1904 to 1929
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Much of the contents of this history have been taken from our Aurora Jewish Community Centennial Celebration 1904-2004 document. Thanks go the those dedication and work went to compiling this historical record.
Chapter 01: The Beginning 1904-2004
Chapter 02: The 1920's
Chapter 03: The 1930's
THE HISTORY OF THE AURORA JEWISH COMMUNITY
THE BEGINNING: 1904-2004
The Birth of A Synagogue
In many respects a synagogue is an amalgam of its members and the Rabbi that serves and leads them. During 2004 Temple B'nai Israel will observe the I 00th anniversary of its founding. During good times and bad and a multitude of wars, our synagogue has survived 100 years of serving its community.
The history of the early years is in many ways locked in the memories of those who have left us. We do know that in 1904 members of about 20 Jewish families for the first time assembled as a group to pray together. For the most part they were not among the first Jews to settle in Aurora. Probably the first Jewish families in Aurora came from Germany in the 1850s during the first major European emigration to the United States. This group was largely influenced by the Reform Movement which originated in Germany and their worship and prayer differed from the Orthodoxy of Eastern European Jews.
Descendents of these Jewish newcomers prospered as they established retail businesses and entered professions such as law. Most of this group moved elsewhere over the following decades until there was only a handful of families in the area at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
The most notable of those that remained was the Alschuler family, a group of brothers, uncles and cousins engaged in law, retailing, and public service. For example, attorney Sam Alschuler served on the Illinois Court of Claims and later as Democratic Leader in the State House of Representatives. In 1900 he was the Democratic Party candidate for Governor of Illinois.
Another Alschuler, George, was mayor of Aurora in 1902 and was later Democratic minority leader in the State Senate for several terms. Although not deeply involved in the founding of the Synagogue (only a few joined as members over the ensuing years), some of the family, member and non-member, played important roles in the campaign to build the first Temple building in the 1920s and a few spouses occupied important leadership roles in the women's organizations. As Jacob Alschuler stated in a 1975 interview, though not formally affiliated with the organized Jewish Community, "We always knew we were Jewish, always were told we were Jewish, and we had to live better on account of that."
According to Alschuler, by 1900 most of the German Jews who came to Aurora in the 1850s had moved elsewhere and probably only four families remained. In addition to the Alschulers were the Hirshes, the Felsenhelds, and the Goldsmiths (not related to the current Goldsmith family). The gravestones of these early families can be found adjacent to the Alschuler family plot in Spring Lake Cemetery in southeast Aurora.
It was the next great wave of immigration, that of Eastern European Jews in the late Nineteenth Century and the early 1900s that brought together, in more or less formal prayer, a group of about twenty families living in Aurora in 1904, then a city of 25,000. Settlement of Jewish merchants in smaller communities was common in those days. Many began as peddlers, driving a horse led wagon to rural communities to sell clothing, dry goods, kitchen utensils, etc. After a short period they often settled down and opened a retail establishment in the community that dominated the area of their peddling. Once settled their relatives and friends often joined them.
The exact date of the first formal assembly of congregants 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. Services were held in Diveky Hall, the first of many rented quarters that would be occupied in downtown Aurora for the next 23 years.
It was at this location in January 1905, that the first torah was dedicated, as noted in this brief news story from the Aurora Beacon News, dated January 30, 1905:
Later in 1905 services were moved to a hall above Podolsky's Clothing Store. The site quickly came to be named "Herring Hall" reflecting the after services refreshments that were served.
Who were these 20 founding families? There is no record available except for that brief 1905 news item. However, researching the 1904 Aurora City Directory can give us a hint of who they were.
Not listed in the 1904 City Directory was the name of Barnet Yellin He appears in the 1905 edition listed as a Peddler. Yellin served as Ba'al Teflllah and religious school teacher for many years and was the founder of the furniture business, run by his descendants, that continues in downtown Aurora to this day. He and his family played a major role in shaping the religious orientation of religious services, which in the early years through the mid-century can be described as orthodox or traditional.
