Jews in Indiana

Authors: Timothy Crumrin and Sheryl D. Vanderstel

Although there is reason to believe that scattered Jews may have been present in Virginia and Maryland as early as 1621, the first acknowledged Jews in North America were twenty-three refugees from the political strife in Recife, Brazil. After being refused admittance to the Spanish-controlled islands of the Caribbean, they landed in New Amsterdam in 1654. With this began the long history of Jews in America. (Hertzberg: 17-19) Their numbers were never large and though they sometimes faced anti-Jewish laws and the open contempt of the more zealous among the Christian community, the few American Jews fared well among the relatively liberal attitudes of Colonial America and the young United States. Either by their own inclination or due to their small numbers, Jews as a group went mostly unnoticed in American society. Historian Jacob Marcus remarked upon their "relatively obscure" status and noted that the "typical Jew ... was not constantly conscious of being Jewish." (Blackwell: 314)

Jews have long been a presence in Indiana and the Old Northwest albeit very small. Two distinct phases and two different types of immigrants characterized Jewish migration into 19th century Indiana. The initial "wave" began as early as the 1760s when Jewish traders, businessmen, and land dealers instrumental in the establishment of early trade routes from the east into the Midwest. (Blackwell: 314)

The first Midwestern Jews were mainly American-born or "English," descendants of the Sephardim who made their way to the English colonies (in 1825 all but 3 of the known immigrant Jews in the Old Northwest were of "English" origin). They headed west for the same personal and economic reasons as any other immigrants. It was this scattered group that formed the core of Jewish "settlement," which was often highly mobile and seemingly disinclined to set out deep roots in any single place. (Wimberley: 9; Hertberg: 90)

This pioneer group was almost exclusively male. Long accustomed to being a distinct minority, few seemed to carry their faith on their sleeves. Many rather rapidly assimilated into the dominant "American" society, giving up many or all aspects of Jewish culture. This was partially the result of the paucity of other Jews in the area, but was also in keeping with the assimilationist tendencies of many of these early immigrants. A great many married outside their faith, again a result of there simply being few, if any, Jewish women nearby. (Blackwell: 314-317; Wimberly: 2)

Several early Jews rose to prominence in Indiana. Moses Henry and Isaac Levy served George Rogers Clark's effort to wrest the west from the British, Henry as a liaison with Native Americans, Levy as a physician and victualer. Samuel Judah, an eastern-born, Rutgers graduate, became a political force in Indiana. Emigrating to Indiana in 1818, Judah initially lived in Merom, but soon moved to more thriving Vincennes, where he began a long legal and political career. Embracing Andrew Jackson and the Democratic cause, although he later became a Whig, he served six terms in the Indiana House, eventually being selected Speaker. He was an early promoter of internal improvements and incorporated the Lawrenceville Plank Road Company. Like many of his brethren, Judah strode quickly onto the assimilationist path, marrying a Christian woman and raising their eleven children in her faith.

Other Jews moved more anonymously through the Midwest. Coming as peddlers and traders they moved throughout the region, often settling in the growing river towns. Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis attracted Jews along with other immigrants. In Indiana, Madison, and Vincennes all had Jewish settlers by the mid-1820s. Rising Sun's Jewish community was established in 1824. Terre Haute may have had Jewish settlers as early as 1818 and Messrs. Jacob & Levy owned a store there in the mid 1820's. (Karp: 2-3; Wimberly: 5-6)

But adding up all the Jews in the Midwest would not have been a time-consuming task. Their numbers small, their fields of endeavor limited, their gender the same, the early Jewish settlers presented a rather one-dimensional portrait of Jewish life and character. The vagaries of life in general and events in Germany in particular would soon change all that, and spark the flow of the second "wave" of Jewish migration to the Midwest.

The early 19th-century migration of German-Jews to the United States played a "decisive role in the formative period of American Jewry." (Barkai: xi) The Jews who left their homes in Germany to seek their shining vision of America migrated for many of the same reasons as their non-Jewish countrymen. The seeking of better lives, better economic conditions, and more freedom fueled a "migration fever" among Germans in general. Jews came to the United States for those reasons-- and others.

