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From immigration to Integration: Jewish Life in Quincy in the Nineteenth Century

David A. Frolick
Research and Narrative

Art Thou a Jew?

Abraham Jonas

Abraham Jonas
Photo Courtesy of
American Jewish Historical Society,
Waltham, Mass. & New York. NY

The first Jew to settle in the area west of the Allegheny Mountains was an English Jew, Joseph Jonas. A watchmaker and silversmith by trade, Jonas had heard that the Ohio River valley offered many opportunities. Fellow Jews wondered why a Jew might try to establish himself in this uncivilized place among the gentiles and how he would maintain his religious beliefs. After arriving in New York in 1816 at age twenty-four from England, he migrated a year later to Cincinnati, Ohio.

The stranger was an object of curiosity. The story is told that an elderly Quaker woman came to see him. She queried, "Art thou a Jew? Thou art one of God's chosen people. Wilt thou let me examine thee?" After looking Jonas up and down, she declared, "Well, thou art no different from other people!"

Jonas soon discovered the hardships of being a lone Jew among strangers. It was difficult alone to maintain his religious practices; it was hard to find a co-religionist to be his spouse; and he needed to prove his mettle among people who might judge him skeptically. Moreover, Jonas's experience was one that so many others would have to face. In the final analysis whether Jonas succeeded was a test of strongly held American tenents: religious freedom, equality, hard work (and success that comes with it), and judging a person on his merits. In so many words, could Jonas be both an American and a Jew?

Joseph wrote letters describing the opportunities that existed in the Ohio River valley. This convinced other Jews to join him including two younger brothers, Abraham and Edward. By 1824 there were enough Jewish residents to fulfill the requirement of ten adult males so that regular religious services could be held, and the first Jewish congregation beyond the Allegheny Mountains was established. Of the seventeen original members of Congregation B'nai Israel (Sons of Israel), three were the Jonas brothers. The ritual this congregation was to follow was that of German and Polish Jews, known as traditional or orthodox, the only mode of Jewish worship in America at that time. Marriage, of course, was also a problem for religious Jews, since they did not want to wed outside of their faith. Abraham and Joseph must have been impressive figures because they were able to marry the Seixas sisters, Lucy, age eighteen, and Rachel, age twenty-two. They were the daughters of the first rabbi born in America, Gershom Mendes Seixas. Seixas had been an active supporter of the American revolution and a leader of the Jewish community in New York, and like the Jonases, came from one of the first five hundred Jewish families in the United States.

While in Cincinnati, Abraham joined the Freemasons, a "secret society" which welcomed both Jews and gentiles. Abraham's wife, Lucy, died suddenly in 1825, and he soon headed for the woods of Kentucky, settling in Williamstown. In 1829 he married Lucy Block, a member of another pioneering American Jewish family living


in Washington, Arkansas. Jonas operated a general store, was elected to the state legislature for four years, and organized a Masonic Lodge. In 1832 he was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Kentucky.

Jonas, in 1836, again moved on, settling in the small town of Columbus in Adams County, Illinois, where he operated a general store. Two years later he moved to Quincy where he opened an iron and carriage business with his brothers Edward and Samuel. Then he took up the study of law in the offices of another transplanted Kentuckian, Orville Browning.

The Masons and politics continued their pull on Abraham. In 1840 he organized the Grand Masonic Lodge of Illinois and a year later was chosen its first Grand Master. In 1842 he was elected as a Whig to the state legislature, his only elective office in Illinois. Abraham was admitted to the practice of law the following year, opening a law partnership with fellow Quincyan Henry Asbury. It was while in Springfield that Jonas got to know another "green politician" and fellow Whig party member, Abraham Lincoln. The reward for Jonas's loyalty to the Whig party was his appointment in 1849 as postmaster of Quincy by Presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore. He served until 1853.

Jonas's friendship with Lincoln would be vital. Jonas arranged the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate in Quincy. In December 1858, Horace Greeley, the New York editor and prominent Republican, was on a lecture tour that brought him to Quincy, a hotbed for Republicanism. Following his lecture in Quincy, a group of local Republicans—the successor party to the Whigs—were discussing the upcoming 1860 election in the offices of Asbury & Jonas and who would be the presidential standard bearer for the Republican party. Asbury's suggestion that Lincoln would be a possible presidential candidate was greeted by silence. Jonas broke the silence by saying he thought it was a good idea. At that moment, Lincoln's presidential candidacy was born!