In the early years the congregation was known as B'nai Azrohom, "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-1920s and for several years thereafter we are listed strangely as the Sons of Jacob", a name that never appears in any congregation related documents.
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 rabbinical job description. He stayed for a year and was responsible for the establishment or regular Saturday services. 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. Both rabbis probably periodically came from Chicago to perform their duties; there is no record of their residence in Aurora in those years.
It was a disturbing event in 1916 that led to the Jewish community being more firmly united and eventually to the establishment of a formal organization chartered by the State of Illinois in 1923 and to the subsequent construction of its own building in 1927. On the first day of Rosh Hashanoh in 1916, as services were being conducted in Dillenberg Hall in downtown Aurora, 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 congregant Charles Sheer, that resulted in the formation of the Young Men's Hebrew Association of Aurora, abbreviated as Y.M.H.A. The reason for the choice of that name can only be a matter of speculation. One suggestion, made years later, was that the founders felt that by emulating the name of the Young Men's Christian Association, outside funding which partially supported the YMCA, might also be available from community and social agencies. [Tantalizing support for this thinking later surfaced in the minutes of 1922 meeting of the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society (later renamed the Sisterhood) which reported that a request for funding its social welfare activities was turned down by the Social Service Federation. The minutes state that. .. " the Secretary of this Federation. . . suggested they speak to the leaders of the YM.H.A. which gets a $4000 budget . . . on the strength they have heavy expenses keeping up the Rabbi and Shale ". Research has not uncoverd any information about this organization. There is no record of it in Aurora and it may have been a Chicago based organization. Its name never again appears in the minutes.]
It should be noted that the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society was founded in 1903, one year before the founding of the Temple! More about this organization and the other women's organizations will be found in chapters to follow.
In 1916 Y.H.M.A membership dues were set at 25 cents per person per week. In 1920 they were raised to 50 cents a week.
The initial 1916 Y.M.H.A.leadership in addition to Sheer included Dr. Samuel Klein, Abe Adler, Julius Zidell and Jacob M. Custer, who was to later become the first president of the newly chartered congregation in 1923. Membership 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. In 1917 the United States entered the First World War and a number of young Jewish Aurorans volunteered to serve. The congregation voted an Elgin watch to all the members answering the call. Later the Y.M.H.A. was moved to a hall above Fisher's Bakery on Broadway in downtown Aurora where it remained until 1920. Dues were raised to 50 cents a week, the religious education of children was regarded as a separate item and those who had children in Cheder were taxed accordingly.
The Hebrew Congregation, under the emblem of the Bnee [sic ]Abraham yesterday celebrated the dedication and installed the Torah in the city of Aurora for the future use of the congregation which may be used under this emblem. The officers that took charge were S. Barn at, president of the day, N. Ginsberg, treasurer, and Mr. Podoisky, secretary. The celebration was held in Diveky Hall. Every person was honored with the first letter of their name being written down in the opening and closing of the Torah. These letters were sold to the highest bidder. The sale brought in $150.
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. Other major employers included: The Aurora Boiler Works, American Well Works, Stephens Adamson Mfg. Co. Also, the Aurora, Elgin and Chicago electric railroad provided relatively quick transportation to Chicago. As noted in a history of the city at the turn of the 2 01 Century, published in 1967, Aurora was not exactly a backwater village. Aurora "covered six and a quarter miles... Manufacturing plants in excess of one hundred employed 15,000 people and produced fifteen million dollars worth of goods annually. . .Thirty miles of brick and asphalt lined the streets and a hundred miles of cement were laid as sidewalks. There were fifty miles of sewers and 65 miles of water mains. . .The town boasted of eight hotels, six banks, three theaters, three daily papers, five parks and 42 churches. . .Aurora became a shopping center for a radius of 25 miles. ..Aurora was established as the most important and flourishing community in the Fox Valley".