The 250,000 Jews within the borders roughly equivalent to those of modern Germany often found themselves living in difficult conditions. They faced open, sometimes virulent anti-Semitism, strictures on their economic activities, general repression, and a legally mandated inferior status. The economic condition of German Jews was often uncomfortable and difficult. Attempts were made to shut them out of their traditional, and often successful, trades. Their precarious economic condition, as well as social and legal restraints was the catalyst for immigration to America. There is considerable dispute about the number of German Jews to emigrate to America, but a figure of around 85,000-100,000 seems accurate. (Hertberg: 106) Jews were not usually allowed to just leave an area. In many cases they had to obtain a permit to emigrate. In some cases they had to pay a tax of 10% on their assets or complete compulsory military service. Sometimes, emigrants had to save for years or sell off their assets to raise funds for the journey. Between 1825 and 1844, 99% of those travelling to America had only 100-500 florins for their travel expenses and to begin their new American lives. (Rohrbacher: 152)

The coming of German-Jews was one of the three decisive factors, which transformed "Jewish life in Indiana." With them came traditions that sparked the other two factors: the establishment of successful Jewish businesses and the triumph of the reform tradition. (Wimberly: 7) Indiana and Ohio became one of the first states west of the Alleghenies to host permanent Jewish communities. (Blackwell: 316) If one "image" could be said to represent this earliest settlement phase, between 1825-1835, it would be the solitary Jewish peddler, who, on foot, horseback, or wagon, plied the rutted roads of the state in search of customers, with one eye on the present, the other seeking a future. Their "career" pattern was to peddle for a few years and then open a store. Then they would send for family members remaining in Germany. (Hertberg: 106)

This second era lasted from 1835 until at least the Civil War. It was the period in which families began to migrate. This, in turn, led to the change in settlement patterns and the character of Jewish "culture" in Indiana. The changeover to family immigration corresponded with the change in the demographic makeup of German outmigration as families began to transplant themselves whole to America. By the mid-1840s, Jews were establishing themselves in towns all across Indiana. Richmond, Terre Haute, Lafayette, and Fort Wayne became the homes to Jews. Areas that previously did not contain enough Jews to even form a minyan, established congregations, as in Fort Wayne which saw the formation of Indiana's first formal Jewish congregation in 1848. (Blackwell: 316)

Over this period many of the peddlers or other new arrivals plunged into commerce. They gave up the road for Main Street, opening retail stores or wholesale houses. Isaac and Samuel Kahn were merchants in Bloomington and Louis Frohman operated a dry goods store in Rushville. Men like David Klein in Lafayette and the Gimbel brothers in Vincennes made the successful transition to respected businessmen by opening general stores. (Wimberly: 8-9; Blackwell: 316)

The greatest contribution of German-Jews was to Indiana's Jewish cultural and religious life. With sufficient numbers to form a "community," intermarriage and assimilation decreased. Initially, the practice of the Jewish religion may have involved little more than keeping the Sabbath light in their houses. However, over time small groups began to gather in an individual's home to celebrate High Holy Days like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The German-Jews adherence to Reform Judaism (which allowed modifying the Law to meet modern conditions) allowed them to adjust to "American cultural patterns" and reformism's "allegiance to religious liberalism broke.... assimilation." From this point congregations were formed and Jewish self-help groups like burial associations and funds for widows and orphans grew. (Blackwell: 317; Wimberly: 9)

The strength drawn from ever increasing numbers allowed the Jews to feel like a community and carry on traditions, like the first Jewish marriage performed by a rabbi in the state in 1849, the year that Ernestine Wehle married Max Abeles in Madison. The first Jewish Congregation in the state, Achduth Vesholom, was formed in Ft. Wayne in 1848 with 26 charter members. The membership grew until, by 1854, they called their first rabbi and by 1859 converted a German Methodist church into an impressive synagogue. Evansville's first congregation, formed in 1857, grew to such numbers that they constructed a 600-seat temple. (Weinburg: 6, 22; Rudolph: 348-349)

