B’nai Jehudah’s story is one of peaks and valleys. One of our early challenges was keeping a rabbi steadily employed. This likely reflected limited budget, the frontier personality of the fledgling city and the stringency of the Congregation’s leadership.
B’nai Jehudah dedicated its first permanent building with fanfare in September 1875. In March 1876, the popular Emanuel Hess quit as rabbi to take a better-paying position in Columbus, Ohio. Congregants were sad to see him go after four years of stability under his spiritual leadership.
The Congregation was burdened by a mortgage on its new building and found itself without a rabbi after Hess’s departure. Nine hundred dollars per year was all that B’nai Jehudah could offer in the summer and fall of 1876 when it advertised for “a competent minister who is also able to teach Hebrew.” The temple stood empty during the High Holy Day season of that year as no rabbi had been hired.
Almost half of the forty members withdrew their support during this period without a rabbi and membership dropped to 22 families by early 1877. David Burgheim was hired as the Congregation’s “minister” and confirmed eight students, five boys and three girls, before leaving at the end of his first year.
Rabbi Ignatz Grossman was hired in 1878. He held the distinction as B’nai Jehudah’s first ordained Rabbi and had a “strong and melodious” singing voice. He was the only individual in our Congregation’s history to serve as Rabbi and Cantor at the same time. He made such a positive impression at Rosh Hashanah services in 1878 that B’nai Jehudah had attracted 28 new members by Yom Kippur, nine days later.
Rabbi Grossman’s tenure lasted two years and he moved to a congregation in Chicago in 1880. He was followed by Rabbi Elias Eppstein, another rabbi ordained in Europe. By the fall of 1880, B’nai Jehudah’s membership had grown to 90 families. Rabbi Eppstein proposed a fund-raising “fair” which lasted five days and was successful enough to raise nearly $5,000 that was used to retire the mortgage with a surplus left over.
The Congregation was thriving again.
(Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler z”l)
October 30, 2020