October 11, 1845, is the day noted by history as the first time a minyan (Jewish prayer quorum of 10) convened in Chicago. Within two years, the group that met that Yom Kippur day had organized themselves into the city’s first synagogue, and three years after that, the congregation had - as befits any self-respecting Jewish organization - split into two.
So fast was the growth of Chicago that, on the eve of World War II, its Jewish population had reached 270,000, making it the city with the third-highest number of Jews in the world, after New York and Warsaw.
Chicago, on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan and bisected by the river that shares its name, had received its first European settlers in the late 17th century, although it was not incorporated as a municipality until 1833. Its first Jewish immigrants apparently arrived during that first decade, from Bavaria.
Records show 20 Jews arriving in the town, some after brief stays on the East Coast, between 1840 and 1844, which was a period of anti-Semitic persecution in Germany.
By 1845, ten men are recorded to have met for Yom Kippur services in a room situated above a store on the corner of Wells and Lake Streets, just south of the river, inside today’s main business district, the Loop. Those men were: Benedict Shubert, Jacob Rosenberg, S. Friedheim, the brothers Julius, Abraham, Morris and Mayer Kohn, Harry Benjamin, Philip Newburgh and Mayer Klein. Newburgh and Klein led the services.
The same group gathered again a year later for the same purpose, before, on November 3, 1847, they declared the opening of Kehilath Anshe Maarav (Congregation of the Men of the West), which claims to be the first synagogue in the Midwest of the United States – certainly not the case if you consider Ohio to be part of the Midwest – and which is certainly Chicago’s first. It too convened in the same location, in the dry-goods store owned by Jacob Rosenberg and Levi Rosenfeld.
In 1846, the group purchased, for $46, six-sevenths of an acre within the existing City Cemetery, for Jewish burials. By 1849, KAM had hired its own shohet (ritual slaughterer) and Torah reader, and two years after that, in 1851, it opened its first permanent home, on Clark Street, at what is today the location of the Kluczynski Federal Building.
A school followed, in 1853. A year later, more religiously observant members of KAM split off and established the city’s second synagogue, Kehillas Bnai Shalom.
Come the Reform
After additional splits and mergers, the current-day heir to those two congregations is KAM Isaiah Israel, a large Reform synagogue, designed in Byzantine style, situated in the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood. (The synagogue’s website explains to potential visitors that it is “delighted to work with the United States Secret Service who provide security for President Obama's Chicago home,” and asks them to arrive with a government-issued photo ID.)
Many of the records of Kehilath Anshe Maarab were lost in the Great Fire of 1871, having been stored in the Cook County courthouse, which was destroyed. Another fire in 1874 destroyed its physical home as well.
The arrival of Eastern European Jews, mainly from Poland and Russia, in Chicago began in the late 1870s. Eventually, they constituted the majority of the city’s Jewish population. They settled initially in the Near Westside, in the area around Maxwell Street. The open-air market named for Maxwell Street remains popular to this day as a bazaar for second-hand items; during its heyday as a Jewish neighborhood, it had some 40 synagogues.
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