Ohev Sholom Synagogue History: Part I

Return to the Ohev Shalom main page

Click here to visit Ohev Shalom's website.

If you have any information and or pictures that you would like to contribute about the history of this synagogue, please forward it to john@oldchesterpa.com


 

Synagogue's History Many thanks to Michael Muderick, CongOhev@ICDC.Com, Executive Director of Congregation Ohev Shalom for making the following history available to us from the Ohev Sholom Synagogue Dedication Book prepared in 1965.  The history was written by Enid Mark & Evelyn Epstein

Introduction
Beginnings
Period of Growth
Consolidation, Problems and Progress
New Directions

Introduction

How can we ever know all the sources of the stream of life running through the decades of our history - now rushing, now delaying, now diverted - at last flowing freely and gathering strength, a strength we today name Congregation Ohev Sholom?

Where did we come from? How have we arrived at this particular moment in our history, when we declare ourselves - our pride and our strength - with the presence of a new synagogue?

Certainly our strength is the strength of Judaism itself, and our pride is in accomplishments which are the fruition of years of love and labor. We are destined, therefore, to discover the history of our particular Jewish ancestors - how they lived as Jews and how they reacted to their community and their times.

And so these pages attempt to recount lives and events, to recall a community, to research the past. History in the truest sense must include the story of the daily lives of the people themselves. There has not been time for this, although someday it should be done; but for now this is only a record of the official life of our congregation.

Many names may be omitted, names which of course belong here, but the mention of which would make the text overly long. It is hoped that this biography of Ohev Sholom will be read by every member of the congregation, and that it will increase their desire to perpetuate the ideals for which our synagogue has stood throughout these many years.

Beginnings

Even before the dark years of Revolutionary history, years marked by the retreats of Americans from British blows at Brandywine, years when weary armies trailed through the village of Chester, our Jewish ancestors came to know this place. They were peddlers, probably, travellers and traders from Philadelphia, New York, Rhode Island, and elsewhere. They opened their bundles and packs to the settlers, rested overnight at the inns, and remembered Chester as a fair country with rich land and a growing population.

In those Colonial days specific references to Jews in Chester are found in a list of "tydable" (taxable) persons at Upland, Pennsylvania, among whom were two Jews named Hendrick Jacobs and Ephraim Herman.

We know of no other Jews living in Chester for many years. However, by the first half of the nineteenth century, in the nearby city of Philadelphia, our people had already formed three congregations. The Jewish population, living east of Broad Street and south of Spring Garden Street, were known mostly to one another. The majority had come from Germany, with a small percentage from Central Europe. There were also many descendants of the early Spanish-Portuguese settlers.

The city of Philadelphia was a stronghold of Orthodoxy, under the direction of Rabbi Isaac Leeser of the Mikveh Israel Congregation. Congregation Rodeph Sholom, then an Orthodox synagogue, was established about 1802 by the Jews from Germany; and Congregation Beth Israel was established in 1840, largely by settlers of Polish origin.

In 1847 the Jewish population of the United States was around 50,000. But none of these people had as yet permanently settled in Chester. Then, in 1848, another influx of Jews to this country was generated by disturbances on the continent of Europe. A few years later, when the question of Negro freedom was being argued, Jews were even more actively seeking their own freedom from persecution.

The earliest recorded permanent Jewish settlers in Chester arrived after the Civil War. They were the Brandeis family and the Turk family. The Brandeis family arrived sometime prior to 1859, since the first Directory of the Borough of Chester published in that year lists: "Brandeis, H., Clothier - Market above James." ("James" was Third Street.) The Turk family probably came during the 1880's. For many years the Brandeis family ran a dress shop at the site where Stotter's now stands. Later, they owned a leather shop at the corner of Fourth and Market Streets. They lived on Welsh Street, at the corner of Fourth, and their house was long a landmark for many of their generation. The Turk family was also in the retail business.