The social and political context of the year 1904 is represented by the following:
The Russo-Japanese War was the lead story in the Aurora Beacon News throughout the year. This major conflict between Japan and Russia was over territories in Korea and Manchuria. The war ended in 1905 with a victory for Japan.
Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for and won a second term after ascending to the presidency following the assassination of the incumbent, William McKinley in 1901.
U.S. population was 82 million compared to 270 million today.
Life expectancy for males was slightly over 48 years versus 75 years today and the growth of female life expectancy has been even greater.
The construction of the Panama Canal began.
New York's first subway opened.
The U.S. Government budget totaled $589 million.
Bleeding was still used for the cure of illness.
The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
AURORA AND THE WORLD AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY
CHAPTER II: THE 1920's
A DECADE OF GROWTH
Lincoln Avenue Temple
Dedicated in 1927
Formalizing the Organization
As the third decade of the century began congregational leaders continued to express a desire for a structure of its own for prayer and socializing. But first the organization had to formally organize itself. It was not until December 12, 1923, that a charter as a non-profit organization was obtained from the State of Illinois. The planning process had begun at least a year earlier as by-laws were drafted to guide the governance of the Y.M.H.A. and officers were chosen.
The earliest existing minutes of meetings of the congregational Board of Directors are dated January 11, 1923. Interestingly, the wording of the minutes suggests the members viewed their organization as a club or lodge. The members of the Board are often referred to as "brothers." In fact the first paragraph of the minutes, referring to minutes of a previous meeting includes a correction that the Club should loan" some money to the entertainment committee. Moreover, the group voted to reinstate a member and waived the "initiation fee" of $10 and instead charged a reinstatement fee of $5. It was at this meeting that the Committee on By-Laws reported on its progress. The president is identified as J.M. Custer. Also Rabbi N. Rubenstein is mentioned in the minutes as making a suggestion on a particular topic. The minutes are submitted by A.L. Adler, secretary.
Two weeks later the Board met to review the constitution and by-laws drafted by a committee led by Dr. Samuel Klein. In addition the Board voted to "charge the Jewish Woman's [sic] Council and the B'nai B'rith rental for the use of the hall."
On February 15, 1923, the Board unanimously approved the constitution and by-laws and directed the Secretary to communicate with the Illinois Secretary of State to secure a charter for the Y.M.H.A.
A month later the Board met to nominate and elect IM.H.A. officers. J.M. Custer was elected president, R.H. Hoffman, vice president, A.L. Adler, secretary, and J. Zidell, treasurer. Three directors were elected by the Board: M. Podolsky, M. Kuhn and J. Goldsmith. Four additional directors were appointed by the president: Max Goldsmith, C. Sheer, Dr. S. Klein, and C. Swimmer.
Highlights from Board minutes of the first official year of the Y.M.H.A follow.
April 15 - a committee appointed to plan "an entertainment" for the purpose of raising funds for a Temple building.
May 8 -Five teams appointed to "see" delinquencies. The president appoints a Building Committee composed of the entire Board.
May 10 - Discussion of potential lots available in Aurora.
October 1 1 - Report that $3,500 in pledges received from Yom Kippur night appeal.
November 8 - C. Swimmer reports he has secured a lot on Lincoln Avenue. $100 put down as an option on the purchase, with total price (including a house) of $8,500. Board unanimously approves.
November 22, 1923 - "Dr. S. Klein appointed to speak to the ladies of the Jewish Woman's Council in regard to the Y.M.H.A., objecting to the privilege of putting the Sunday School Children whose parents are not members of the Y.M.H.A. to be put on programs in preference to other children of members, where the Y.M.H.A. is to bear the expense of this program." [sic]
Hebrew Ladies Aid Society -
The Women's Role
While the 1921 minutes of the Board of Directors refers to the "Jewish Woman's Council", this group actually called itself the "Hebrew Ladies Aid Society." The name was later changed to the Jewish Ladies Aid and was generally referred to in subsequent years as the "Ladies Aid." (A few decades later the membership voted to call the organization The Sisterhood.) The first meeting minutes available, dated April 14, 1921 , begin with a tribute to Mrs. Harris Cohen upon her retirement as president of the organization. Mrs. Cohen's husband, Harris Cohen,was a shoe merchant who was one of the 1904 founders. By retiring after 18 years in the presidential position, the beginnings of the Ladies Aid date the founding of the organization to at least 1903, one year before the beginning of organized Jewish worship in Aurora!