We can only speculate why four of Jonas's sons fought on the side of the Confederacy. Perhaps it was the result of other family ties, allegiances, or business relocation. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two Abrahams did not waiver. In 1861 Lincoln appointed Jonas postmaster of Quincy, a post he held until his death on June 8,1864, when he was succeeded by his wife Louisa. Lincoln personally ordered the release of one of Jonas's sons, Charles, a Confederate soldier, from a Union prisoner of war camp so that he might be at his father's bedside before he died.

Quincy by the 1850s was an important point on the frontier. It was positioned on a beautiful bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the central trading point for an area rich in lumber, minerals, and agriculture. It was as far north as big river boats could travel before encountering "the falls." It was a commercial center for people going farther north or west and for traders returning from those areas with furs and hides. Quincy's residents were largely Yankees—persons who migrated from New York, New England, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—and Southerners from Virginia and Kentucky. In the 1850s another large group of immigrants arrived: German speakers escaping the upheaval of the revolution of 1848 and those seeking

Bound for Columbus, Illinois


their fortune. Despite the liberal attitude sweeping through Europe, Jews were afraid that anti-Semitism would emerge. Entering the United States through ports from Boston to New Orleans, they headed for large cities and small towns where they believed opportunities were abundant. Quincy was one of their destinations.

B'Nai Sholom

The Temple in Adams County, Quincy, Illinois

Temple B'nai Sholom
Adams County, Quincy, Illinois
Late-nineteenth century

Courtesy of The Historical
Society of Quincy and Adams County,
Quincy, Illinois

The special city census of 1854 showed a population of 10,777. Within that population there were enough Jews to have already established a formal congregation, B'nai Abraham (Sons of Abraham), in 1852. Since those Jews followed the traditional rite, meaning a strict observance of the Jewish laws, they needed to employ a shochet, or someone trained in insuring the proper slaughtering of meat in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. The shochet often acted as a teacher and leader of religious services as well. Besides the Jonas brothers, the first congregants — all from Germany — included the Bachrach brothers, who were grocers, tailor David Hermann, clothier Zacharius Hirsch, and tailor Moses Jacobs. The Lesem family dealt in dry goods and clothing, and the Samuel brothers were clothiers. The little congregation initially held religious services above David Hermann's store, but by 1864 had raised $12,700 to build a permanent home on Jefferson Square. As Edward Jonas wrote to The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, "the congregation consists of forty-five paying members and comprises about two hundred persons of all ages ... To Israelites desirous of removing to the West, this beautiful city of 20,000 inhabitants on the banks of the Mississippi offers a peaceful and prosperous home."

Enlightenment thinking based on reason and science had swept across Europe. Within the Jewish community of what is now Germany there arose challenges to the old order by Jewish thinkers seeking to reconcile scientific, rational thinking with the traditions of Judaism. Those "reformers" sought, among other things, the modernization of Jewish practice to conform to and reflect the kind of thinking and practice of their gentile neighbors in the hope of gaining a non-discriminatory acceptance into society. That challenge to be contemporary could not have been ignored by the Jews arriving in Quincy. They, too, wanted to acculturate to the American surroundings in both their secular and religious lives.

In short, as the Jewish community of Quincy grew during the Civil War, so did the desire to change. In 1866 a group broke away from B'nai Abraham to form a new congregation, B'nai Sholom (Sons of Peace), based on Reform practices. In 1866 they rented the old Baptist Church for their services and employed a rabbi. This in effect raised the question about how the new thinking in a New World would address a long-standing Jewish historical issue — one that Joseph Jonas pondered: How much can Jewish practice change and how much can Jews assimilate before their identity as a distinct people is compromised? The two congregations symbolized the tensions inherent in this problem. Furthermore, without continued Jewish growth, it was doubtful that Quincy could sustain two congregations. What was happening among Quincy Jews was similar to what was happening throughout the Jewish community in the United States.

