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