Mrs. S.G. Annenberg took on the presidency. Some years before she had married into the Annenberg family, which was one of the early Jewish settlers in Aurora at the time of the founding of the congregation. The Annenbergs were in the scrap iron business.
In addition to raising funds through the sponsorship of dances, picnics, raffles, carnivals, etc for the support of the Y.M.H.A., the organization acted as a social agency for the Jewish community, providing monetary support to families in need, investigating family problems, particularly relating to the needs of children, and sometimes providing monetary support to needy rabbis in Chicago. Before providing help one or more members would often make an on-site visit to assess the situation, reporting their findings and making recommendations for action and/or support to the membership.
Here is a selection of activities reported in the minutes of the Ladies Aid in the early 1920s:
. "A motion was made by Mrs. Morris Kuhn to pay the YM.H.A. the money we promised them when they were in debt, providing they are still in debt."
. "Mrs. A. Bowman reported on a Jewish family in need and $5. 00 will be sent to them."
. "We have decided to have Mrs. Eder call on the widow when in Chicago, and if she sees it necessary, to give her $10. Mrs. J.J. Rubens suggested there be no shnorring at our meeting - the 50 cents each member pays should take care of all expenses and charity."
. "Mrs. Goldsmith spoke of an orphan boy who was with the Lindenberg family and who we bought an overcoat on account of cold weather, and he not having any. This lad is to
be put in care of the Katz family. Mrs. Podoisky and Mrs. Joe Swimmer were appointed to investigate this case."
. "Mrs. B. Barnat reported a family who needed investigation with reference to looking after the children, as to education, etc."
. "A motion was made and carried that we send a committee to the Y.M.H.A. meeting to make definite arrangements regarding the care of transient beggars, or shnorers, or whatever you might call them."
. "Mrs. J. Goldsmith tendered a bill for $6.75 for a suit purchased by our Rabbi for Jack, the orphan boy. We have agreed to pay half of this bill and the Y.M.H.A. to pay the other half."
"They were always on a very formal basis. My mother, with all her friends, called them all 'Mrs'. It was 'hello Mrs. Zidell' or 'hello Mrs. Katz'. I never knew them by their first names."
During the 22 month period covered in this sample of activities the following fund raising activities and support of congregation members, including parties for children, were discussed and planned by the members of the Ladies Aid.
Our first dance
12 volunteers to bake cookies for the men's installation
Masquerade Ball (later cancelled because it conflicted with the "Cotillion Dance to be given by the Y.M.H.A.")
May Day party for children and a dance for the young folks and adults in the evening
Picnic at Phillips Park
1924 began with the election of new Y.M.H.A. officers. D. Sherman assumed the presidency. Rabbi Nathan Rubenstein reported 22 children enrolled in the chader. During the rest of the year the Board wrestled with finances, particularly addressing the issue of fund-raising to pay for the cost of the lot and to meet the general expenses of the congregation. Considerable time was spent on discussions regarding collection of unpaid dues and securing and collecting pledges. Rummage sales, dances, and a Jewish Theater party in Chicago were among the fund-raising approaches selected.
Herman Hoffman was elected president for 1925. At the first meeting of the year the Board minutes include the following: "Rabbi Rubenstein then says a few words to President Hoffman on the welfare of the Club, especially of the non-cooperation he has received, of the new Temple and the need of more children in his classes." [Sic] No further remarks relative to this statement appear in the minutes.
