Ohev Sholom Synagogue History: Part II

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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

Period of Growth
Consolidation, Problems and Progress
New Directions


Period of Growth

In 1911 the Young Men's Hebrew Association was organized in Chester, and offered both a cultural and social program, and a meeting place for Jews. The group first met in a building at Fourth and Market Streets. Soon it moved its headquarters to the second floor of James' Storage House at Fifth Street and Edgmont Avenue, and finally it moved again to rooms above Frank Berman's store at Sixth Street and Edgmont Avenue.

In 1913 the Chester Hospital wished to replace their horse-and-buggy ambulance for one driven by a motor. The Y.M.H.A. successfully raised the money for this purchase. And it was in that same year that the group, at a meeting held in Solomon Knopf's bakery shop, organized the first Chester Hebrew Charity Ball.

The Ball took place in the Chester Armory at Eighth and Sproul Streets, and it was open to the public. To it came all the civic and business leaders of the community. The armory took on the aspect of a magnificent garden, as it was decorated with palms and multi-hued flowers. The men wore formal dress, but they were outshone by the beautiful gowns worn by the women - gowns of every color and fabric, some with long trains, all embellished in grand style. The highlight of the evening was the Grand March led by the most worthy and popular leaders of the community. That first year Mr. and Mrs. Raphael Kaplan headed the line, followed by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Berman. They marched for one hour and ten minutes around the Armory. Leading the march was a coveted honor, and year after year the importance of the Ball grew in the eyes of the Jewish community, and the Christian community as well. It was this Hebrew Charity Ball which became, in later years, the Ohev Sholom Congregational Ball.

The community was obviously prospering. If Jewish women could travel to New York to purchase ball gowns, Chester businessmen must have been participating in the astonishing rise of prosperity noted in the Wall Street Journals of 1915. Our nation was, of course, profiting from the war abroad, but all too soon it was to become engaged in that same war. In the meantime, those who prospered did not forget those who were in need.

Charity had always been basic to the Jewish tradition. It is written in the Torah that in ancient Israel farmers were to leave a corner of their field for the poor. In America as well, from the days of the first Jewish settlers of the New Amsterdam community in 1654, the Jews earned a reputation for taking care of their own.

The Ladies' Aid Society had already been formed, and the Ball was held to raise money for charity. In 1916, A. W. Wolson organized Chester's first Federation of Hebrew Charities, a branch of the national organization. The Federation simplified the complicated system of giving which had developed among Jewry in the United States. Previously, Russian Jews and German Jews each had drives for their own people; there were also drives for numerous other causes. Now the Jews correlated all giving into one united effort.

In January 1917 the United States entered World War I. While the world was being made safe for democracy in the "war to end war," 56 Jewish men from Chester served in the armed forces. None of them died in action or service, but Myer J. Freed and Myer Pressman were decorated with the Purple Heart. An interesting sidelight is the influx of young Jewish boys to Chester who, like the non-Jews involved, were allowed by the Government to work at Sun Ship Yard in lieu of being called into the service. Many of these boys boarded in the homes of Chester's Jews.

The war did not stop the advance of the Jewish community life.

On March 27, 1917, the women formed a Chester branch of the National Council of Jewish Women. Mrs. Benjamin (Blanche) Marker, Mrs. Harry (Fanny) Baron, and Mrs. Charles (Tillie) Shapero were officers of the group. The annual dues per member was $4.00.

The women immediately decided to reorganize the system of religious education in Chester. The giving of lessons by a Hebrew teacher in the child's home had often proven unsatisfactory. The children were most fluent in English, but the teachers were men who remained virtual strangers to the new tongue. In 1913, a Sunday School had been organized in addition to weekday Hebrew classes; English was the language of instruction in the Sunday School. Now the women organized this Hebrew and Sunday School program on a larger scale. They also financed the first free formal Sunday School offered to all the Jewish children. The teachers at this time were members of the community. The National Council of Jewish Women also paid for and supervised an Americanization class.

