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The History of the Jewish Community of Danville, Illinois

By Sybil Stern Mervis

In the dawning years of the new millennium, there are those quietly observing the waning of the once vibrant Jewish community in Danville, Illinois. It’s too early to say that the community is nearly extinct, but with only 50 to 75 Jewish residents living in Vermilion County in 2002, it’s foreseeable that the city may soon be without any of the religious group whose members’ shops once lined the downtown business district and whose children led their classes as outstanding students.

Jewish people are known to have lived in Danville since at least 1850, when the U. S. census listed two traveling salesmen, Jacob Alschuler and Samuel Blum, as residents of a local hostelry.

In the 1800s, Jews emigrated from the ‘Old World’ in search of the freedom and security promised them in America. German Jewish people came in droves in the mid1800s. Eastern European Jews flocked in great numbers from the 1880s until 1920, in an effort to escape the czarist tyranny and religious persecution. Russian Jews were victimized by pogroms and threatened with 25-year conscription into the Russian army and forced conversion to Christianity. The men fled by the thousands, coming to the shores of the “goldene medina” to work in sweatshops or as peddlers, hoping to save enough to bring over the rest of their families.

In the 1860s, the Jewish peddlers who had traveled the region with packs on their backs, or by horse and wagon if they were lucky enough to own one, began to consider the retail possibilities of Danville. These men were known to the Indians as “hard-boiled egg men” because they carried jars of hard boiled-eggs for nourishment in an attempt to maintain their dietary laws.

The overall population of Danville grew to 1632 people by 1860, and Jewish immigrants began to open stalls or shops in the downtown area, which was then on east Main Street. Joseph Goldsmith, Louis Platt, Harry Kahn, Ike Stern and Aaron Basch were several of the storekeepers who came to Danville between 1860 and 1880. All had dry goods stores on east Main or the unit block of north Vermilion.

Two of the Gimbels, Isaac and Jacob, whose family later established the famous Gimbels Department Store in New York City, had a dry goods store at 23-25 N. Vermilion in Danville in 1891. The Gimbels had seven sons, and after finding success in the fur-trading outpost of Vincennes, Indiana, they were able to establish a business in Danville, before moving on to Milwaukee and ultimately Manhattan. The Jewish businessmen in Danville before the turn of the century were primarily from Germany, except the Meis’ who came to Danville in the 1890s from Alsace-Lorraine.

As conditions worsened in czarist Russia and the great wave of eastern European migration set sail for the shores of freedom, many poor Jewish immigrants arrived at ports on the eastern seaboard. Organizations were established to help them head westward if they didn’t have relatives or “landsleit” to go to. In some instances, Jewish organizations for immigrant labor, such as the Industrial Removal Office, placed these immigrants in towns needing a particular skill or trade, sending a tailor, for example, out on the train to a small town haberdasher who needed someone to make alterations for his customers. These “greenhorns” spread across the land looking for any place where they, too, could achieve the American Dream, even though it meant being away from family and familiar customs.

For centuries, Jews had been forbidden to own land in Russia, so they had been peddlers or craftsmen, a business or skill they could carry with them. There were Jewish people living in Hoopeston and Homer, and several lived in Attica, Veedersburg, and Williamsport, Indiana. They were, however, almost always shopkeepers or craftsmen. Rarely did any Jewish man move to the Midwest to take up farming.

As early as 1891, The American Israelite newspaper, published in Cincinnati by Hebrew Union College, chided Danville’s Jewish residents for not organizing a Jewish house of worship: “Danville, Ill. - A friend, writing to us from this thriving little city, says there are fifteen Jewish families and a number of young men live there (sic), all prosperous, intelligent and pleasant people. Yet they have no burying ground, no place of worship, no Sabbath-school, make no pretense of observing any of the Jewish holidays, and, in fact, as far as outward indications go, might be classed as heathens. That this state of affairs is not a very creditable one we have no doubt they will readily admit, and that it ought to be remedied they will soon convince themselves if they will meet and talk the matter over... we know that the Israelites of Danville are merely thoughtless and procrastinating, and trust that this reminder, which is kindly meant, will awaken them to action.”

Contrary to that article, some Jews in town were known to observe the holidays, because of notices in the Danville papers in 1885, 1887, and 1890, to wit: “A number of Israelites closed their business houses today to celebrate the Jewish New Year.”

By 1900, according to The Israelite: “In Danville, Ill., the orthodox Jews, mainly Polish or Russian, have organized a congregation. The Jews of the Reform class, though numerous and well-to-do, are without a religious or communal organization of any kind.” There are no records of the Orthodox Jews establishing a congregation and yet we know that they did meet and pray together in rooms above their stores or in people’s homes.

