A brief history of Judaism in Iowa

Beth El Synagogue in Fort Dodge, built in 1948, now houses a Presbyterian youth annex. — courtesy of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society

The first Jewish mayor of an American city, by some accounts, was Iowa City’s Moses Bloom.

Bloom left his native Alsace, France in 1850 and arrived in Iowa City in 1857, where he soon took over ownership of a clothing store on South Clinton Street (in the space currently occupied by Ewers Men’s Store and Tailgate). He was elected to the city council a year later and voted mayor in 1873.

His political career continued with two terms in the Iowa House — where he helped secure state funding for the University of Iowa — and two more in the Iowa Senate, achieving another first: Bloom is Iowa’s first Jewish senator. In 1879, he turned down the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

While Jewish residents, including Bloom, are ingrained in Iowa’s history, the state’s Jewish population has never been large. Today, Jews represent just 0.2 percent of Iowa’s overall population. The community has also consolidated over the last century; where there once seemed to be at least a few Jewish merchants in just about every small Iowa town, few Jews today live outside of the state’s larger cities. Many are professionals living in Des Moines and Iowa City, but smaller Jewish communities are hanging on in a handful of other Iowa cities.

Moses Bloom — Simon Glazer/public domain

Iowa’s Jews are diverse. Most of today’s synagogues are Reform or Conservative, but a tenacious Orthodox community is still present. Immigration still plays a role, but a much smaller one than it did a century ago, and with much less focus on one region in crisis.

Iowa’s first Jewish settlers resided in Mississippi River towns, starting with the arrival of Alexander Levi in Dubuque in 1833. Levi was French, but within a decade, German and Polish Jews had arrived in Dubuque, McGregor and Fort Madison. Iowa’s early Jewish settlers frequently arrived as peddlers and, where trade allowed, set up as shopkeepers.

By 1855, the Jewish community of Keokuk was large enough that it organized itself as the “Benevolent Children of Israel” (B’nai Israel). Initially, the congregation met in the home of a member, but it opened a cemetery in 1859 and built Iowa’s first synagogue in 1877.

William Krause and his wife arrived in Raccoon Forks in 1846 — which had a population of about 14 at the time, but would become the city of Des Moines in about a decade — and opened the town’s first store two years later. Krause was one of the incorporators of the city. He helped found its first public school and was influential in moving the state capital to Des Moines from Iowa City.

Jewish congregations were organized in Dubuque and Burlington in 1857, Davenport in 1861 and Des Moines in 1870. Council Bluffs, Ottumwa and Sioux City also had congregations by the mid-1880s. Many of these were small, but because certain Jewish prayers require 10 adult men (a minyan), organizing a congregation typically required that many families.

Keokuk’s B’nai Israel Synagogue, Iowa’s first synagogue, dedicated in 1877 and torn down in 1957. — courtesy of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society

While big city congregations in the east could hire European rabbis, small town congregations on the frontier had to content themselves with lay leadership and the occasional visiting rabbi.

Hebrew Union College, America’s first Jewish seminary, was founded in Cincinnati in 1875, and it ordained its first rabbis in 1883. It was and remains the center of the U.S. Reform movement (which arose in Germany in response to the Enlightenment). Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the college’s founders, was instrumental in bringing together frontier Reform congregations with the publication of Minhag America, the first American Jewish prayer book. Other American seminaries did not begin ordaining rabbis until the late 1890s.

In 1894, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York ordained its first rabbi; that seminary was initially considered to be Orthodox, although it eventually became the home of the Conservative movement, less radical than the Reform movement but still willing to bend tradition in the face of modern circumstances. The Orthodox Union, founded in 1898, served to unite congregations that adhered more strictly to tradition.

By 1900, Iowa had 19 organized congregations with 21 “ministers” (rabbis or cantors), and a combined membership of 1,240. Rabbi Simon Glazer estimated that Iowa’s total Jewish population around that time was over 12,000, with all but 1,000 living in towns with organized congregations. So, about one in 10 Jews in Iowa were members of congregations.

Most of these congregations were Orthodox, while four, in Des Moines, Davenport, Sioux City and Keokuk, were Reform. Glazer identified Jewish shopkeepers in 34 Iowa towns.

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The divisions between the different movements in Judaism focus on liturgy and the role of Jewish law, not on doctrine. The Reform movement has generally made the most changes, while Orthodoxy has steadfastly resisted change. Many of Iowa’s smaller and nominally orthodox communities never formally affiliated with any of the national Jewish movements. In 1904, Rabbi Glazer said, most of Iowa’s wealthier, established Jews were associated with the Reform synagogues, while the Orthodox communities, dominated by new immigrants, were less prosperous.

