The History of Congregation Oheb Sholom
(Taken from the 75th Anniversary Program Booklet, May 5-7, 1939)
Although Jews lived in Reading as early as Colonial days, it was not until the 1860’S that they existed in sufficient number to organize for religious purposes. Those who had come in earlier times had long since disappeared. Others had taken their place and by the time our story begins there were a few who had already lived in Reading for many years. Modest though their numbers still were, the need to do something to perpetuate their religious faith impelled them to action. On May I, 1864 they held a meeting and adopted a resolution.
“Whereas it has pleased Almighty God that we shall unite together and live according to the holy principles of our sacred religion” was the way their resolution began. This “whereas,” couched in such lofty terms, was followed by what to us might seem a rather prosaic “therefore.” It was that “we the undersigned promise to pay for a shochet the following sums set opposite our names.” But, as subsequent events soon reveal, the need for a shochet was by no means the only one which brought the group together. Actually they had formed a congregation and these men were its founders . Their names, duly entered with the amount each subscribed, are preserved in the minutes of the meeting. They were L. Furth, B. Dreifoos. Sol Hirsh, Abe Speier, M. Einstein, Aaron Henlein, Solomon Weil, Isaac Schwerin, Marcus Lyons, Henry Loeb, Isaac Mann, Isaac Hirshland, Joseph Loeb, Jacob Levy, R. Austrian, H. Arnold and Aaron Einstein.
The following week they met again, this time to purchase a burial ground and to elect their temporary officers, S. Hirsh, president; M. Lyons, vice president; M. Einstein, treasurer; A. Henlein, I. Schwerin and S. Weil, trustees, and 1. Schwerin, secretary. A week later they passed a motion to call the congregation by the name Oheb Shalom of the City of Reading. A regular election soon followed, with M. Einstein becoming president and I. Schwerin remaining as secretary. The next step was to engage a shochet and teacher in the person of Jonas Bauer, the first paid official of the congregation. By this time the holidays were approaching and rooms were rented for prayer and meetings. In October the congregation adopted a Constitution and By-laws, which were authorized to be printed in English and in German.
Events had followed in rapid succession. In a few short months this band of determined men had laid firm foundations for Reading’s first Jewish congregation.
In the years that followed the congregation moved a number of times, renting rooms for worship and meetings. The meetings at times must have been rather spirited, for the minutes of one of them record that the president “orderise” the secretary to fine one of the members “for not behaving himself in the Open meeting.” The congregation was served by several men, following each other, who combined the callings of teacher, shochet and chazan.
In 1867 M . Einstein was succeeded as president by Charles Austrian, who served a month and then resigned, to be followed by I. Hirshland, Bernard Dreifoos, M. Feist, R. Austrian, 1. Hirshland again and then in 1874 by Ely Schulhoff, who served continuously for a period of twenty years. The secretaries following L Schwerin were R. Austrian, Joseph Loeb and Solomon Weil
Renting quarters was by no means a satisfactory procedure for a congregation. As far back as 1871 the question of buying ground for a synagogue was officially considered, but it wasn’t until the 1880’S, an important period in many ways for the congregation, that the question got to a point that went beyond that of discussion. On April 20, r884 a committee consisting of Bernard Dreifoos and Henry Loeb reported subscriptions of $9IO toward a fund for a synagogue and a committee was appointed to look for a suitable property. It was at a special meeting of the congregation held in November of that year that the church at Chestnut and Pearl Streets was purchased from the Emanuel Congregation of the Evangelical Association. After being remodeled, the building was dedicated Friday, July 31 and Saturday, August I, 1885.
This period was important not only because of the purchase and dedication of the synagogue. Other significant events were occurring. The members had become dissatisfied with the old manner of worship. Reform was in the air. In the Fall of 1883 a committee was appointed “to prepare a more reformed or modified way for our religious services.” Before the year was over the report of the committee was adopted and it was decided to advertise in the “American Israelite,” the organ of Isaac M. Wise, of Cincinnati, the leader of Reform, for a Rabbi to . conduct services according to the ritual “Minhag America,” widely used at the time by reform congregations. The new synagogue was to have an organ and what must have been a momentous decision at the time was made about a month before the dedication when it was officially decided that heads be uncovered during worship. It was Isaac M. Wise who dedicated the synagogue.
The congregation now not only had a Temple. It had become a reform congregation. It had more than a Temple, for at the dedication it was not only Isaac M . Wise who officiated. Another participant in the services was G. Levy, elected a few weeks before as the first Rabbi of the congregation, his term to begin with the dedication.
