Congregation B’nai Jacob

For a brief period of time there was a second synagogue in Homestead that broke away from HHCRS.  This is one of the biggest mysteries I would like to solve!  The only clear proof of its existence comes from this brief quote:

The persecution in Europe kept on, and brought to us Jews from all parts of the world, they brought with them different customs, habits of thought, phases of religious beliefs, acquired and inherited prejudices, each group sought to dominate the others, controversies arose, and finally some decided to organize their own Cong. They obtained a charter calling themselves Cong. Bnai Jacob. They kept it up for about 2 years, and finally they realized that a house divided [against itself] can not stand. So they surrendered the charter and rejoined the Rodef Sholom Congregation.

The next few years everybody was happy, until the year 1911.

50th anniversary speech

I guess that the reason for the division was Russians vs. Hungarians, with the Hungarians retaining control of HHCRS and the Russians creating B’nai Jacob to be autonomous.  But this assumption isn’t based on any actual evidence, which is why I want to know more.  Homestead’s Jewish community was growing quickly in those years; perhaps it seemed plausible that ability of the town to support two shuls would only grow.

This speech was given in 1944, 35-40 years after this happened, so I don’t know how accurate these estimates would be.  However, if we take the speech literally, the congregation would have ended c. 1908 (a “few years” before 1911), and was founded in c. 1906 (“they kept it up for about 2 years”).  The most tantalizing part is that “they obtained a charter,” meaning that this record should still exist, but I’m not yet able to find it, nor have I yet found a mention of this congregation in any of the old newspapers that have proved so fruitful elsewhere.

Looking for the charter

HHCRS’s charter, obtained 5/26/1894, was easily accessed online.  But searching for this congregation proved far trickier.  Possible matches include:1

  • HOMESTEAD HEBREW CLUB, founded 3/1/1905 (now defunct):  Unlikely — listed in the American Jewish Yearbook, 1909-1910 as a club and referenced in synagogue records
  • CHEVERY BNIE JACOB, 7/6/1904 (also now defunct, not necessarily Homestead-related, and the date is too early)

As it does not appear to be possible to get the charters online for these defunct organizations in the same way I easily got HHCRS’ (and also, it’s $40 a pop), I will use these dates to search the Homestead newspaper to see if I can come up with something more concrete (Pittsburgh’s Jewish newspaper didn’t turn up anything).  For the years when the congregation likely existed (1904-1909), only HHCRS is mentioned in the Homestead newspaper’s annual Rosh Hashana articles.

Update July 2015:  The Allegheny County charter books can be viewed in person downtown.  I looked at every organization chartered in this time period.  There was no match.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs?

Update October 2014:  A break in the case came unexpectedly from the Homestead city directory!

p. 194, Homestead Directory, 1908

p. 194, Homestead Directory, 1908. Rabbi Widom does not appear in this directory at all.

The 1908-9 Homestead city directory lists a Rabbi Louis Jacobs as the shul‘s rabbi, although the shul‘s own records show that the rabbi during this period was Rabbi Widom, who had started in August 1906.

The only rabbi I’m aware of being intentionally omitted from the synagogue’s list of rabbis was Rabbi Goldberg, who left before his contract ended and sued them.  Jacobs is not named in the rabbi list, either, which may also mean they had lingering ill-will towards him, or perhaps he was never really their rabbi.  The time frame of this directory entry matches when the breakaway probably happened, and the name matches up with the name of the congregation (not that I’ve ever heard of a synagogue named after its rabbi in this way)…

Further investigation in the synagogue’s financial ledgers reveals that this man began as a teacher at HHCRS on 6/21/1907, getting paid almost twice as much as Widom.  They began calling him “Rev” in mid-September… does that mean he served as a rabbi then?  He lasted through December 1.  Then he re-appeared in April 1908, getting a delinquent payment for the last two weeks of Sep. 1907, then payment for the first two weeks of April 1908… and then that’s it, the last time HHCRS paid him.

Other than this one city directory and these financial ledger entries, I can find no other records documenting Jacobs’ presence in Homestead.  Nor is this information enough to find him in any genealogical repositories to learn more about his background.

9/11/1907: The break in the case!

9/11/1907: The break in the case!

Update July 2015:  Omigoodness!  I found a newspaper article (at right) from September 1907 talking about Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Widom before the split!  Unfortunately this is all the paper had to offer… there are no other article addressing the split.  The newspaper again names a “Mr. Jacobs” as the superintendent of the Hebrew school in 1913 when it had 150 students.  At this point Jacobs has long been out of the shul’s financial records, but it’s likely, since no school-related expenses appear in this period, that they were handled by a separate organization (perhaps the Ladies’ Aid, which then ran the school?). Later in the year, when the I.O.B.B., the new school overseers, hired him for the for the 1913-1914 term, the paper gave his first name as Nathan.  Coincidence!

