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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Dubuque's Temple Beth El along West Locust Street in 2009.

The first mention of Jews in connection with Iowa appeared in a memoir published in London in 1819 by William Robinson, a non-Jewish adventurer and land speculator, who proposed mass colonization of European Jews in Iowa and Missouri. (1) Alexander LEVI is considered by historians to be the first Jewish settler in Iowa. He arrived in Dubuque on August 1, 1833 and soon opened a grocery store. In 1837 he became the first naturalized citizen in the future state of Iowa. (2)

Other Jewish settlers included Joseph Newmark who opened a store in Dubuque in 1842. Finding so few settlers of his religion, he left the city and moved west. It is reputed he began the Jewish community in Los Angeles after his arrival in 1852. Iowa's first Jewish junk dealer has been considered C. W. SCHREIBER. He had a growing business by 1851 and after service in the CIVIL WAR returned to Dubuque to establish SCHREIBER & STRINSKY. Iowa's first Jewish physician was Dr. S. Lesser who settled in Dubuque in 1855. Benjamin M. SAMUELS, a pioneer lawyer, was elected a city alderman from 1855 to 1859. In 1857 Hermann Friedlander operated a store. His son was one of a group of students that opened Maimonidas College in Philadelphia. Other merchants included Moses Lippman and A. Goldstein. (3) Homes of the first Jewish settlers tended to lie between 1st and 18th STREETS and Main and Bluff where they could buy kosher meats and be within walking distance of a synagogue. (4)

The story of Temple Beth El goes back to 1857, the year that Levi, Dubuque’s first Jewish resident formed an informal worship community with several other recent entrants to the city. (In Judaism, while a community is best served by a spiritual leader who is learned in Torah, ritual and liturgy, services do not need to be conducted by a priest. Instead, a quorum of ten adults is required to fulfill the obligation of prayer, and any member can conduct life cycle events and services.) The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia has listed a congregation in Dubuque as of 1857. This claim may be based on a letter written on January 12, 1857 by B. Eiseman from Davenport to the Occident. (5)

Alexander Levi

On September 25, 1860 with the support of Alexander Levi the congregation had grown and had a name, B’nei Jeshrun (Children of God). (6) It served 100 member families; and met in a rented hall on 5th and Locust STREETS. (7)

On September 26, 1860 Alexander Levi transferred land that he owned to "M. Cohana for the exclusive use of the citizens of Dubuque who are of the Jewish persuasion as a cemetery." Levi then deeded the remainder of the tract to his French partner, Jean Baptist Bourgeois. on May 4, 1863 Levi enlarged the cemetery section by having Bourgeois convey additional land to Cohana. An entry tells that "Bourgeois and Levy convey to the City of Dubuque the west tract of 20 acres except the .6 acre deeded to M. Cohana in trust to be used as a Jewish cemetery." Cohana (also spelled Cahana and on his gravestone as Kahanna) died in 1863. On October 7, 1875 the City of Dubuque conveyed the property to the Linwood Cemetery Association, "excepting so much thereof as has been heretofore deeded to M. Cahana in trust to be used as a Jewish cemetery, containing .6 acres. (8)

By 1862, with new Jewish arrivals from the East, B’nei Jeshrun (Children of God) had a paid Rabbi and Chazzan, or singer of the liturgy; a paid schochet, the person who slaughtered meat in a ritually proper or kosher way; and a religious school where twenty-five children received instruction in Hebrew and German. (9)

When Jewish men married non-Jewish women, many of the women converted. Proof of this conversion was often important. When Celina Levi, the daughter of Alexander and wife of James Levi, wanted to secure a burial plot in the Dubuque Jewish Cemetery, she needed an affidavit of her mother's conversion of Judaism in Chicago in 1869. (10)

In 1890, Bnei Jeshrun had changed its name to B’nei Abraham (Children of Abraham). A second congregation, Knesses Israel (gathering or assembly of Israel), had opened on 15th and Elm possibly to serve recent arrivals from Poland, Russia and Lithuania whose liturgy and culture differed from earlier French and German settlers. A third group Kehilla (literally “community”) appeared for a time and may have been a fraternal organization or a separate prayer quorum or minyan. The Jewish community was firmly established; local newspapers regularly ran stories about Jewish holiday services, celebrations and other temple events. (11)

Many Jewish residents of Dubuque took advantage of membership in the HEBREW BENEVOLENT SOCIETY, HEBREW LADIES BENEVOLENT SOCIETY, or the HEBREW PROGRESSIVE LITERARY ASSOCIATION. A Hachnesses Orchim society cared for transient strangers and provided food, a place to sleep, and some money. When it was organized in July, 1908 the leaders appeared to be William Olansky and M. Kassler. (12)