The members of B'nai Sholom knew that in order to demonstrate their beliefs, they, too, had to have a permanent home. Funds were raised from within the fledgling congregation, but it was a fair for the entire city sponsored by the ladies that raised the funds necessary to purchase the lot on which the synagogue would be built. An architect was employed, and the cornerstone was laid on July 30,1869, in a ceremony under the direction of the Masons, an organization to which many Jews now belonged. The address was given by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, himself a German emigree and leader of the Reform movement in the United States. A little over a year later, B'nai Sholom Temple was dedicated before an overflow crowd of a broad spectrum of Quincy residents. Based on Middle East design, the brick building was 42 feet



by 80 feet with bulbous towers on each side. It could seat 650 people and included a choir loft with an organ, a musical instrument which had always been associated with churches. It was lit by eighty gas burners and three chandeliers, and the cost was estimated to be $15,500. The towers were lost during a tornado, but the building is still in use, having recently celebrated its one hundred twenty-fifth anniversary.

At the time of the dedication the congregation had five hundred members and a religious school with one hundred-fifty children. It had adopted the Minhag America, an American Jewish Reform prayerbook. Religious services continued to use Hebrew, the traditional language of the Jewish people, but now the accompanying language during the service was either German or English. The Jewish community of Quincy was the third largest in Illinois, surpassed only by Chicago and Peoria. Fate played its hand, however. The B'nai Abraham synagogue had been damaged by a May 1869 fire, just prior to the cornerstone dedication at B'nai Sholom. As much as the members of B'nai Abraham tried, they could not restore what was lost, both in terms of physical structure and identity. By 1871 enough of its members wanted to leave so that its future was problematic, and in July 1872 B'nai Abraham merged into B'nai Sholom.

The future for Jewish life in Quincy looked bright and assured. Economic success was available for all who worked diligently. The diversity of occupations among the Jewish community ranged from owners of dry-goods stores to tobacconists, from insurance agent to lawyer, from milliners to wool reprocessors, doctor to banker. Jews were in business as individuals and with one another, and in partnerships with gentiles. There was a willingness to take risks, while family and business connections to other places, such as Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Germany, supported their entrepreneurial spirit. In 1871 the firm of S. J. Lesem & Sons, begun in 1855, built a six-story building overlooking the Mississippi to expand their business of "jobbers and importers of dry goods and notions." That building still stands. But the Lesems went even further when they built the Noxall clothing factory. The line of shirts, jeans, overalls, and jackets made the Noxall trademark a guarantee of durability, and its name was known throughout the United States. At its peak Noxall employed five hundred people in one the most up-to-date factories of its time, light and airy with readily accessible fire escapes. Herman Hirsch originally started for the gold fields of Colorado but found business opportunity so great in Quincy that he stayed. He began a hides and fur company that for a time was the largest in the United States, with branches in St. Joseph, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Joliet, Illinois; and Green Bay, Wisconsin. The main office was in Chicago.

Certainly another sign of the acceptance of Jews in Quincy was that, unlike the Jewish experience in Europe, there was no Jewish ghetto or neighborhood. As the population and geographic size of Quincy expanded, Jews could live wherever they wanted. Thus, like their successful neighbors, large homes became a mark of their achievement.

Similarly, there was little evidence of a "ghetto-mentality" when it came to participating in the cultural, social, and political life of the community. For example, Samuel Jonas, Abraham Jonas's brother, was one of the founders of what evolved into the Quincy Public Library, and he served on its board as secretary and president until his death in 1878. Jews formed and supported their own societies and were members of the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and other secret and charitable organizations. Quincy Jews gave freely and openly to the construction of the public Blessing Hospital, an alternative to the Catholic hospital, which was thought to be discriminatory, and to the creation of a second public cemetery in Quincy.

Jewish women had their own role to play. The Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society saw after poor Jewish families, and raised money for and volunteered at the hospital. During the Civil War Jewish women were active in the Needlepickets, an organization that provided



medical supplies and clothing for Union soldiers. Annie Jonas, daughter of Abraham, was one of the founders of the first chapter of Friends in Council, an organization designed to help women reach their fullest potential through cultivation of the intellect. Friends in Council, organized in 1866, became a nationwide organization.


