of the city. Most were engaged in businesses such as men’s and women’s clothing, shoes and shoe repair, notions and dry goods. Three family-owned scrap yards also appear in that directory.

Outside Aurora the year 1904 was characterized by the following events:

  • The Russo-Japanese War was the lead story in the Aurora Beacon News throughout the year.
  • Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for and won a second term after ascending to the presidency after the assassination of the incumbent William McKinley in 1901.
  • The construction of the Panama Canal began.
  • New York's first subway opened.
  • The U.S. Government budget totaled $580 million

The Aurora Beacon News, September 1904, carries a feature Article titled “Velvet Looms on the Feminine Horizon.” Samples of fashions shown appear below. In the same issue a downtown retailer advertises a men’s shirt sale at attractive markdowns. (Right)