Even the Jewish youth in Chester started to form organizations. In 1919, Young Judea, a Zionist organization, was started by Ann Baylin, Nellie Baylin, Leah Bloom, Rebecca Greenberg, Anne Stein, Irene Goodman, Jenny Dranov and Anna Frank. Later, in 1925, Junior Hadassah was organized with Miss Sarah Levy as the first president. Two years after that the Senior Hadassah came into being when Mrs. S. D. Levy called a meeting at her home for this purpose.

By now, B'nai Israel was no longer the only Jewish congregation in Chester. Congregation B'nai Aaron received a charter from the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County on April 3, 1915. In 1920, however, the two congregations merged and on March 29 of that year the court again granted a charter, this time to Congregation Ohev Sholom, which name means "Lover of Peace."

Shortly thereafter, a splinter group comprised of members from both B'nai Israel and B'nai Aaron, formed Congregation Mispallelim. Throughout the years, many persons have paid dues to help support both congregations, and there has been participation by members of both congregations in joint community activities.

In the meantime, the Y.M.H.A. was thriving and they were in desperate need of larger headquarters. As a result of numerous meetings, a drive to raise funds for a new building was underway. The group raised $35,000 and purchased the Black Mansion, at Fourth and Madison Streets, in 1920. This building was meant to serve only as a community center. It was in this building, during May 1922, that the Simon Wolf Lodge of B'nai B'rith was organized with Archie Levy as president and with a membership numbering 19 men.

The growth of Jewish life in Chester is our immediate concern; but in order to truly recall the flavor of our history, we must remember that our growth paralleled the growth of Jewish communities elsewhere in the United States. The years between 1921 and 1923 may have been called the "age of normalcy" in United States history, but they were years of excitement and confusion for Jews. In 1920, there were 3,200,000 vastly disorganized Jews in the United States. Each town and city with a Jewish population had its own synagogue, methods of religious instruction, and fund-raising - its own standards for everything. During this time hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants were searching for homes and jobs. The scene was one of chaos.

The need for organization of the Jewish community, good religious schools led by American-born teachers, and American-born rabbis - these things were imperative if Jewry was to flourish in America. Fortunately, there were men with vision who understood these problems and solved them.

Not only were there general problems of organization, but the three different groupings within American Judaism - Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform - were by now strongly established. Isaac Mayer Wise had emerged as leader of the Reform movement and in 1873 he had established the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In 1896 the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva, a college for training Orthodox rabbis, was organized in New York City, and in 1898 the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations was established. In 1902, Solomon Schechter became president of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and later, he founded the United Synagogue of America, the organization of Conservative congregations; he also set up the Teacher's Institute, appointing Mordecai M. Kaplan as its dean. In time, these schools produced English-speaking and Jewishly competent men and women, capable of taking the place of teachers from the Old World. All these events, which are only barely suggested here, were to have great repercussions upon Congregation Ohev Sholom.

Chester's first taste of Conservative Judaism came in 1920 when a group of young people felt a need for their own service. The Y.M.H.A., which had been organized as a community center only, now became the scene of religious worship during the High Holy Days of that year. Rabbi Morris Goodblatt, a student from the Jewish Theological Seminary, conducted the service and, for the first time, the worshippers heard a sermon in English. In 1923, Rabbi Dr. Harry Cohen arrived in Chester. He served as Rabbi and Principal of the Hebrew School, which was then located in a building at Third and Penn Streets.

These were the years of the "roaring twenties," a joy ride in an "era of wonderful nonsense," when the "flaming youth" revolted against the puritanical standards of the pre-war era. Fundamentally, the American scene remained sober, and the average American was hard-working and serious. Impressive strides were made in the fields of education, religion, and science. But anti-Jewish feeling, which had been small in the years prior to World War I, now steadily increased; post-war conditions gave the unscrupulous an opportunity to capitalize on their selfish sentiments.

Caught in the fervor of post-war expansion, and motivated further by the anti-Semitism of the time, the Jews in Chester looked critically at their Jewish community. They were beginning to realize the necessity of maintaining the synagogue as a focal point in their lives, and they now felt that a single structure encompassing educational, religious and social activities was essential.

There were, after all, three separate buildings serving the Jewish community of Chester. The Ohev Sholom Synagogue was at Third and Lloyd Streets, the Y.M.H.A. was at Fourth and Madison Streets, and the religious school was at Third and Penn Streets. It is easy to imagine the difficulties arising because of this spread of location.