In politics and civic duty Moses Jacobs was exemplary. Born in Prussia in 1829, he first located at St. Louis in 1850. In 1855 he settled in Quincy and opened a clothing business with David Hermann. Jacobs served on the Quincy City Council three times, in 1865-66 from the Second Ward, and in 1873-74 and 1877-78 from the First Ward. Isaac Abrahams was chief of police in 1870. Isaac Lesem, who came to Quincy from Bavaria in 1856, served a four-year term as trustee of the Illinois Deaf and Dumb Asylum beginning 1873. In 1897 he was appointed to the Illinois State Board of Education, giving up the position after ten years because of the press of business, and in 1884 was a Republican presidential elector-at-large. He also assisted in locating the Illinois Soldiers and Sailors (now Veterans') Home in Quincy. Herman Hirsch was one of four people who put up the money to cover a $10,000 bond to build a new courthouse in Quincy in 1876.

Perhaps the story of Harris Swimmer best encapsulates the idea of how strangers in a strange land could rise to prominence. The Swimmer family came to the United States from Prussia in 1846 when Harry was two. They located in Quincy in 1856. Succeeding his father in the wool and hide business, Harry became a successful merchant, and for a time was the largest leather dealer in the U.S. His civic and political life can be traced back to his military service in the Union army as a member of the famous "Blind Half Hundred"—the Fiftieth Illinois— and his service as a volunteer fireman and a member of the Quincy Police Department. In 1878 he was elected alderman of the Second Ward, a position he held for sixteen years, during which he chaired the city council committee that kept the city's water supply going and its street lights on during a time when the city was facing bankruptcy. Active in Democratic party politics, he was appointed deputy U.S. Marshal by President Grover Cleveland and held that post for fourteen years. Harry was also a founding member of the Quincy Humane Society and served on the Park and Boulevards Commission and the Quincy Board of Education. His membership in fraternal organizations included the International Order of B'nai Brith, serving as president of District Five encompassing Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska; grand foreman of the Ancient Order of United Workmen; the Masons; the Grand Army of the Republic; the Odd Fellows; and the Firemen's Benevolent Association of which he was a charter member. Of course, Harris Swimmer was a long-time trustee of Temple B'nai Sholom. At his death on November 14, 1906, the local newspapers called him "one of Quincy's best known citizens."

The loss of Harry Swimmer was deeply felt by the Jewish community because every death seemed to contribute to its decline. Ironically, the construction of Temple B'nai Sholom almost coincided with the demographic peak of the Jewish community in Quincy. On October 11,1895, when the congregation celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary, the president, I. H. Lesem, lamented the fact that there were now only thirty-six families, down from eighty families at its founding. The reasons for this decline are rather simple. The frontier had passed beyond Quincy, so its position as a starting point for westward expansion was gone. Quincy's role as a commercial center had been diminished by technology and the progress of the industrial age. The web of railroads and the opening of the Mississippi River to its source in Minnesota meant that traders no longer had to stop in Quincy. For the Jewish community, moreover, opportunities lay elsewhere. Children of these Jewish pioneers often left Quincy because of marriage. Business and family relationships called them to urban areas such as Chicago, St. Louis, New York, or to the untapped resources of the West. Rabbi Elias Eppstein wrote in his diary on September 13,1897, that he was mulling over other potential pulpits because "the congregation here is growing smaller and



smaller. Mr. S. Kingsbaker and M. Morris are at the point to move away, K[ingsbaker] to Chicago, and M[orris] to St. Louis. The remaining few will not be able to support a congregation. The end of B'nai Sholom is nigh." But Rabbi Eppstein stayed, and the congregation did not die, despite the new challenges to its survival. Today thirty-eight families are members of B'nai Sholom.

When Henry Asbury's Reminiscences were published in 1882, he wrote: "To be a citizen of Quincy, and of the United States, is now of first importance. The general public has little concern now as to where a man was born. To be a good and an honest man is of much more importance." The Jewish immigrants and residents of Quincy came to find religious and civic fulfillment through hard work and a contribution to community life. Despite their small numbers, they helped to make Quincy the community it is today.

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