The problems of these first families were many. Aside from the ever constant problem of earning a daily living in a strange place, they had the problem of maintaining their Jewish heritage. There was no organized Jewish congregation in their immediate community, and so they belonged to synagogues in the city of Philadelphia. The Brandeises were members of Rodeph Sholom, and when the last of the males of the Brandeis family died, Rabbi Louis Wolsey of Rodeph Sholom, by then a Reform Congregation, came to Chester to preach the eulogy.

In 1880 there were 230,000 Jews in the United States. The few Jews living in Chester at that time were all of Germanic origin, and so it was natural that they affiliated themselves with the more liberal synagogues which had been mostly founded by the German Jews. The Germans had brought with them the idea of Reform Judaism which was born in their homeland in the early part of the nineteenth century. By the second half of the century these ideals were becoming firmly implanted in the minds of the congregants.

Liberal or not, the Chester Jewish families kept kosher households. The problem of procuring meat slaughtered according to ritual was a pressing one and caused considerable anxiety, since meat had to brought all the way from Philadelphia.

At the same time that these early families were adjusting to life in the United States, upheavals in Europe were making it increasingly difficult for Jews to remain there. In the 1870's and 1880's, laws and pogroms were directed against the Russian Jews, and anti-Semitic agitation in Germany was high. Before the end of the century, Jews by the thousands crossed the Atlantic in an unparalleled exodus from central and eastern Europe to the shores of America.

It was inevitable that little by little, the Chester Jewish community should increase in size. Some families drifted here from Philadelphia, others settled directly here upon arrival from Europe. Now came the Gotchalk family, Kasrel Goodman, Avrum W. Wolson, Sam Wolson, Isaac Sapovits, Louis Sapovits, Lawrence Blumberg, Max Blumberg, and Thomas Rosenblatt. They were peddlers and small businessmen, and they became the backbone of Jewish communal life in Chester.

By 1890 the group was large enough to feel the desire for its own place to worship. In the year 1891 the first Jewish congregation, B'nai Israel, was organized. Legally, the name of the group was the Congregation of Israel, and it was chartered by the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County on June 5, 1903. This group held services in a small house on Reaney Street, in South Chester.

B'nai Israel was an Orthodox congregation, and its constitution was written in Yiddish. For many years the minutes of all its meetings were kept in Yiddish, probably because this older generation could not read or write English. A. W. Wolson was president of the congregation; Samuel Wolson, Samuel D. Levy, Lawrence Blumberg, Samuel Friedkin, and Louis Stein were charter members.

Around the turn of the century, the congregation moved to a lodge room which was then on the second floor of a building located at Third and Kerlin Streets. There was no ordained rabbi or cantor in Chester at this time. Reverend A. B. Cohen acted as religious leader and guide, as he was well versed in Jewish law. He also taught the children. To conduct the services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a cantor came from New York or Baltimore. Rabbi A. B. Leventhal, dean of Philadelphia rabbis, was the moderator in all problems of a religious nature.

In those early days of our community, Jewish education was of primary concern. To supplement the teaching of Reverend Cohen, there were melamdim (private teachers) who went from house to house to instruct the children. They remained part of the system of religious education for many years.

By 1903 the community had grown quite sizable. The small lodge room was not large enough to hold all the worshippers. It was decided to raise enough money to finance the purchase of a property, upon which a new synagogue could be built. The group selected a Building Committee, headed by A. W. Wolson, Samuel Bloom, Louis Sapovits, and Reverend Cohen. This was the first of many projects directed by A. W. Wolson, and for many years afterward he was to guide the development of our community.

Thirty families, living between Hayes Street and Tenth and Madison Streets, were solicited. We do not know how much money was raised, but it was enough to purchase ground at Third and Lloyd Streets and to start building.

In the fall of 1903, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the cornerstone of the new synagogue was laid by Samuel Bloom. The building was completed in 1904, and dedicated in time for Passover services. At this time the congregation, which was still orthodox, consisted of about 35 families.

Two hundred men could be seated on the main floor of the sanctuary, and the balcony had places for 70 women. Classrooms for children were located in the basement.