Alas, the additional biographical details provided by this article still are not enough to find this man in any genealogical records.

Based on the description of him in this article, he sounds like someone who came from Central Europe, having “studied Blackstone in Vienna, Berlin and other European countries” and having “had a degree of doctor of philosophy conferred upon him.”  Probably he had been in the U.S. for a while to have amassed such a resume (“For some time before coming here, was the editor of the Jewish Banner 2, published in New York, and is also the publisher of a Jewish calendar”) and reputation (“a man with pronounced intelligence,” “an interesting talker,” “the Homestead Hebrews are certainly to be congratulated on getting such a valuable man to take charge of their school”).

This isn’t what I expected.  For one, I had assumed that the breakaway was Russian, so why would they rally behind a man who didn’t share their heritage?  For another, the much-later Winkler episode suggests that the shul ought to have been fans of a man of such prestige.  Perhaps the problem was that Jacobs didn’t want to play second fiddle, and it was the newer arrivals, less tied to the shul, who followed him out…?

(It is worth pointing out that I reviewed the Homestead paper for this entire period, and never was there a mention of B’nai Jacob.)

1/21/1908 birth of Morris B. Jacobs, son of Louis Jacobs, school teacher, and Rosie Sonnenthal.

1/21/1908 birth of Morris B. Jacobs, son of Louis Jacobs, school teacher, and Rosie Sonnenthal.

Update December 2016:  A breakthrough!  Flipping through Homestead birth certificates from 1906-1908, I found the birth of Jacobs’ son in early 1908!  That led to a whole slew of records for him and his family, starting with the birth of his second child in Chicago on August 13, 1909.  The 1910 census records Jacobs serving as a rabbi for a synagogue in that city called Sons of Joseph.   It appeared in the Chicago city directories from 1910-1917 only.  Judging by the addresses, this congregation looks to have been a storefront shtiebl type of place.  Intriguingly, its presence in Chicago did not pre-exist Jacob’s arrival c. 1909, nor did it survive after him, because by September 1918 he and his family had moved to Pinnacle, a two-street town in the heavily-forested mountains of western Montana, to run a general store!  Was Sons of Joseph his second attempt, after B’nai Jacob, at running his own shul?  Had this second failure made this learned man so frustrated as to leave the organized Jewish community entirely?

After their 1920 census in Montana, the next record I have for this family shows them living in 1925 in… Belle Fourche, South Dakota.  By 1930 they were back in Chicago, where they lived out the rest of their lives.  The records are unclear, but Jacobs definitely died before 1930, and possibly before 1925.  It does not look like he had any grandchildren; truly this is a case where there is no one left to talk to.

These genealogical records reveal that Jacobs was, in fact, Russian!  3  He was a decade younger than Widom, only in his mid-20s when he would have led this break-away.  And he was a recent immigrant!  He came to the U.S. around the same time as Widom in the 1904-1905 timeframe.  The clue I missed in that newspaper article?  That Jacobs “tells many stories of the cruelty practiced on the Jewish people [in Russia] that have come under his own personal observation.”

It’s nice finally to know something about the man, but his biography doesn’t fill in the missing history about this elusive breakaway.  It also doesn’t confirm that my Rabbi Louis Jacobs-Congregation B’nai Jacobs connection is even correct.

Oh well.  I’m out of ideas for where else to look, and so are the experts at the Pennsylvania Room at the Carnegie Library who assisted me.

Thanks to Alex Feller for assistance with the Chicago part of this research.

  1. Searches I tried:  Homestead Hebrew, Cong Jacob, Homestead Cong, Bnai Jacob, Jacob Homestead.  Not possible to limit a search to a particular county or date range, which is super-annoying, because you know I’d read through everything incorporated in Homestead in that decade!  Also, they will only show 250 results for a search, so I can’t look at all filings with the word “Jacob” in their titles.

    PA used to publish books listing charters every couple of years.  Here’s a list of what’s online:  List of charters of corporations enrolled in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (one ends 6/1/1903, the other starts 6/1/1905, so it does not overlap with these two;  Google books has some as well, but not the missing ones).  Possible to find the missing volume in Harrisburg?  (Also not sure if this volume would include religious organizations (although HHCRS is listed as a “business organization” on its 1894 charter). 

  2. Alas, I cannot find any information on that publication.   

  3. His family was buried in a section of Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery for Jewish from Lomza, Poland, which is in the northeastern part of the country between Warsaw and Bialystok, but as it does not appear that Jacobs himself was buried there, perhaps this town pertains to his wife’s origins, not his own.  Although, to be fair, I can’t find his wife in this cemetery, either, though I do believe she died in Chicago after 1940.  

  2 comments for “Congregation B’nai Jacob

  1. Erik Wagner
    February 9, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    I saw your references to Rodef Shalom Cong, and also i see the official name of the cemetary is Rodef Shalom. I never had heard this. When did the name change?

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