The year 1925 began with considerable attention to purchasing a local church building in place of building on the Lincoln Avenue lot that had been purchased in 1923. After much discussion the Board voted to not pursue the church building purchase. The minutes then report that Building Committee chair Dr. Samuel Klein resigned from the committee. On January 12 a special meeting was called to revisit the church purchase option and "after much talking on [the] subject it was decided not to reconsider, but to start active work on building our place on our own lot." Visits to various congregations for the purpose of viewing their structures for ideas ensued.
On February 12, 1925, the Board minutes record a special meeting "called to consider hiring of new Rabbi, as Rev. Rubenstein handed in his resignation to take effect as soon as we have a new man, but until only after Passover." A search committee was appointed. At the regular meeting a week later the Board discussed various applications for the position and voted to invite the "Kankakee Rabbi here again" at a salary of $50 a week. A month later we learn that the Kankakee Rabbi turned down the offer. The following then appears in the minutes:
"[The] President informs members that Rabbi Rubenstein wishes his position back as he is not going into business as he decided at first. It was unanimously voted to hire Rabbi Rubenstein to his previous position "with instructions to improve."
It was in the mid-1920s that reflections of current congregational members begin. Here are some of the memories of growing up in Aurora and attending services as recalled by individuals who were children at that time.
"As you entered the synagogue there was a small room and in the center was this large, interesting bench. It was black leather and round with a pillar in the center. You could sit with your back on the pillar and play."
"We had Hebrew School and Rabbi Rubenstein was a little hard on the fellows, especially the older ones who used to cut up. He had a stick and he would hit them on the knuckles for acting up. At some point Rubenstein, as the kosher slaughterer, became the partner of William MindelL They had a meat market on the south side of New York Street, east of Broadway, near the alley."
"I remember a Purim when I was King Ahasuerus and had on a purple-colored gown and a crown. I think Zelda Swimmer was the Queen. Her father was partner with Julius Zideil in the furniture business." ~ Sol Weisman
"I remember Marty Franch, Lee Block and the other boys kidding about Rabbi Rubenstein. He was an austere guy with a ruler who would knock the *** out of the guys all the time when they weren't behaving." ~Norman Stein
"My memories of the Temple, of Jewish families, was that when a son was bar mitzvahed the women would all get together and come down and help the mother prepare the food. There were no outside caterers." ~ Marvin Katz
"I remember Rabbi Rubenstein's old house on Spring Street where we would go to practice Temple plays. His daughter was a teacher in the east side schools and was in charge of certain plays." ~Irene Goldman
By April 1925, building committee issues are a prim topic. Doctor Klein, who apparently has returned to th Building Committee, announces he will "introduce plan for Building of the Temple." But three weeks later th board is discussing the purchase of Park Place Churd Most Board members are favorable, although some ke members indicate that "it will be cheaper to build, tha buy, and have what you want." Despite this favorabl support for purchase no further mention of this opporti. nity appears in the minutes and for the balance of th year attention was focused on the plans for the building.
The minutes of the October meeting include the fo lowing: "It was announced that on Friday, October 23 and every Friday after, services will be held in English b Rabbi Rubenstein."
President Hoffman was re-elected to serve his second consecutive term in 1926 and Rabbi Rubenstein ir stalled all officers "very impressively." The final minute for 1925 indicate that "Vice President Goldsmith a pointed to see that Rabbi sees all new Jewish people i community and have them sign Pledge card" [apparentl for the building fund].
During the first meeting of 1926 the financial repo for 1925 was presented. The deficit for the previous ye was reported as $608.04. Nine directors were appointe Max Goldsmith, Dr. Samuel Klein, Joseph Swimmei Julius Zidell, Charles Sheer, Morris Podolsky, J.L Annenberg, George Alschuler, and Morris Kuhn.
On July 1, 1926 a special meeting was convened t discuss the status of the building project. Dr. Klein, Buik ing Committee Chairman, ". . . turned over the bids an specifications of the building to the President. . .and Br( George Alschuler, chairman of the [building] financ committee spoke on the financial side" (Alschuler ha served a term as mayor of Aurora some years before" The Board then voted "to act on finances and execut contracts."