It was Indianapolis, however, that was destined to become the center of the Jewish population of the state. But the community that was to be the home of more than 40% of Indiana's Jewish population grew very slowly. The first Jews to the city were Alexander and Sarah Franco and Moses Woolf. Seven years after their arrival, 14 Jewish men gathered on November 2, 1856 to approve the constitution and by-laws of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. Shortly thereafter another 31 men approved them. Many were merchants, but there were also physicians, a druggist, an optician and the deputy clerk of Marion County among them. They were a mixed lot, life-long US citizens and a few recent immigrants, married and single. Among them were 6 sets of brothers. But most were young, in their 20's and 30's. A vibrant Jewish community had begun to take shape. The congregation met in temporary quarters for 2 years until finally acquiring a room in the Judah Block. Some say that the Christian son of the influential Vincennes lawyer Samuel Judah felt such pride in his Jewish heritage that he rented the group a room at a discount. Whatever the reason, the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation found a home. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati formally dedicated the synagogue on October 24, 1858. The next day a celebration took place at Parisette's, a popular local restaurant. Guests included Rabbi Wise, Jews from outside the city, members of the press and the 60 Jewish residents of Indianapolis. The following day the Indianapolis Daily Citizen carried a feature story entitled "Hebrew Festival" In it the reporter described the evening and ended the article by saying "This is destined to become a large church, as our Hebrew population is increasing in proportion with the growth of the city." In fact, the city was so proud of its Jewish population that when the congregation began collecting money to construct their first synagogue, non-Jewish residents also made donations. (Endelman: 8-19)

Originally, the Indianapolis community was nominally orthodox. All though only a small percentage actually supported the synagogue, most kept kosher tables and attended worship on High Holy Days. This was also true in most Jewish communities in the state. By 1862, a more liberal faction seemed to move the IHC towards the Reform movement led by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati. Wise founded the Union of American Hebrew Congregations with a $10,000 donation from Lawrenceburg businessman Henry Adler in 1873. In 1875 Wise founded the Hebrew Union College and by 1880 the influence that Rabbi Wise had on Indiana congregations was very strong. The majority of synagogues around the state followed Rabbi Wise's "Reform fellowship." This was due in part due to the background of most of the Jews in the state at the time and in part due to the proximity of the Rabbi. This was soon to change. (Rudolph: 349)

The wave of eastern European Jewish immigration that began as a trickle in the early 1870's changed to a torrent in the 1880's and the face of Judaism changed in Indiana. These new immigrants were totally unlike their predecessors. Most were impoverished, poorly educated and spoke only Yiddish. Most importantly they were fiercely traditional. There was absolutely no possibility of assimilation into the existing Jewish communities in the state. The Reform faith of the earliest Jewish citizens was completely at odds with the newcomers. To them Reform Judaism was worse than no Judaism at all. (Rudolph: 350-351)

The evolution of the Jewish community in Indianapolis was typical of the happenings statewide. These new immigrants settled in the working class south side, away from the middle-class Jewish community of the city's north side. They were employed as factory workers or street vendors. They followed cultural practices that set them apart. Most importantly, they strictly adhered to their Orthodox faith. Each ethnic community began to found their own congregation. In 1870, the recent Polish immigrants formed a prayer group that became Sharah Tefella. In 1884, the Hungarians organized Congregation Ohev Zedeck and by 1889 the Russian community founded Knesses Israel. The poorest of the south side Orthodox congregations was Ezras Achim, known as the "peddlers congregation" because so many of the city's peddlers belonged there. In 1903, those unwilling to align with the ethnic synagogues or the IHC founded the United Hebrew Congregation. In 1906, a small group of Sephardic Jews settled in the city. Originally from Turkish Macedonia, they spoke Ladino, not Yiddish. These newest immigrants founded Congregation Sephard of Monastir in 1913. (Rudolph: 350-352)

