Jews found refuge, opportunity here

The Agudas Achim Congregation in East St. Louis, captured in a photo taken Sept. 6, 1931.
The Agudas Achim Congregation in East St. Louis, captured in a photo taken Sept. 6, 1931.

After years of death and persecution in European countries, Jewish immigrants to the United States were used to keeping a low profile, which might explain why they didn't draw a lot of attention in the press or history books.

But in his book about St. Louis area Jews, "Zion in the Valley," university professor Walter Ehrlich wrote that St. Louis had a large Jewish population as early as the mid-1800s and it was only natural that some of those people would make their way across the river to the metro-east.

Steven Low, executive administrator of the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeastern Missouri and Western Kentucky, said Jews were holding religious services as early as 1903 in East St. Louis.

"Jews have been here for quite a long time," Low said. "Quite a few came down following the great Chicago fire. Jews here have been responsible, active in civic affairs and in the banking, grocery, hardware and clothing business. That always attracts doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers."

Immigrants with medical training found they were able to qualify and practice more easily in Illinois than in Missouri and that swelled the population, he said.

"Much of the early East St. Louis business community was a Jewish affair," he said.

There also was a United Hebrew Congregation of the Tri Cities in Madison.

In Belleville, Temple Beth Israel was hosting services on North High Street. It was organized in 1913 and the first building went up in 1918. The present temple dates from 1941, according to a plaque on the building. In East St. Louis, the Agudas Achim Congregation eventually merged with Belleville. Their temple was sold to the Mount Zion Baptist Church.

Present membership in the Belleville temple is about 35, which has been a pretty constant number, said Don Katz, a longtime member of the temple.

He said that many businesses in downtown Belleville were owned by Jews, such as Abe Small and Small's Department Store, Imber's owned by two cousins both named Hy, and Peskin's, a department store owned by four brothers.

"Each had a department," Katz said.

The Jewish Federation was established here after World War I to help out refugees.

"It's kind of like a Jewish United Way," Low said.

The federation covers 45,000 square miles in parts of the three states and involves about 1,000 Jewish men, women and children.

Hy Ruffman, director of the federation for 30-plus years, was an educator who would travel from place to place and lead services. He started a summer camp in 1949 as a place for bar mitzvah boys to come together and study intensely. It grew into a full-fledged residential camp, Camp Ben Frankel near Carbondale.

The shortage of rabbis made his services important, Low said.

"At other times, he might call by phone and for a half-hour or so, the child could recite blessings in Hebrew," Low said. "He would critique their responses. He was one of the major forces in the area."

The federation sponsors events such as community dinners that bring Jewish people together from a wide area. It also sponsors scholars in residence and visiting rabbis.

Low said Judaism is different from many religions in that each person can talk directly to God without an intermediary.

"A knowledgeable lay person can lead services," he said.

Jews fit right into the community, he said, even being part of the community that wasn't so reputable.

"There were even Jewish gangsters, people who ran moonshine," Low said.