Des Moines’ Temple B’nai Jeshurun, originally erected in 1887. — courtesy of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society

Most of Iowa’s 19th-century Jewish immigrants were from western and central Europe. Many of them had left Europe in 1848-51, when a wave of revolution and counterrevolution swept the continent. In contrast, Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was dominated by refugees from eastern Europe. In 1881, there were pogroms in 166 Ukrainian towns. Rioting continued for years, with ample evidence of Russian government approval. An even larger wave of pogroms swept Russia in 1903-06. In total, between 1880 and 1920, over 2 million Jews fled Russia, mostly to the United States.

Most of the Jews migrating to the U.S. came through New York and settled nearby, but the crowded East Coast slums led to philanthropic efforts to move Jews inland. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) worked on a case-by-case basis to find jobs for immigrants, but this was not enough. Starting in 1909, with support from philanthropist Jacob Schiff, a U.S. immigration assistance program called the Galveston Plan, or Galveston Movement, involved bringing entire shiploads of Jewish immigrants to the United States through the port of Galveston, Texas. Many of them settled in Texas, but there were also charter trains disbursing Jewish immigrants deep into the Midwest.

Many of the Russian Jews who arrived in western Iowa in the early 20th century came through Galveston.

Where the Jewish population of Des Moines was only 500 in 1905, by 1907, it was 3,000, with many immigrants sponsored by HIAS. By 1912, thanks to the Galveston Plan, Des Moines had 5,500 Jews. Similarly, while Sioux City had only 420 Jews in 1905, it had 1,025 in 1907 and 2,400 in 1912.

Even in the early 20th century, some of Iowa’s Jewish communities were in decline. In 1904, Rabbi Glazer reported that the Jewish community in Keokuk, the home of Iowa’s first synagogue, had receded enough that it no longer had a rabbi and was having difficulty maintaining the congregation. The communities in Burlington, Muscatine and Clinton also began to decline early in the century.

The coal mining towns of Centerville and Oskaloosa had small Jewish communities, but these disappeared by mid-century as Iowa’s coal mining industry contracted. More recently, the decline in manufacturing has hurt synagogue membership in many Iowa towns. Jewish communities which once supported multiple congregations have survived by merging their congregations, overcoming significant difficulties as they did so. This has happened in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids and Dubuque. In smaller Jewish communities, synagogues have closed as the last few Jews moved away. Most recently, this has happened in Ottumwa.

The current Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, dedicated on Feb. 29, 1932.– courtesy of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society

The contraction of the Jewish communities in Iowa’s small towns is the result of the economy rather than antisemitism or xenophobia. The loss of Iowa’s first Jewish communities along the Mississippi began with the rising importance of railroads and the declining importance of riverboats. As big-box stores replaced the mom-and-pop shops on Main Street, the Jewish shopkeepers who were once the backbone of small Jewish communities moved away. And for those Jews who remained in small-town Iowa, their children tended to move to major cities for better educational and job opportunities, especially in post-World War II America.

Today, the Jewish community of Des Moines is the largest in the state, although the Orthodox congregation there has sold its building and is currently holding services in a space provided by the Reform synagogue. Des Moines has a Jewish Federation that runs a school as well as providing a variety of charitable services.

A 1971 pen and ink drawing of Agudas Achim synagogue at its original location on Washington Street in Iowa City. — Drawing by Haring, courtesy of Douglas W. Jones

Iowa has an ongoing history of antisemitism. In the 19th century, for example, University of Iowa students were required to attend Protestant services in the university’s chapel. This ended in the early 20th century, leading to a rise in Jewish enrollment at the UI and the founding of the university’s Hillel Club around 1925. What began as a trickle increased to a flood as eastern schools began imposing antisemitic quotas, limiting the number of Jewish students admitted. The result was a boom in out-of-state Jewish enrollment at the UI in the early 1930s. The immediate post-World War II era brought in an influx of Jewish faculty and students who were war veterans.

While the liberal arts, engineering and dental colleges at UI never imposed quotas, the medical and law schools were more selective. The files of Moses Jung, who served as the adviser to Iowa’s Jewish students through the 1930s, include solid documentation of his fight against the quotas in the medical school. There are reports from as late as the early 1960s of explicit bias in the law school’s faculty hiring. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended institutional antisemitism and had a profound impact on university hiring and admissions.

Eastern Iowa saw local Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s. More than 100 men were inducted into the Klan in Cedar Rapids in 1922, the same year Cedar Rapids’ Temple Judah congregation, still thriving today, was officially established. (A Jewish community had existed in Cedar Rapids since the 1890s, founding a cemetery association, hiring a kosher butcher — a shochet — and holding Orthodox services. Temple Judah’s first liberal, English-language services began in 1922, as well as fundraising and outreach efforts by the congregation’s Sisterhood.)