The population of Danville kept increasing, as the Old Soldier’s Home expanded, and the brickyards, the coal mines, and the railroad yards grew. By 1900, Danville’s population was over 16,000, more than ten times the population of 1860, with a prosperous future predicted.

On October 2, 1902 twenty-six Jewish citizens, mainly Reform-minded German Jewish storekeepers organized a “permanent congregation” and elected officers. The president of the Reform Congregation was Solomon Plaut, whose family had moved to Danville from Homer; vice president was Gus Greenebaum; treasurer David Ries; secretary Alphonse Meis, and trustees Joseph Basch, Henry Levin, and Percy Platt. All of these men were first or second generation merchants in Danville.

In the late 1800s, Jewish shopkeepers such as Alphonse Meis and his relatives, Aaron Basch and his several family members, Joe Goldsmith, Harry Kahn, Louis Platt, Solomon Plaut, Ike Louis, Gus Greenebaum and Ike S. Levin all had stores around the area of Main, Hazel, and Vermilion streets.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, some businesses including Greenebaum’s Big Store, failed, while others like Louis and Straus and Meis’ expanded and absorbed their competitors. As the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants to Danville increased, many “mom and pop” stores were established on Jackson and Hazel streets in the blocks close to Main Street. Tailors named Azoff and Kamile, shoemakers named Simon and Kardon, as well as scrap dealers named Cohen and Barnard , auto parts dealers named Cohen, Fagen and Smith, shoe salesmen, jewelers, and pawn brokers all had stores in the area.

Many Jewish merchants established retail stores in the early years of the 1900s and as the business district moved away from east Main and north onto Vermilion Street the Deutsches, Jules Straus, David Ries, Reichmans and others established businesses in the new district, some of which prospered through the third quarter of the 20th century.

As their business enterprises succeeded, these men moved their families to neighborhoods close to work, that is, to the substantial homes in the 300 and 400 blocks of North Walnut, Hazel, and Vermilion streets. Some lived further west on Madison or Harrison, and one, the Basch family, had a home near “bankers’ corners”, i.e. in the area of North and Gilbert streets.

Jewish women began to become involved in the community, although their social life was mainly with their fellow Jews. Mrs. Rebecca Goldsmith and Mrs. Sarah Plaut helped to establish the Children’s Home. Mrs. Plaut’s daughter, Mrs. I. H. Louis, was an early member of the Clover Club.

Gus Greenebaum was a founder and the first president of the Chamber of Commerce. Louis Platt was a founder or early investor in the water company and the power company and a developer of the Temple and Daniel buildings, instrumental in the growth of the community. 9The Temple building was demolished in 2001).

Upon settling in America, often the first official act of a nascent Jewish community was to establish its own cemetery. One of the first acts of the loosely-joined Reform and Orthodox Jewish communities in Danville came from a Jewish fraternal organization known as B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant), which, in 1905, purchased a number of lots in Blocks 20 and 20A of Spring Hill Cemetery on east Voorhees street establishing a Jewishly-consecrated burying ground. There are approximately 250 former members of the two congregations buried there.

The German or Reform-minded Jews were the first to raise enough funds to build a house of worship of their own. After holding services in the Odd Fellows Lodge, the Woman’s Club, and over the shops of their members for several years, they were ready for their own building. The fortune and charitable inclinations of Alphonse Meis made the erection of a Reform temple a reality. The congregation was incorporated on December 15, 1909 as the Reform Congregation of Danville. Alphonse Meis along with Jacob Deutsch and I. H. Louis signed the official papers of incorporation for Temple Beth El (House of God).

An imposing brick and stone building was built on a lot on the southeast corner of Fairchild and Walnut streets purchased from Rita Glasscock for $2000. Charles Lewis was the local architect. The Temple was closed by 1972, after the demise of the congregation. The building was donated to the local Boy Scouts, then sold to a teacher of martial arts. The Temple structure was demolished in the spring of 1999 to make way for a pharmacy.

On April 14, 1914, Rabbi Sid Berkowitz wrote that “the congregation christened (sic) its new house of worship” with three rabbis participating. Henri A. Meis, then just a youngster, presented the key to the temple to Jules Straus, the chairman of the building committee. The congregation was comprised of tradesmen who were mainly central European immigrants or their descendants, families such as Meis, Straus, Strauss, Stern, Deutsch, Levy, and Platt were active in this congregation. The congregation never hired a fulltime resident religious leader. Their rabbis were often rabbinic students sent from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, Eastern European, Russian and Polish tradesmen, whose religious leanings were Orthodox, was attempting to organize a congregation to meet their own religious needs.