This ethnic alignment repeated itself all over the state. Evansville native and German born Jews founded Reform Congregation B'nai Israel in 1857. The immigrant eastern European citizens established the Orthodox B'nai Mosche in 1873. Finally, the Conservatives, unhappy with either alternative founded Congregation Adath Israel in 1883. (Blackwell: 326) For smaller Jewish communities disintegration rather than growth began. In rural area, villages and towns numbers of Jewish citizens began to decrease. Without the ability to form congregations and the community that accompanied them, Jewish inhabitants left for areas were such things could be found. Established, although small, Jewish communities such as Ligonier and Wabash dwindled away as the 20th century progressed. By the Depression, 80% of Indiana's Jewish population lived in the five largest cities. (Blackwell: 322; Rudolph: 340-350)

Burial and benevolent societies played a significant role in the Jewish communities throughout the state. Women formed societies within the congregations to serve the Jewish community. Evansville's Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society is typical of such an organization. The members, required to be in good standing in the community, stated their purpose as " benevolence, …mutual assistance …in case of illness and in doing the funeral honors in case of death." (Blackwell: 326) Similar societies were formed in congregations statewide.

Jewish women were also involved in helping the Jewish community outside of their congregations. In Indianapolis, the members of the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society were the first to respond to the needs of the impoverished immigrants of the south side. They distributed food and clothing to the needy. Even coal and money were distributed if the weekly household visitor deemed it appropriate. (Endelman: 90) But the overwhelming problems of these new citizens soon overwhelmed the Society. The National Council of Jewish Women, founded in 1896, was organized in the manner of a Progressive social welfare agency. In 1904, Emma Eckhouse led the NCJW in founding the Nathan Morris House in the south side of the city to help the new immigrants adjust to life in America. Here, the Council organized language classes, as well as general education classes, a library, medical services, emergency financial aid and legal aid. At School No. 6, they built a playground for the largely Jewish student body. The Nathan Morris House was the center for recreational activities and entertainments arranged by the Council. (Rudolph: 351-352)

In the 20th century Jewish life in Indiana began to change. After federal legislation restricted immigration from Eastern Europe in 1921, new Jewish immigration slowed. The immigrant population became "Americanized," gained education and job skills, and entered the middle class. Intermarriage between ethnic groups became acceptable as Jews came together. Yiddish faded into the past and ethnic identities blurred. Regional newspapers like the Indiana Jewish Chronicle, established in 1921 and the Jewish Post founded in 1933, focused on the Jewish constituency as a whole, rather than by ethnic or religious differences. Conservative congregations such as Beth El Zedeck, in Indianapolis added another dimension to Jewish faith and community in the 20th century. It was a thriving community that came together to aid their fellow European Jews as they faced a threat never before experienced. (Rudolph: 352-3)


Barkai, Avraham, Branching Out: German-Jewish Immigration to the United States, 1820-1914 (New York, 1994)

Blackwell, Carolyn, "Jews" in Robert Taylor and Connie McBirney, eds., Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience (Indianapolis, 1995)

Erez-Boukai, Irit, "On the Banks Of The Wabash: Jewish Community Life In Greater Lafayette, Indiana, 1840-1960." Indiana Jewish History (August, 1996)

Hertzberg, Arthur, The Jews in America (New York, 1989)

Karp, Abraham, The Jewish Experience in America (Waltham, MA, 1969)

Koren, Herman "From Generation to Generation: A History of the Terre Haute Jewish Community." Indiana Jewish History (February, 1986)

Rudolph, L.C., Hoosier Faiths (Bloomington, 1995)

Sussman, Lance Joseph, The Emergence of A Jewish Community In Richmond, Indiana (Fort Wayne, 1981)

Weinburg, Elizabeth Shaiken, "Hoosier Israelites On The Ohio- A History Of Madison, Indiana's Jews." Indiana Jewish History (July, 1991)

Wimberly, William Ware, The Jewish Experience in Indiana Before the Civil War: an Introduction (Fort Wayne, 1976)