Ottumwa’s B’nai Jacob was established in 1898. The synagogue’s final sermon was given by Iowa City’s Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz in May 2018. — courtesy of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society

The 1930s saw the creation of a local chapter of the German-American Bund, and some private clubs in Cedar Rapids enforced policies prohibiting Jewish members until the late ’60s.

For several years in the early 2000s, one lone woman regularly picketed Agudas Achim in Iowa City (established in 1920 — and now located in Coralville — the congregation is one of the three largest in the state, and one of a handful in the nation to have dual Reform and Conservative affiliations). The woman carried signs that effectively branded all Jews as Nazis because of her views on the Israeli-Palestinian political situation. There was never a threat of violence in this protest, but the broader threat of right-wing antisemitic violence is sufficiently strong that the Jewish community has regularly paid for extra police protection during the fall High Holy Day season.

Ignorance is, however, a far larger problem than outright antisemitism. Jews are constantly required to explain themselves. If one is a part of the majority, there is no need to justify taking a day off from work for Christmas or Easter. Those days are built into the civil calendar. Attempting to take time off from work or school for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often requires having to make extended explanations.

Agudas Achim at its current location, 401 E Oakdale Blvd, Coralville. — by Douglas Jones

Statewide, the Jewish community is very small, about a fifth of Iowa’s Muslim population. As such, many Iowans have never met a Jew. Some people suggest that everyone should attend a synagogue just for the sake of cultural enrichment; if all Iowans decided to do that just once in their lifetime, visitors would outnumber the combined congregations of the state.

We cannot predict how Iowa’s Jewish community will evolve in the next century, but we can be sure of one thing: it will change.

A Mini-Guide to the Jewish Holidays

By Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz at Agudas Achim synagogue, 401 E Oakdale Blvd, Coralville. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

All a well-trained eye needs to do is glance up at the moon in the night sky.

I was explaining this principle to my young children not long ago. As I surveyed the curve of the moon, I told them, I could predict visually within a margin of one or two days where we are in the Jewish calendar. If the moon is a tiny sliver, a new Jewish month is upon us. If the moon is a pregnant orb, we know that this is the marker of certain key holidays like Purim, Passover and the Festival of Booths.

This is because the Jewish calendar is a lunisolar one, meaning that it integrates the Earth’s revolution around the sun as well as the Moon’s revolution around the Earth. To compensate for the discrepancy between both, an intercalated 13th month is inserted every few years. This makes the Jewish calendar beautiful: sensitive to the seasons and the heavenly bodies. But it also makes the calendar a little unwieldy to use: due to this process of intercalation, the Jewish holidays ‘oscillate’ on a yearly basis. The Day of Atonement, for example, could be in late September or early October, for instance. This makes planning with general society’s solar calendar complicated.

The Jewish calendar is based on Biblical texts and their later Rabbinic interpretations and strives to incorporate agricultural cycles of the Biblical Land of Israel and key historical moments. Passover (Pesach), for instance, remembers the lambing season and the barley harvest as well as the Exodus from Egyptian slavery. The Feast of Weeks (Shavu’ot) honors the early summer wheat harvest as well as the people’s acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Likewise, the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) centers on the fall fruits harvest as well as the wilderness wanderings of our ancestors who dwelt in fragile booths.

The Jewish holidays are richly textured and a lot of fun! We have special, seasonal foods, music, prayers and traditions to accompany each. Passover is known for unleavened products like matzah (flatbread), while during the mid-winter festival of Chanukkah, we love tucking in greasy, fried foods (all delicious!) like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (donuts). At Shavu’ot, you’ll find us eating blintzes, and apples dipped in honey to usher in a sweet year for Rosh haShanah, the Jewish New Year.

In a sense, the Jewish holidays are the backbone to the Jewish cultural experience: whether this is religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, newly created traditions or ancient collective memory. Our holidays are vibrant, joyous and plentiful. So next time, glance at the moon and if you’re curious, stop by the synagogue to find out what we are celebrating this time. You are most welcome. L’chaim, to life!

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included an anecdote purportedly told by the late Iowa District Court Judge Ansel Chapman, describing antisemitism he encountered in Iowa City. Following publication, Little Village was contacted by a member of Chapman’s family who explained that Chapman never told that anecdote, and always said he’d never encountered such antisemitism in Iowa City. Little Village regrets this error.

Douglas W. Jones came to Iowa City in 1980 as a new University of Iowa faculty member in computer science. He has served on the board of both Agudas Achim Synagogue and the UI Hillel center. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 262.