1655 to 1900: Chapmen and Merchants
Though Jews have been in our state from the start – the first were river traders in Peter Stuyvesant’s time – it wasn’t until the early 1800s that sons of Abraham settled in western Pennsylvania. Their numbers were at first few; there were just 4,000 Jews in the entire United States at the time, and only seven US cities had a Jewish population greater than one hundred by 1830. But events in northern Europe would soon cause the first great wave of Jewish emigration to the New World.
A series of failed revolutions compounded the effects of famine and economic depression already underway in the German Confederation by 1848. The least privileged suffered most, and it was these – the Jews of Prussia, Hanover and the Slavic territories among them – who fled to America. In a few short years, major coastal cities like Philadelphia had absorbed more immigrants than they could employ. To make matters worse, Jews were often excluded by law from many professions and by custom from many of the rest.
Word soon spread that for those willing to work hard and take risks, there was opportunity in the hinterland. But few of the new Jewish citizens had the means to buy or rent land. What to do? What outsiders so often do best: adapt. They became itinerant peddlers, scrapmen and rag recyclers, independent trades needing little capital investment beyond a pack or a horse. These “huxters” (as the term then was) served the remote coal camps in our area, where immigrant miners spoke the same Silesian dialect of German many of them did.
The life of a huxter was not easy, and not without risk. Some were robbed, and a few even murdered. They looked different and often spoke limited English and so were viewed by some with suspicion. Yet these Jewish peddlers also brought news of the outer world to an eager audience. When at last they were able to save enough to leave the road, they set up shop in small towns where the demand for their goods was high and competition was low, then sent for their families. As historian Deborah Weiner observes, “For immigrant Jews, the American Dream revolved not around economic success or owning a piece of land, but around achieving self-employment . . . owning and operating their own store.”
By 1878 there were a quarter million American Jews, and of all the thirty-eight states, none had more Jewish communities of over one hundred than Pennsylvania. In that year, a certain town which would one day join the ranks of “hundred-plus” had just three Jews in residence. It was Indiana. But change was in the wind for our county, in the number of its Jewish citizens and in the small-town suspicions of at least some of their neighbors.
In one of history’s great ironies, it was anti-Semitic atrocities halfway around the world that paved the way for better relations here. Speaking from the Courthouse steps in 1882, Kiski School founder A.W. Wilson addressed Indianans:
“Whereas, we read with horror . . . of the oppression and cruelties perpetrated by the government and people of Russia on its own Israelitish citizens . . . we hereby express our sympathy for the suffering of persecuted Jews, welcoming them to our own hospitable land, in the hope that this age of advancing civilization may no more witness proscription of peaceful and law-abiding citizens anywhere on account of race or creed.”
The ancestors of most present-day Pennsylvania Jews came as refugees from Russia between 1880 and 1910, fleeing pogroms in the wake of Czar Alexander II’s assassination. Those who settled in western Pennsylvania often came by “chain migration,” having first come to larger communities elsewhere and later to small towns at the invitation of relatives or friends already there. And unlike the early peddler, the late-century Jewish newcomer often found a social network already in place; the traditional Hebrew concept of TZEDEKAH, a communal obligation to help others, meant that he would seldom go hungry or homeless while he sought employment. Thus, by the dawn of the new century, the stage was set for Indiana’s Jews to take their place – and set the pace – in retail commerce, and through it to gain the social acceptance so long denied them in the Old World and the New.
1900 – Present : Foundation, Floruit and Fade
The third and final wave came from Poland, Russia and economically-distressed Lithuania. By the time WWI ended the Great Migration of 1900-1914, most members of Indiana’s Jewish community were of Lithuanian descent. Many of its institutions were born in that period’s final years. Hebrew Unity Club, chartered in 1914, would become Hebrew Unity Congregation two years later; both the Hub and Bon Ton, founded in 1907– 08, would surpass the twenty–five year record set by Noah Adler’s clothing store (1867-1892) to become future Indiana icons.
The signal event in the community’s history took place on October 20, 1916 – the 23rd day of Tishri, 5677 by the Jewish calendar – with the founding of Hebrew Unity Congregation. Each of its thirty-eight charter members represented one of the twenty-five Jewish families of Indiana or one of thirteen in towns nearby. They began meeting and worshiping in homes, then in rented rooms. The new White Building’s third floor was finished in accordance with the congregation’s needs, and it remained their home for the next thirty-six years.
The word “Unity” in their name was neither incidental nor coincidental. Many smaller Jewish communities of the time had split into separate congregations over differences in ethnic tradition or denominational practice; with its members representing four ethnic groups and all three traditions of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform), Hebrew Unity’s founders could not afford to let those differences count more than their common heritage.
Terrible events on the world stage would once again broaden Indiana’s acceptance of its Jewish citizens as they matched their community’s response to World War One. Joint committees of Jewish and Christian leaders spearheaded at least four war-relief drives through 1919, and Hebrew Unity’s young men enlisted to go “over there” alongside their gentile age-mates. Lieutenant Charles LeVine, who would join the Red Cross at war’s end, survived artillery barrages, air strikes and even a submarine attack, but his Blairsville kinsman Mayer LeVine was one of many Indiana County doughboys who never came home. Death is the great equalizer.
Indiana grew rapidly in the postwar boom. Jewish retailers opened stores along Philadelphia Street in such number that they were in the majority there by 1929. Yet beyond their entrepreneurial skills, it would be thrift and sacrifice – virtues on which immigrant Jews had long relied – that would see them through the Great Depression to come.
Radio and newspapers were at their zenith in the 1930s. Hebrew Unity members unable to attend Sabbath services listened to WCAE’s broadcast from Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh, or read that city’s Jewish Criterion for inspiration and information. Locally, former pro basketballer Dave Abrams coached Indiana’s Cardinals in the Inter-County League, a source of pride and welcome distraction in those hard times.
Pearl Harbor changed everything, from economics to attitudes. Looking back, men like Dave Luxenberg – then an Army battalion commander – would identify WWII as the turning point, as the military and humanitarian involvement of Indiana’s Jews proved their mettle beyond any doubt. Eighty percent of the boys in Hebrew Unity’s 1941 Confirmation class were in uniform a year later, and the salvage business, once held in low esteem, was so crucial to the war effort that half the men in that typically Jewish profession were granted exemption from the draft.
Like much of small-town America, Indiana’s Jewish community began its Golden Age in 1946. For a quarter century, their second generation rode a rising tide that lifted institutions of local business, nuclear family and post-secondary education to heights not seen before or since. Social and religious groups like Hadassah and B’nai B’rith flourished. Now over sixty families strong, Hebrew Unity became Beth Israel Congregation when the cornerstone of its new synagogue was laid in 1952. The lot was purchased, design commissioned and building constructed WITHOUT DEBT OR MORTGAGE – a remarkable feat for a congregation of any size, much less for one of 300 souls.
All good things must come to an end. With the opening of Regency Mall in 1969, the first of three changes that would close the Golden Age struck family-owned retail businesses. As Stan Luxenberg would say of Indiana in Roadside Empires, “Franchised outlets now lined the highways leading to town. Downtown stores that had once flourished closed or moved to the three malls….” Then came the wave of outsourcing in the Eighties and the rise of E-commerce in the Nineties. The educated children of small town Jewish families dispersed to population centers where professionals were in demand, and by 2000, Beth Israel Congregation was too small to support a full-time rabbi or even to hold regular Sabbath services.
What to do? What the children of Abraham have always done best: adapt. No one knows the future, but given history’s example, it would be a mistake to count out the Jews of Indiana.