In 1925 the Directors of the Y.M.H.A. made the momentous purchase of a plot of ground on Eighth Street, below Welsh, and deeded the lot to Congregation Ohev Sholom, upon its pledge that the ground would be used for the purpose of erecting a synagogue-center. This site was then a most central location for Chester Jewry.

Once again, A. W. Wolson directed the community in a huge undertaking. Mr. Wolson was chairman of the Building Committee and Archie Levy was secretary. On May 9, 1926, a Leaders Banquet was held at the Masonic Temple for the purpose of launching a campaign to raise funds for the new building. A. W. Wolson himself was the first contributor to this Building Fund, and Simon Bruner was the second. Among others on the banquet committee were Samuel Bloom, Harry Baron, Archie Levy, Frank Tollin, Joseph Silberman, Lawrence Blumberg, John Sorcuss, Nathan Plafker, Herman Rosenblatt, Mrs. Harry (Fanny) Baron, Mrs. Hyman (Rose) Rosenblatt, Mrs. Albert (Rose) Gurvitz, and Mrs. Samuel (Rae) Feinberg. Several speakers were invited, prominent among whom were Abraham Wernick, Esq., of Philadelphia, and Dr. Mordecai Soltes, of New York; John Sorcuss was toastmaster. The banquet was probably attended by every Jew in Chester, and the sum of $75,000 was raised in a three-day campaign.

The actual cost of the building at Eighth and Welsh Streets was $150,000. That meant a mortgage of $50,000 and notes amounting to $25,000.

David Levy was the architect of the building, and Jacob Goldberg was the general contractor and builder.

On September 17, 1927, the dedication program of the Ohev Sholom Synagogue Center, under the chairmanship of Harry Baron, was held. This date marked the beginning of a full week of affairs. Rabbi Philip Alstat delivered the dedication address, and Judge McDade and Bishop Tate were also on the program. The actual dedication service was held without pews.

President A. W. Wolson wrote in the Dedication Book published at that time:

"This Ohev Sholom Community Building is a credit to our beloved city. of Chester and indicates that as citizens we are progressing with our town ... but our aim and purpose is not yet completed. This pile of bricks and mortar ... do not fulfill our needs. This building must be given LIFE to meet the cultural requirements of our people ... a righteous, Jewish atmosphere ... will prevail in this building - our Community Home ... we must have one hundred per cent co-operation of the entire Jewish population of Delaware County - we need money, but also workers."

When the building at Eighth and Welsh Streets was dedicated, the Board of Directors consisted of A. W. Wolson, president; Max Blumberg, vice president; Benjamin Kelman, recording secretary; Albert Berman, financial secretary; and Alexander E. Lessy, treasurer. Trustees were Jack Rosenblatt, Philip Schwartz, A. Chumnsky, and Jacob Warowitz.

In 1926 there had occurred a reorganization of the Chester Hebrew School. Samuel Bloom was president; Louis Stein, vice president; Dr. Nathan V. Plafker, secretary; and Harry Baylin, treasurer. Israel Stiefel, recently arrived from Palestine, was appointed Principal. This revamping of the school caused it to prosper.

From September 1926 to July 1927, the number of pupils increased from 75 to 160. The school consisted of seven classes, where the subjects were taught in accordance with the modern methods then in vogue among the leading Hebrew Schools in the country. The Sunday School, which remained under the auspices of the National Council of Jewish Women, had an enrollment of 169 pupils. Mrs. Samuel (Goldie) Bloom was the Council representative in charge of the school, and Mr. Stiefel acted as Principal of this group also.

It was during the 1926 reorganization that the Junior Congregation, the so-called Congregation "Javneh," was formed. The pupils of the higher classes of the school established two organizations - the girls' club, "Judith," devoted to the discussion and study of paramount problems in Judaism, Zionism, and the life of American Jewry; and "Hakoah Juniors," an organization mainly devoted to sports. The entire Hebrew School, still a distinct organization under the auspices of the Ohev Sholom Congregation, moved into the new synagogue-center on Eighth Street in the Fall of 1927.

Consolidation, Problems and Progress

2001 John A. Bullock III.

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This page last updated 02/24/07