Although no records have been found, the Orthodox Jews were said to have met in homes and rented halls to hold services until September 20, 1915, when Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel ( People of the Fellowship of Israel) was incorporated as a Conservative Jewish congregation.

In 1920, led by Daniel Cohen, building committee chairman and later the first president of the congregation, the group purchased the old German Methodist Church on the northeast corner of Harrison and Washington streets for $6600. On Wednesday, September 9, 1920, “the new temple (sic) was consecrated and dedicated in the presence of a very large audience and indications are that the congregation will not only be large but influential as well,” ... according to a Danville newspaper.

Unfortunately, Daniel Cohen was murdered on January 19, 1922, by a “highwayman” while walking one evening from the Terrace movie theater to his home where St. James Methodist Church now stands. The gunman stepped out from behind a tree near the residence of “Uncle Joe” Cannon. Dan Cohen’s siblings and heirs, Harry, Edna, and Joseph Cohen, who operated Danville Auto Parts, all lived in Danville, and later conveyed the building to “Congregation Anshe Cneses (sic) Israel, a religious society for one dollar.”

Rabbi Sam Mishkin of Chicago served as religious leader of the Conservative congregation in the midtwenties. He lived here with his wife and two sons in 1927 and 1928 and must have been the first rabbi ever to live in Danville.

The group of Orthodox worshippers grew tremendously with the addition of two large families, the Smiths and the Margolins, who moved to Danville in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Two Smith brothers who had married sisters brought their large families to town and then urged Abe Margolin, a meat packer, from Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania, who brought his wife and six children to Danville.

Still, only the Temple could maintain a Sunday school for the children. The Synagogue may have had a resident Rabbi Smith living in Danville in the 1930s. The Temple never had a fulltime rabbi.

In February 1930, the Orthodox congregation, with J. Simon as president; Israel Azoff, secretary; and trustees A. K. Gordon, Morris Fish, and Alex Winer, purchased the former First Christian Church building on the southeast corner of Walnut and Townsend streets. The building had been built in 1896 and had “lost its visibility as a Christian church” by 1928. This building, just one block north of the Reform temple, served the congregation until 1992.

When the Margolin family needed a “schochet” (kosher butcher) in the late 1930s, they brought Rabbi David Blaustein to Danville. Although never ordained as a rabbi, he served as their religious leader whenever an ordained rabbi could not be hired. A man of simple needs, who had lost his Roumanian family in the Holocaust, he first lived in the basement of the synagogue.

Rabbi Blaustein is remembered with fondness by older members of Congregation Israel. He taught them to read Hebrew when they were children, prepared them for their Bar Mitzvahs, and was known in the neighborhood of the 800 and 900 blocks of north Walnut street for his sweet manner and his pockets full of candy for the children.

Though just a block apart where they worshipped, the Jewish people from the two congregations, were miles apart socially. Traditionally, the German Jewish shopkeepers and tradesmen, earlier arrivals to America, were more assimilated and felt superior to the Eastern European Jews who were more likely to be less formally educated and to work with their hands. In religious customs, the Orthodox or Conservative Jews of Congregation Israel were more likely to be found in “schule” on all holidays, more likely to keep a kosher home, and more likely to speak Yiddish in their homes and recite their prayers in Hebrew.

There were several Jewish social and charitable organizations where the two groups might socialize for a worthy cause. One was B’nai B’rith, which was organized in Danville early in the century and eventually had a chapter for women also. The B’nai B’rith was a fraternal and charitable organization, which became the parent of the Anti-Defamation League, begun in the first decade of the 20th century by Bloomington attorney Sigmund Livingston to fight anti-Semitism. Another early organization was the Ladies Mite Society at the Temple. The Society helped raise funds to build the temple building, saw to it that the indigent Jews in town were fed or buried and arranged for social events for the Temple membership. The custom of “taking care of our own” is deeply imbedded in the Jewish culture.

For the high school age Jewish youth, there was, from the nineteen thirties through the fifties, a central Illinois organization called by the acronym IFJY, the Illinois Federation of Jewish Youth, made up of the handful of Jewish teens from Bloomington, Peoria, Danville, Quincy, Champaign-Urbana, Springfield, Decatur, and one or two from Gibson City or Mattoon. Socialization for young people could be difficult as their parents wanted them to date and marry within their religion and the opportunities to meet other Jewish young people were limited unless one could travel or afford to go to summer camp or to the university.

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