A Moment in our History

Thanks to our 150th Celebration Committee members, each week, we will share pieces from A Moment in our History series for a deeper understanding of where we came from, and where we are going in our future. We hope you enjoy these brief glimpses into our past!


B’nai Jehudah and Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow

Many of us learned the children’s song A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight which tells the legendary story of the origin of the great Chicago fire of 1871.

In late 1870, just weeks after the congregation’s founding, the ladies of B’nai Jehudah formed an auxiliary called the Hebrew Ladies’ Relief Society. It was likely the precursor of our Sisterhood organization. These charitable ladies supported the congregation and the less fortunate in our community. They began a systematic program of almsgiving that continued for many years.

The Hebrew Ladies’ Relief Society planned the congregation’s first fund-raiser for early fall 1871. The original plan was to use the proceeds of the ball to begin a building fund for the congregation. The ball netted $275, equivalent to over $5,000 in today’s dollars as adjusted for inflation.

On October 8, 1871, a three-day-fire began which consumed much of the city of Chicago. While never proven, legend held that the fire started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern in a barn. The fire destroyed 17,500 mostly wooden buildings, killed hundreds and left one of every three residents homeless.

The B’nai Jehudah ladies met and decided to donate the entire proceeds of their ball to relief for the people of Chicago. Not knowing any other way of sending it, the funds were entrusted to the Mayor of Kansas City to transmit to Chicago. The building fund would have to wait.

This endeavor is one of the first examples of the congregation’s commitment to social justice and the needs of others, a core value that continues today.

The Chicago City Council exonerated the O’Leary family and its cow in 1997, believing that the family had been falsely accused. Justice was finally done, albeit more than 100 years late.

(Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler z”l)
Posted October 8, 2020





Jewish settlers lived in and around the Kansas City area since the 1840s. Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Leavenworth and Congregation Adath Joseph in St. Joseph were both founded before the Civil War and Jewish cemeteries were established in Eudora, Leavenworth and St. Joseph during these years. Manheim Goldman was a Jewish merchant in Liberty and served as that city’s mayor twice.

The Hebrew Benevolent Society of Kansas City was formed in 1865 to facilitate burials and shivas. It paid $500 for ground at 18th and Lydia for the city’s first Jewish cemetery. The first burial was that of 22-year-old Helena Baum in 1866.

The town of Kansas (City) grew quickly after the completion of the Hannibal Bridge in 1869. It was the first permanent rail crossing of the Missouri River. The Jewish community here received its share of new arrivals and talk of forming a congregation had circulated for a few years.

The idea of starting a congregation was renewed at Rosh Hashanah services in 1870. The following Sunday, October 2, a meeting was held in a room above a grocery store near the riverfront. Twenty-five men pledged $800 to begin Kanas City’s first Jewish congregation. They were merchants, tobacconists, saloon owners and butchers, among other occupations. Most had roots in Germany or the countries under Germany’s influence.

By December 2, 1870, the fledgling B’nai Jehudah (children of Judah) congregation had rented temporary space at the Northwest corner of 8th and Main Streets. The congregation was Reform from the beginning. Mixed family pews and a choir composed of men and women were in contrast to traditional synagogues where seating was segregated by gender.

The new congregation engaged Marcus R. Cohen, a mohel from Chicago as its first Rabbi and services were read from Minhag America, the first siddur published in the United States. Its author was Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, an early pioneer of Reform Judaism in America.

Two of our current members descend from B’nai Jehudah’s 25 founding members. Mary Davidson is the granddaughter of Bernhardt Davidson, an immigrant who fought with the Confederate Army and was a cigar maker and undertaker. He served as B’nai Jehudah’s treasurer and cemetery warden. Nancy Reicher is the great-granddaughter of Bernhard Ganz who was a clothier and insurance agent and fought with the Union Army. Mr. Ganz was a B’nai Jehudah Treasurer and Vice President during the first decade of the congregation’s existence.

(Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler z”l)
Posted October 2, 2020