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History

A Brief History of the Springfield, Missouri Jewish Community
by Marc Cooper and Julie Henigan

 

     We don't know when the first Jewish families arrived in Springfield, Missouri. By the 1880s there was already a small community of German Jews living in town. They had come mostly from the Rheinland, were shopkeepers, and left us no evidence of their religious organizations. However, by 1890 Jews of eastern European extraction were beginning to appear in the Ozarks. Perhaps it was the arrival of their poor cousins that caused the German Jews of Springfield to organize a synagogue in 1893, Temple Israel.

 

     During the first years of the twentieth century the Jewish community in Springfield grew large enough to split into two congregations; Temple Israel kept its membership in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the organization of American reformed Judaism), while Sha'are Zedek became the focus of Eastern European and Orthodox Judaism in Springfield. The two congregations cooperated to purchase and maintain a cemetery, members intermingled in fraternal Jewish organizations, and generally got along well, although there was a sharp social distinction between the two groups.

     Though Springfield was segregated and a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, the Jewish population seems to have been hardly touched by anti-Semitism between the wars. Several of our respondents told stories about their fathers being asked to join the Klan by Klansmen oblivious to their organization's anti-Semitism. The truth is more complex. The Jewish population consisted of independent shopkeepers and businessmen who, after World War I, were joined by factory managers from Jewish owned companies in St. Louis. There were few Jewish professionals nor did many Jews find employment in other areas of the Springfield economy. The Jews of Springfield quietly accepted the social constraints which were a part of American life until recently.

 

     In 1933 the wealthy but aging German Jews built a modest synagogue with seats for about one hundred twenty worshippers. They never could pay off the mortgage. During World War II, the two congregations were forced by circumstance to cooperate on a more intimate basis. After the war, Sha'are Zedek paid off the mortgage and joined Temple Israel creating United Hebrew Congregations. The new congregation was wealthy enough to hire a part-time rabbi and construct a large social hall in 1952. However, the fifties were the twilight of "classical" Springfield Judaism. The old German families had nearly disappeared, and the local retail economy was replaced by the strip mall centered franchising system. By the 1970s many Jews in town wondered whether Springfield Judaism had any future left. Attendance was so poor in 1975 that UHC was forced to hold joint Friday evening orthodox/reform Sabbath services. The idea expressed by some of our respondents that these were conservative is not entirely accurate. A Union of American Hebrew Congregations trained rabbi using the Reform prayer book and service regularly preached to small groups of largely orthodox worshippers. During the period between Shavuot and the High Holidays when the rabbi was on vacation, these same worshippers would conduct their own services with a conservative siddur in the Orthodox style.

     Starting at about the same time, Jewish professionals, physicians, college professors, lawyers, many with East coast backgrounds, began arriving in Springfield. They revitalized the congregation which grew from about 70 families in 1970 to 105 today. This group constructed a new suburban facility in 1996, and renamed itself Temple Israel.

This history was published in OzarksWatch: The Magazine of the Ozarks — Special Issue: Documenting Jews of the Ozarks(12.1 & 2: 1999), Mara W. Cohen Ioannides, guest editor, as well as on the web site of Marc Cooper, Professor of History, Southwest Missouri State University. Julie Henigan, an oral historian, and Marc Cooper also put together a collection of oral histories taken from some of the congregation's older members. Complete transcriptions of Marc Cooper and Julie Henigan's work can be found by following this link to Marc Cooper's web site and clicking the buttons on the left of his page. The Missouri Humanities Council generously supported their project with a substantial grant. 

The photo of the synagogue on Kickapoo Avenue appears courtesy of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County.

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