The new freedom and success of the Jew in America now resulted in many activities. As important as the synagogue was, Jewish life was not bounded by it. No doubt the fact that the Jewish community now owned property and a building, the fact that they were gaining in their business life, the fact that their children were receiving both religious and public school education, must have inspired them to increase the Jewish scope of their lives.

The birth of Zionism echoed around the world, and the necessity of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was felt strongly by those who had so recently fled in despair from Europe. In 1905 the Chester Zionist District was organized. Samuel Spilker was president, and Abe Dorfman and Samuel Levin were important members. The purpose of the organization was to work for the Zionist cause and to encourage the Jewish culture and ideals. Members were required to pay 10 cents per month dues.

In 1905 the Ladies' Sheltering and Aid Society was also organized. They described themselves as ". . . chiefly devoted to the help and care of those of our race who are in need, also taking care of the Jewish stranger who may find himself within our midst: giving food, lodging, and money in order that he might reach his destination . . ." The Society owned its own Hebrew Sheltering Home at 38 West Mary Street.

The desire for friendship and fraternity resulted in the formation of Ahavas Israel, a social and beneficial lodge, which was a local branch of the National Ahavas Israel. It had 50 members. In 1910, when the national order dissolved, the Chester lodge immediately reorganized and became affiliated with the national B'rith Sholom Lodge. It served as an active branch for nine years. By 1919, however, the national assessments were too heavy for the group, so they withdrew and became an independent organization, adopting the name of Agudath Israel. This lodge disbanded in 1935 when other programs took over its purposes. One of the lasting contributions of this lodge to our community was its establishment of Brookhaven Cemetery and the giving of this land to Ohev Sholom Synagogue as a burial place for the Jews of Chester.

Caring for the Jewish dead was always a primary concern of our forefathers. It was logical, therefore, that as early as 1890 Chester Jewry organized a volunteer group of local people called the Cemetery Association of Chester, Ahavas Israel. The group included Max Blumberg, Kasrel Goodman, Samuel Lax and Samuel D. Levy. This organization was succeeded by a group called the Chevra Kadisha. They not only prepared the body for burial and handled funeral arrangements, but they maintained constant attendance at the cemetery and kept a record book so that memorial services were held yearly. Mr. and Mrs. Moses Levy donated sufficient ground in the cemetery to bury those who died penniless.

In 1910 the lodge group purchased ground at the Brookhaven site. In 1925 the Chevra Kadisha raised $5,500 for the building of the brick chapel at the cemetery, under the leadership of Lawrence Blumberg, Barnett Goodman, Isaac Sapovits and Hyman Cholodofsky. It was not until 1930 that Reisman Funeral Directors was contacted to handle burials. At that time the rate was $75.00, which covered all arrangements. In 1940, Joseph Warwick/Warowitz1 purchased an adjoining plot of ground and donated it to the congregation.

By the end of the twentieth century's first decade, the Jewish community had expanded in size and activity. It had raised money for and built a synagogue. It had fraternal and charitable organizations. It had a cemetery. It made provision for education of the young.

It is interesting to note that anti-Semitism had already become a problem. Whereas in the 1880's Jewish persons could happily spend their summers in popular resorts such as Cape May, by the 1890's they were being excluded from hotels, clubs and neighborhoods in Cape May and many other places. As a consequence, they formed their own Jewish resorts - such as Long Branch, Atlantic City, and Asbury Park, in the years between 1891 and 1896.

The ensuing years in our history were to witness even greater growth and the establishment of the foundation of Jewish communal life as we know it today.

Period of Growth

 

1"My grandfather was Joseph Warwick, who donated the land. Family legend has it that when he came over from Europe to Ellis Island the first time, he was assigned the name Warwick; the second time he came over with his family he was assigned Warowitz. He was always known by Warwick, as long as I can remember. I doubt anyone reading this would know Joseph Warowitz was actually Joseph Warwick."

Thanks to Emily Warwick Kelly


2001, 2006 John A. Bullock III.

GDPub2.JPG (7902 bytes)

This page last updated 02/24/07