In 1901, Kenesses Israel had 125 families and was meeting on 10th and Washington. Around that time, the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society provided funds for the congregation to buy a lot and 2-story house on Maple between 17th and 18th, which they remodeled into a synagogue. The congregation, forerunner of Temple Beth El, lasted another 35 years until the DUBUQUE PACKING COMPANY bought the property and, shortly after, demolished the building. (13)

Certificate of membership in B'nai B'rith

The current Temple Beth El (House of God) was funded largely by B’nai B’rith Dubuque Lodge 1029 (B’nai B’rith, meaning Children of the Covenant), the oldest continuously operating Jewish service organization in the world. It was started in 1843 and was chartered in Dubuque in October 1927 with Dr. Max KADESKY as its first president. (14) Dr. Kadesky was elected secretary of the Jewish Study Club organized in July, 1925. The focus of the organization was to raise more youth spirit toward Jerusalem. (15)

In 1926 Dubuque Jewish community was asked to participate in the United Jewish Campaign, an effort to raise $25 million nationally for relief of those living abroad. American Jewish leaders had hoped the 1922 campaign would be the last, but economic depression, care of war orphans, and the reconstruction by means of joint loan banks led to the program being continued. Led locally by Joseph Ballin and an executive committee of Harry Kasaier, Louis Rotman, M. Mendelsohn, S. Rappaport, and Charles Belsky, the local drive to raise $8,000 was planned to be carried out person-to-person in one day. (16)

Social organizations included the Aleph Apeph Club for boys started in 1932. In December 1933 a "Young Israelite" club was organization. Hadassah was organized locally in June, 1939 with Irene Slivken its first president.

The temple – serving 85 member families - was dedicated in 1939 at a time when Hitler was storming Europe and anti-Semitism was being promoted in the United States by people like Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin. Catholics and Protestants joined Jewish religious leaders in the celebration. (17)

The Belsky brothers were active in civic organizations. Max was president of the Rotary. Charles was a board member of the YOUNG MEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION (Y.M.C.A.) and school board and president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the first Community Chest drive in 1929. (18)

Dubuque and its citizens embraced the congregation. The laying of the cornerstone was an ecumenical affair attended by Jews and non-Jews. Synagogue President, Louis Rotman laid the cornerstone. B’nai B’rith President, Meyer Zuckerman chaired the program and the speakers were Rabbi Monroe Leavens of Des Moines, District Court Judge P.J. Nelson, a Catholic; and Rev. William E. Brehm of the First Congregational Church now FIRST CONGREGATIONAL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST of Dubuque. (19)

Temple Beth El is a small, but vibrant worship community whose families hail from within a 90-mile radius and represent an age span from 6 months to 94. Some members have lived in the region nearly all their lives and have connections back to the temple's earliest days. Others were raised elsewhere, came to the region for school or work, and settled down to build lives within the Temple Beth El family. The congregation has welcomed some recent additions as several young people have moved to the area to begin careers. (20)

Temple Beth El members represent teachers, professionals, leaders of businesses and organizations, and students. The congregation has a strong social justice mission, and many members are active volunteers for area charities and nonprofits. Temple Beth El provides an opportunity to strengthen Jewish identity and deepen respect for Jewish ritual and tradition through the celebration of life cycle events and the observation of Jewish holidays. The temple also provides opportunities for members to live by Jewish values as they help to build and shape Dubuque and the region, much like their Jewish predecessors who founded the Jewish community in the mid-19th century. (21)

Rabbi Alexander

In 2008 Temple Beth El was served by Rabbi Stephanie ALEXANDER, the first rabbi in nearly fifty years.

The history of the Jewish community in Dubuque was written by Ruth L. Belsky. Entitled 101 Years with Dubuque Jewry, it appeared in The Iowa Jewish News in 1934. (22)

See: Abraham SLIMMER

James LEVI





1. "Iowa Jewish History," Jewish Virtual Library, Online: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Iowa.html

2. Fleishake, Oscar. The Illinois-Iowa Jewish Community on the Banks of the Mississippi River, Unpublished Doctor's Degree Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of The Harry Fischel School for Higher Jewish Studies, Graduate Division, Yeshiva University, 1957, p. 11

3. Ibid. p. 12

4. Nevans-Pederson, Mary, "Jewish in Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, October 5, 2008, p !A

5. Fleishake, p. 12

6. p. 4

7. R. Hyfler. E-mail December 2, 2013

8. Fleishake, p. 13

9. Hyfler

10. Fleishake, p. 45

11. Hyfler

12. Fleishake, p. 58

13. Hyfler

14. Fleishake, p. 59

15. "Jewish Study Club Organized," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, July 30, 1925, p. 9

16. "Jewish Campaign in Dubuque Nov. 8," Telegraph-Herald, October 31, 1926, p. 4

17. "Faiths Unite in Dedicating Synagogue," Telegraph Herald, November 127, 1939, p. 16

18. Fleishake, p. 48

19. Hyfler

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid.

22. Fleishake, p. 61