The congregation was not large at the time. The books of 1886 record the names of thirty-four members and two seatholders. But the congregation, now entering Its third decade, was thriving.
. Rabbi Levy was with the congregation for four years and in 1890 was succeeded by a Rev. Mr. Goldstein, who remained about seven months, to be followed in turn by N . Michnik, David Kline and Julius Magil. In 1894 Ely Schulhoff retired from office. Under his inspiration and through his efforts the congregation advanced considerably in these years, its social life being developed and its cultural life deepened. Among his interests was that of music and under his direction a choir was formed. It was during his presidency that the Important changes described above took place. M . Wertheimer, who was elected his successor, died a few years later while in office and the vice-president, S. S. Schweriner, succeeded to the office. It was in this period that Leopold Levy served as the congregation’s secretary, having been elected in 1888 and serving continuously until 1907.
By 1897 the old cemetery of the congregation, located in the southern part of the city and purchased when the congregation was organi2;ed, was no longer adequate. The city had grown around it. New grounds were bought in Shillington and the cemetery named Mt. Sinai. In the course of time the bodies interred in the old burial ground were removed to the new cemetery.
In 1897, after the congregation had been without a rabbi for almost a year, Rabbi Magil having left in 1896, Rabbi Julius Frank became the congregation’s rabbi and served during one of the most fruitful periods in the congregation’s history. One of the first problems to occupy his attention was that of the congregation’s ritual. The “Minhag America” had been used for some years, but now a new prayer book had appeared, the Union Prayer Book, published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and destined to replace the older reform rituals. In 1895 several copies had been ordered by the congregation for inspection, but the question of its adoption precipitated a controversy and the books were returned. Several months after Rabbi Frank assumed office the question came up again, but action was deferred. Finally in April 1899 the congregation adopted the Union Prayer Book and in 1907 joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Soon after the Union Prayer Book was adopted a choir was organized to sing at services throughout the year and for many years Mrs. Garrett Anthony and Miss Irene Hess were members of the choir.
There were rumblings of dissatisfaction with the old building, and from time to time action was proposed to find a site for a new edifice. With this in mind, a four day bazar was held in March of 1901 under the chairmanship of Louis Heilbron. The members threw their energies into the project and it proved highly successful, but the money raised was used not for a new Temple, as was first anticipated, but for remodeling the old.
Besides S. S. Schweriner, the presidents during these years were Solomon Hirshland and Leopold Loeb. Leopold Levy, who resigned as secretary in 1907, after serving for nineteen years, was followed in this office by Meyer Merzbacher, who was succeeded in 1911 by Herman Hammel. In 1914 the congregation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with an elaborate three day program.
For almost twenty years the congregation had been considering building a new Temple, when in April, 1919, impetus was given to the project at an eightieth birthday anniversary of Henry Loeb, then the only living charter member. Leo J. Sondheim was president of the congregation and at the birthday celebration a considerable sum was pledged by those present for a new building. The following week,·a building committee was appointed. The next year the old Temple was sold and during the years in which the new building was being planned and erected the congregation worshipped and held its Religious School classes in Stauffer’s Hall at Sixth and Franklin Streets.
These were busy years for the congregation. A site was purchased for the new Temple. Contributions were made to the building fund. A bazaar was held. In 1921 ground was broken, the first shovel full being scooped up by Henry Loeb. The following year the corner stone was laid. Members purchased bricks, memorials were sold and a committee of women looked into the requirements for furnishings. At last the new Temple at Perkiomen Avenue and Thirteenth Street was completed, a place of worship, of study, of meeting, a spiritual home for the members of Oheb Sholom, a symbol of the faith of Israel and an ornament to the city. Impressive ceremonies marked the dedication in June, 1923, with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise delivering the dedicatory sermon.
Leo J. Sondheim, who was president when the Temple was built and dedicated and who both before and after his term has been active on the board and on committees, was followed by S. S. Schweriner. Mr. Schweriner, one of our oldest members, served at three different times for a total of twenty years. A leader in the community as well as in the congregation, he has always given freely of himself for the welfare of the Temple. Upon his retirement he was elected honorary president for life. He was followed by David Grotta, long a devoted member and still serving faithfully as a member of the board. His successor, Dr. Sidney ]. Sondheim, still serves in an efficient and capable manner. He has been tireless and unsparing of self in his efforts in the congregation’s behalfand under his presidency in recent years the congregation has made considerable progress.