Dr. Samuel Klein was elected to a one year term a president in 1927, probably in recognition of his labors i moving the congregation toward its first permaner home, which was then under construction. Under h leadership numerous committees were at work an many fund raising functions for the building were unde way. For example, at the first Board meeting of 1927 RabI Rubenstein reported a profit of $338.92 earned from tw days showing of the motion picture "Faust" at the Stran Theater. Subsequently the sum of $69.85 was gained fror the auction sales of "baskets."
In September of that year a loan of $15,000 was at thorized by the Board in order to assure the completio of the building that year. A report issued in January 192 a few months after the Temple's dedication, listed th total expenses of the Temple, including the lot and its fu nishings as $48,110. A mortgage of $17,856 remaine while unpaid pledges totaled only $713.00.
The new Temple building was dedicated late in 1927. On January 12, 1928 the Board of Directors voted its thanks and appreciation to the Building Committee. The members of this committee recognized for their efforts "for the zeal and sincerity they have shown in building this beautiful Temple and social center" included the following, many who will be familiar to older congregants: J.D. Annenberg, J. Swimmer, Morris Kuhn, Max Goldsmith, Dr. S. Klein, A.M. Hirsh, Charles Sheer, Sam Fridiker, Lewis Cohen, Irving Lisberg, and Harry Aront. Finance Committee members recognized were: Geo. W. ALsehuler, Abraham Block, Charles Sheer, Sam Fridiker, L Barnat, J. Zidell, and N. Ginsberg.
Shortly thereafter a library of Jewish books was established and the purchase of cemetery was put on the agenda. However, regarding the latter, a Temple cemetery was not established until 1951.
"The dedication of the Temple in 1927 was a big occasion for the community. It was held in the basement social hail with a lot of people attending. I remember Al Hirsh from Hirsh Clothiers was master of ceremonies. Also there was George Alschuler, president of Broadway Savings and Loan." ~ Sol Weisman
"I remember at the High Holidays half the congregation was outside schmoozing while the other half was inside praying. The Temple at that time was the center for the whole Jewish population. To raise funds for any charityyou went to the Temple. Andyou had poker games, parties, bridge games, pre-school in the basement." ~ Norman Stein
"We, the Rubins, Hayers and Sverolins were some of the few families that came from Naperville to Aurora. My sister would drive us to Sunday School at the Temple on Lincoln Avenue and then wait for us at her friend Edna Skom Scopes house. For many years we drove to Aurora for Temple, Sunday School, and social events." ~Alfred Rubin
It should be noted that during this early period officers were nominated by Board members and were elected by them as well. This is in contrast to the current practice of the total congregation voting on a slate recommended by a Board nominating committee. In the Fall of 1928 William Gordon was elected by the Board as president, defeating William Kuhn by a vote of 20 to 12.
In October 1928 the board, by unanimous vote, agreed to terminate the services of Rabbi Rubenstein within 60 days. Two days later a "special meeting of the Ladies and the Men" voted by closed ballot, 51 to 45, to terminate the Rabbi. A search for a new rabbi was then launched. In December the Board voted to engage Rabbi Carl N. Herman for a two month trial. (Unfortunately within six months the Board authorized a search for a new rabbi be undertaken). The Board also approved an offer to Rabbi Rubenstein to serve as shochet and chazzan at the rate of $25 per week.
In April 1929 attorney Arthur Puklin was unanimously elected president of the congregation by the Board. Six months later, for reasons unknown, at a Board meeting on October 1 2, 1929, Puklin was re-elected by acclamation. At this meeting monthly dues were set at $5.00 for married members and $2.50 for single members. Only a few days later the great Wall Street Crash occurred and the economy was crippled for the next eleven years as the Great Depression set in.
At its final meeting in 1929 the Board approved the recommendation that Rabbi Irvin Melamed be elected rabbi of the congregation.