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Some history of Quincy’s Jewish Community

Quincy’s first permanent Jewish resident was Abraham Jonas, an English-born Jew, who prior to his arrival in 1838 had lived in Cincinnati with other members of the Jonas family, had moved to Williamstown, KY where he was merchant and representative in the Kentucky state legislature, and where he had been the Grand Master of Kentucky Lodge of Masons in 1832. Why Jonas uprooted his family and came to the wilds of Illinois remains unclear. Beginning as a carriage, chair, window, and paint merchant, Jonas quickly plunged into local Masonic and political affairs. In 1840 he was elected the first Grand Master of the Illinois Masonic Lodge and in 1841 he was elected to his only term in the Illinois legislature as a member of the Whig Party. Jonas has characterized as quick in perception, a brilliant debater, and a formidable opponent. It was during this one term that he met Abraham Lincoln and their political friendship was solidified. Historians have said that Jonas was Lincoln’s closest Jewish friend, and it was Jonas who helped propel Lincoln’s candidacy for President.

Two of Jonas’s brothers, Samuel and Edward, followed him to Quincy at the end of 1840 or early 1841. These three English Jews quickly blended into the small town, with Samuel becoming one of the founders of the Quincy Public Library. Abraham studied law and was admitted to the bar. His activities on behalf of the Whig Party resulted in his appointment as Postmaster of Quincy in 1849.

At about the same time the first wave of German born Jews began to settle in Quincy. Several had been peddlers and decided to settle down in Quincy. Men like David Hermann who arrived in 1846 and Moses Jacobs in 1847 became successful merchants. When recalling those early years, Moses Jacobs noted that by 1849 there were enough Jews to conduct high holiday services on an annual basis, usually in someone’s home. By 1851 the little community had collected enough funds to allow Edward Jonas to purchase a parcel of land overlooking the Mississippi River for a cemetery. By 1852 it was reported that “the Israelites of Quincy had commenced a congregational organization, by electing a Schochet…” When Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise made a one day stop in Quincy on July 16, 1856, he noted that “there are about 40 souls of the Jewish persuasion hailing from Germany, Poland and England. They do a flourishing business.” He also wrote that they would have a nice little congregation if they could overcome their business jealousy.

By the end of that year, those jealousies had been set aside as 26 families founded K. K. B’nai Abraham, and one year later Reverend Israel Worenski became their spiritual leader as Chazzan and Schochet. The congregation met in the third floor of the Jonas building at the southeast corner of Fifth and Hampshire, across from the town square. This “traditional” congregation grew as more Jews settled in Quincy because of its economic prospects. By 1859 Moses Jacobs reported that there were thirty members, or about 100 residents of all ages. Regular Sabbath services were led by the Chazzan, and the congregation supported the services of a Schochet.

Until this point there is nothing to show that Jews faced any kind of discrimination, and the onset of the Civil War acted to further integrate Jews into the life of the community. Lincoln appointed Jonas to the position of Postmaster, Jewish men enlisted in the military, and several of Quincy’s Jewish women helped to found and to activate the Needle Pickets to assist families of Union soldiers. However, there were stirrings of secession within the Jewish community. When the congregation met in 1861 to elect a Chazzan and lecturer, and a Schochet, Mohel, and Shamus, eight members, mostly Bavarians, threatened to leave. Differences were set aside and Nathan Hainsfurther, a resident of Winchester, Illinois, who attended high holiday services in 1861, said, “None of the greater congregations of the country could offer any more to the devout mind than is the case here. The place of worship is a nice hall supplied with everything necessary to a synagogue, and was very well attended.”

One year later the members of B’nai Abraham had collected enough funds to begin the process of building their own house of worship. Such a place was found across from Jefferson Square. Edward Jonas solicited more funds through the newspaper The Occident in which he noted 45 paying members comprising two hundred persons, a Chazzan and teacher, and “a location in a beautiful city of 20,000 on the banks of the Mississippi which offers a peaceful and prosperous home.”

The rift in the congregation had not healed and on October 18, 1864, seventeen members held a meeting in their place of worship to elect officers and establish a new congregation. These “reformers” wanted to break from the old ways and establish a congregation that reflected the American way. This congregation called itself K.K. B’nai Sholom, and by 1866 it was renting an old Baptist Church as its home.

Meanwhile, just prior to the high holidays in 1866, B’nai Abraham dedicated its synagogue. Designed to hold 200 persons, the sanctuary was 18 feet high, with seats on both sides of a central aisle, one for men and the other for women. The building was lit with gas and handsomely carpeted. The dedication was service was attended by both Jews and Gentiles, but noticeably absent were members of B’nai Sholom.

Perhaps in an attempt to placate the secessionists, B’nai Abraham in 1868 introduced an organ and choir into its services. But B’nai Sholom was already planning its own synagogue on Ninth Street between Broadway and Spring. None other than Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise dedicated the cornerstone on July 18, 1869. Just prior to this, in May 1869, B’nai Abraham suffered a mortal blow, when fire damaged its wooden synagogue. When Temple B’nai Sholom was dedicated on September 8, 1870, it literally towered over B’nai Abraham. Costing $25,000, this red brick structure followed a neo-Byzantine style of architecture, dominated by six story high Moorish towers. At nine stories in height, this building was easily recognizable in the Quincy skyline. Some traditionalists had left B’nai Abraham to become charter members of B’nai Sholom.

Reasonable individuals began to conduct behind the scenes negotiations, but it took Rabbi Adolph Ollendorf of B’nai Abraham to effect a merger. He gradually introduced reforms in B’nai Abraham and his eloquent speeches probably spurred the members to bring about a merger of the two congregations. On July 29, 1872, the two congregations passed resolutions of merger. The following Friday evening the first joint Shabbat service was held at B’nai Sholom, with the final Shabbat day service at B’nai Abraham the next day. Herman Hirsch wrote that "Peace, harmony and good will now exists among the members of the united congregations…for in union lies strength….”

This moment was the apex of Jewish life in Quincy. Social and economic forces in the wider country were having an effect. Quincy’s river traffic gave way to the railroad, Quincy’s was no longer a frontier community, and Quincy’s younger generation of Jews sought to make their fortunes and find their spouses elsewhere. Orthodox Judaism as a mode of worship for Quincy’s Jews had been cast aside in favor of Reform. The size of the Jewish community inexorably declined, and Rabbi Elias Eppstein, Quincy’s rabbi in the 1890s thought that the community was on the verge of death. But Congregation B’nai Sholom has survived, now numbering approximately 65 members, and its building, although changed in appearance, remain the second oldest continuously used synagogue west of the Allegheny Mountains and the oldest in Illinois.

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