During the depression the congregation was hampered financially as were all other institutions. Through these years and continuing to the present, Saul Kaufmann, a faithful member, has contributed generously in many ways. Among his many benefactions he has for a number of years been maintaining the Temple choir.
The women of the congregation have long been active and as far back as 1886 had an organization of their own, the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society, founded that year with Mrs. Sol Weil as first president. In 1904 another women’s organi2;ation was formed in the congregation, called the Ladies’ Auxiliary, of which Mrs. Levi Weitzenkorn was president. For some years the two organizations continued to exist side by side, until in 1914 they were merged into our present Sisterhood. The first officers of the Sisterhood were Mrs.
S. S. Schweriner, president; Mrs. Julius Cohen, vice president; Miss Adele Levine, recording secretary; Mrs. Samuel ]. Sondheim, financial secretary and Mrs. T. R. Cohn, treasurer. The Sisterhood has been a mainstay of the congregation, helping in furnishing the Temple, in reducing its mortgage, in redecorating and assisting the congregation in many other ways, all of this in addition to its social and cultural program for its members. In 1935 a Sisterhood choir was organized and sings at Sabbath morning and festival morning services and once a month augments the professional choir on Friday evenings. The presidents of the Sisterhood, in addition to Mrs. Schweriner, have been Mrs. Samuel ]. Sondheim, Mrs. David Grotta, Mrs. Henry Hammel, Mrs. G. I. Winston and Mrs. Nathan Greenberg, the present president.
In 1923 the men of the congregation organized a Brotherhood, which for a number of years was very active under the presidency of David Grotta. Its first officers were David Grotta, president; David Sulkis, vice-president; Max Baerncopf, secretary and Jacob Cohn, treasurer. In its heyday it held well attended meetings attracting wide interest and was a useful adjunct to the congregation. It was reorganized in 1935 with Dr. A. G. Babitt as president.
At the time the Temple was being built a Junior League was started, with Adele Levine as first president, followed by Hilda Liefter and then Dr. Sidney]. Sondheim. It was very active for a time, having a program of social and cultural activities.
In 1927, after an active ministry of thirty years, Rabbi Julius Frank retired. He had labored devotedly through a significant period in the congregation’s history. He had served the members faithfully, he had helped build up the congregation, he had given of the best of his energies in the service of Judaism. In the community at large he was a well known figure, serving many causes. He lived for two years as Rabbi Emeritus, his death on August 19, 1929 being mourned by the whole community.
Upon the retirement of Rabbi Frank as active rabbi in 1927, Rabbi Sidney L. Regner became the congregation’s spiritual leader and still serves in this capacity. He has effectively carried forward the work of the congregation and has been active in community life. One of his first acts was to call together a group of young people in December, 1927 to form a young people’s organization. A governing board was elected consisting of Irving Bash, Freda Holzman, Dorothy Marcus and Hilda Liefter and regular monthly meetings were held. The following Fall this group, calling itself the Temple League, elected as its president Dr. Sidney ]. Sondheim, who threw himself into the work of the League with his accustomed energy. The League flourished for a number of years, holding monthly meetings and inaugurating open forums in the congregation. During the period of its existence it played an important role in the congregation’s cultural life.
The last decade of the Temple’s life, under Rabbi Regner’s leadership, has been one of progress and development. The Religious School has been reorganized, with modern textbooks adopted and a new curriculum instituted. In 1932 a High School department was organized and in May, 1935 the first class was graduated. The congregation’s open forums, held sporadically in the past years, have attracted wide and favorable comment. Innovations have been made in the services, the chief of which being the introduction in 1937 of the Kiddush in the Friday evening service. Since 1929 there has been a Children’s Harvest Service during Sukkoth, to which later a consecration service was added. The social room of the Temple, in addition to being a place of meeting of Temple organizations for social and cultural purposes, has in recent years been the scene of activities of many non-congregational groups, particularly those of young people. The youngest organi41tion of the congregation itself is the Young People’s Temple League, organized in October, 1938, its first officers being Mason Marcus, president; William Kelner, vice-president; Robert Gilbert, treasurer and Phyllis Claster, secretary.
The congregation now has a history of seventy-five years. If it looks back to what has been so well wrought in former days, it does so but to strengthen itself for the tasks of today. For the congregation lives not only in the sure accomplishments of the past, but also in the service of the present and with eyes directed toward the future.