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By Eileen Lavine for Moment Magazine
Today, with nearly 300,000 Jews, the Chicago metropolitan area is home to the third-largest Jewish population in the United States. But to many Chicagoan Jews, it has the feel of a small town. “Really, it is l’dor va’dor in the sense of commitment to community — it’s a large community that operates like a smaller one,” says Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. “People know each other, people know where you went to school and what synagogue you belong to.”
Chicago’s nearly two-century-old Jewish community had meager beginnings. The first Jews came mostly from Germany starting in the 1830s, back when Chicago was a muddy frontier settlement that had just been incorporated as a “town.” In 1837, Chicago graduated to official city status, and soon Jewish merchants were selling their wares door to door and opening small clothing and grocery shops. Benedict Schubert earned enough as a tailor to build the city’s first brick house; Henry Greenebaum was elected alderman in 1856; and city clerk Abraham Kohn presented the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln with an American flag inscribed with Hebrew verses.
On November 3, 1847, about 20 Jews gathered in the dry-goods shop of Rosenfeld and Rosenberg to establish the Midwest’s first Jewish congregation, Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (“The Congregation of the Men of the West”), known as KAM. Its members worshipped in a small room above a clothing store until 1851, when they dedicated Chicago’s first synagogue on North Clark Street. The temple’s first rabbi was the ultra-Orthodox Ignatz Kunreuther. After several mergers, it is now known as KAM Isaiah Israel, a Reform congregation located in the historic Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood, south of Chicago’s downtown.
In 1859, 15 organizations, including some B’nai B’rith lodges and women’s groups, formed the United Hebrew Relief Association, the forerunner to other service, health and charitable groups. New synagogues popped up throughout the city; there would eventually be more than 100 synagogues in the metropolitan area. After the Great Fire of 1871, Jews moved to the city’s South Side, which became the heart of the prospering Jewish community.
The Windy City was a beacon for immigrants — Swedish, Irish, British — and the German Jews mingled with them on an equal level. Because it was a young, developing city, there were “fewer barriers and hindrances for new arrivals,” says Libby Mahoney, curator of “Shalom Chicago,” a 2012 exhibit at the Chicago History Museum. German Jews integrated into Chicago society, finding success in banking, real estate and insurance. Others built careers in medicine and law. It was less easy for Eastern European Jews, many of whom arrived in the 1860s. Some 55,000 poor, Yiddish-speaking immigrants, mostly from Russia and Poland, came to the Maxwell Street area in the Near West Side, bringing Eastern European dress and practice. As artisans, peddlers and factory workers, they at first occupied a different tier of the social hierarchy than the already-established Jews.
The Jews of Chicago were always at the forefront of commerce. During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Jewish immigrants Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichel founded Vienna Beef, building a thriving business selling hot dogs, tongue, bologna and sausages. Other Jews opened department stores and businesses that prospered nationally, including Florsheim, Spiegel, A.G. Becker, the Boston Store, Hertz, Crate and Barrel, Sara Lee, B. Kuppenheimer, Brunswick and Inland Steel. They also gave back: Julius Rosenwald of Sears Roebuck fame — influenced by his rabbi, Emil G. Hirsch — became known for his philanthropy, building thousands of schools for black students in the Jim Crow South and helping to found the Museum of Science and Industry. His brother-in-law, Max Adler, founded the Adler Planetarium.
Top left: Maxwell Street market. Bottom left: Athletes at the Chicago Hebrew Institute c. 1915.
Top right: Bessie Abramowitz. Bottom right: Julius Rosenwald.
In a city portrayed by novelists such as Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair as a prime example of industrial capitalism, Chicago Jews were among the leaders of the trade union movement. One Jewish immigrant, Bessie Abramowitz, found work in the booming Chicago clothing industry, and in 1910 she organized a walkout at Hart, Schaffner & Marx, a company opened in 1887 by German Jewish immigrants, over poor wages and working conditions. This led to a strike involving 40,000 workers and eventually to the formation of Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, whose first president was Sidney Hillman, Abramowitz’s husband.
Chicago’s Jews have been among the country’s most illustrious public figures. Among them are the late Nobel Prize winners Saul Bellow and Milton Friedman; a Jewish mayor, Rahm Emanuel; Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who succeeded long-serving Sidney Yates; and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker — a member of the family that created the Hyatt Hotel chain. Other notables include Henry Horner, governor of Illinois from 1933 to 1940; developer Philip Klutznick, who served as secretary of commerce under President Jimmy Carter; former federal judge Abner Mikva; and Newton Minow, former chair of the Federal Communications Commission. And the Near West Side was the childhood home of bandleader Benny Goodman and Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.
“Chicago’s Jewish community is robust. Within it can be found a broad continuum of organizational models, religious movements and Jewish perspectives,” says Hal Lewis, president and chief executive officer of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Today, he says, there are rich options, from early childhood education to adult learning, both in the city and in its suburbs, where many Jews now live. He lauds the Jewish community for its “willingness to experiment and take risks with new and creative forms of Jewish expression.”
Nasatir, a self-described “Chicago chauvinist,” says Chicago’s strong sense of Jewish community is partly due to the Federation. “There are other large cities where a lot of Jews live, but there is not necessarily a Jewish community,” he says. Judy Finkelstein-Taff, head of school at Chicago Jewish Day School, agrees. “I tell everyone the weather might be cold,” she says, “but the community is warm.”