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Life Along the Mississippi
Quincy, Illinois and
Hannibal, Missouri

This is the first in a series about Jewish communities along the Mississippi River.

Summers are hot, steamy, and languid in the Mississippi River Valley. Just ask Rabbi Mark Kaiserman. As student rabbi for Quincy, Illinois’ historic Temple B’nai Sholom it was only his second visit when he led Rosh Hashonah services in September, 1994. A temple member died during this time, and the rabbi-in-training was asked to stay to conduct the funeral. The morning before the funeral he ate breakfast in a diner. Returning to his car he easily found his keys – locked inside the car in the ignition! Nervous about this, the first funeral he would conduct as a rabbi, and focused on being on time, it did not occur to him to call a cab, or a congregant, or the rental car company. Instead he ran. And ran. In a navy blue suit in 98-degree heat, Rabbi Kaiserman showed up at the funeral home sweating profusely. He began the service, but could no longer even read his notes, deterred by sweat that cascaded into his eyes. Though really perplexed, he showed his true professional mettle. He asked the mourners to stop and take a few minutes of silence to honor the memory of the departed, thus allowing himself time to mop up and cool down.

Air-conditioning is something that Temple B’nai Sholom has never had since it was built in 1869. This is the reason the congregation doesn’t hold services in its spectacular Moorish Revival brick building in the summer. But the rest of the year, this active and dedicated congregation of forty members meets regularly, twice a month in the only building the congregation has ever owned. Besides the expected desire to gather together as a community there is a historic sentiment to fuel the continuation of this congregation for a very long time.

Dianne Kirsch, a life long Quincy resident, remembers a time many years ago at a temple business meeting when her Uncle Harry lamented, “What will become of our temple years from now?” She says, “Here we are, thirty years later, and we’re still going.” Of course one of the reasons is because of a surprise legacy the congregation received from one of its lesser-known members in the late twentieth century.

The woman was married to a gentile, and never attended services except on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. When her husband died she asked the congregation for permission to bury him in the Jewish cemetery, Valley of Peace. They agreed. She had always lived very modestly and had no children. When she died she left 25 per cent of her estate to B’nai Sholom Temple. She had never mentioned her intent to anyone in the congregation. The upward surge of the stock market in combination with the time it took to clear probate caused the initial gift to grow to $375,000. That ensures being able to pay for a student rabbi now, and for many years to come.

Quincy itself has an illustrious past. When Illinois created Adams County in 1825, both the county and its largest city were named for then President John Quincy Adams. The town prospered in its first several decades as a center for manufacturing, retail, agriculture, and river transport, and was larger than Chicago before the Civil War. Quincy historically has shown itself to be a tolerant, and welcoming place. The Mormons, upon being driven out of Missouri in 1839 were destitute. They found refuge in Quincy before moving on to new headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois. Quincy was also an important stop on the Undergound Railroad. Situated directly across the Mississippi River from Missouri, a slave state, Quincy,(in abolitionist Illinois) was a well-located first stop for many escaped slaves who were harbored there before moving on to Canada. This is the land of Huck Finn and Big Jim – Mark Twain’s native Hannibal, Missouri is just 30 miles away.

Quincy’s history as a thriving 19th century river city is as dignified and significant as its first Jewish resident, Abraham Jonas. Born in England in 1801, Jonas came to America at age 19. He first lived in Cincinnati, and from 1827 to 1838 he lived in Williamstown, Kentucky where he operated a store. There he was elected to the state legislature, and served as Kentucky’s Grand Master of the Masons. He was married to the daughter of a famous New York rabbi and had several sons. In 1838 Jonas moved to the new, thriving town of Quincy, where he ran a store, studied law, opened a law practice, and became Illinois’s first Grand Master of the Masons. Jonas won a seat in the Illinois state legislature, where he first met a contemporary who was to become his lifelong, fast friend, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln and Jonas corresponded regularly. Whenever Lincoln came to Quincy, he made his headquarters in Jonas’ law office. Jonas was one of the leading Republicans who conferred with Horace Greeley on presidential possibilities for 1860. Jonas and his law partner, Henry Asbury were the only two who suggested Lincoln.

A loyal friend, Lincoln appointed Abraham Jonas as Quincy’s postmaster in 1861. When Jonas was dying in 1864, his family asked Lincoln to intercede on behalf of Charles Jonas, one of Abraham’s four sons who were in the Confederate Army. Lincoln issued orders for a three-week furlough for Charles, who had been taken as a Union prisoner, to visit his dying father. After Jonas died, Lincoln appointed Mrs. Jonas to complete the term as postmaster.

Quincy’s first synagogue was not B’nai Sholom. The first congregation, established in 1856 , was B’nai Avraham, a traditional Orthodox house of worship. The prosperous town of Quincy was growing rapidly, and its Jewish community grew accordingly. But what would a successful congregation be without a breakaway congregation?

In 1864 a group broke away with the specific intent to organize a Reform congregation, B’nai Sholom Temple. In 1866 they hired their first rabbi, Reverend Fleugel, and in 1867 bought the property on Ninth Street where the temple exists today. In 1869 B’nai Sholom Temple held its cornerstone laying ceremony. There was a procession along city streets to the temple, where Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati delivered the keynote address. They enclosed a time capsule, which was opened at the centennial celebration in 1970.

Meanwhile, back at the shul, B’nai Avraham’s members built their own wooden frame synagogue in 1866. In 1869 the rabbi’s home next door caught fire, and badly damaged the synagogue. In 1872 they merged with B’nai Sholom Temple. The merger was the first, but not the last for this Jewish community. Quincy Jews have always found a way to serve everyone; between the two world wars they had separate Conservative and Reform services in the building at the same time.

Upon the temple’s completion in 1870, the Jewish population of Quincy was around 500, with 150 children in its religious school. This was to be the largest it would ever be. As the railroads grew, the river traffic declined. The beautiful red brick building was crowned by two magnificent 80-foot Moorish towers. The towers were damaged by a tornado in 1947, and were removed. In 1977 Congregation B’nai Israel in Hannibal, Missouri closed its doors, sold its building and merged with B’nai Sholom, donating half the proceeds to B’nai Sholom.

Today, as for the last 80 years, membership is around 40 families. Roz and Len Grayson, who moved from Brooklyn in 1965, say the temple was a major consideration. They raised their four children in Quincy, saying they have always felt accepted in the larger community. She said when they arrived, all of the clubs were restricted, just like everywhere else. But that’s just how it was. This probably explains Dianne Kirsch’s memories of her childhood in the1940’s. Her parents’ entire social life revolved around the temple. There were frequent card parties, costume parties and other social events, mostly planned by the sisterhood. Roz Grayson says things have changed since then, but even today, they have an active sisterhood.

Roz Grayson, and 10-year Quincy resident Liz Berghofer both used the word “peaceful” to describe their gorgeous city with its three historic districts. I call it friendly, as two of the people I interviewed by phone invited me to come to Quincy again and stay at their homes. But I’ll let you in on a secret: Carry a spare set of car keys when you visit. Mark Kaiserman wasn’t the only one who locked his keys in his car there. I missed Friday night services as I waited for the local locksmith. Must be something in the Mississippi River water.

Sources for this article: Interviews with Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, Liz Berghofer, John Berghofer, Roz Grayson, and Dianne Kirsch; A Jewish Tourist’s Guide to The U.S. by Postal and Koppman; Temple B’nai Sholom 125th Anniversary Book; The Quincy Herald-Whig; Universal Jewish Encyclopedia.

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