American Jews at the Turn of the Century

Modernization and immigration shape the community.

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As America moved from an agricultural to industrial country in the late 19th century, the forces of modernization transformed the Jewish community as well. While most Jews had originally settled in port cities on the East Coast of the United States, the revolution in transportation created a network of roads, canals, and railroads which influenced Jewish migration westward.

New Frontiers, New Opportunities

A significant number of young Jewish men peddled goods in these new frontier markets, and the more successful ones often put down roots in small towns and cities throughout the South, the Midwest, and the Far West, establishing stores and shops, as well as a nascent Jewish community.
jews at the turn of centuryIn some cases the early stores evolved into major business enterprises like that of the Shwayder brothers in Denver, Colorado--whose modest trunk company became the internationally known Samsonite Luggage Corporation--and Levi Strauss of blue jeans fame in San Francisco. They also brought Judaism to these regions, organizing religious services for the High Holidays and the Sabbath and forming Jewish burial societies. These activities planted the seeds for future Jewish congregations

The urban centers across the country--New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles--were home to the largest Jewish communities by the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, smaller Jewish enclaves dotted the landscape of every state in America. Most of these communities had synagogues that were affiliated with at least one, if not all three, young but dominant Jewish strains of religious affiliation at the time: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox.

Full Americans & Good Jews

Striving to be viewed as fully American as well as good Jews, Jewish connections were expressed through philanthropy and communal work. Beginning most notably with Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia in the 1820s, Jewish women took an increasingly prominent role in founding and perpetuating the institutions that grew out of this impulse. Gratz is best remembered as the initiator of America's first "Hebrew School" and the main impetus behind the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (1819), which served as the model for future Jewish women's charitable organizations.

The massive immigration of East European Jews to the United States after 1880 also exerted significant influence on all aspects of life. As historian Jonathan Sarna aptly observes in American Judaism, beginning in the late 19th century, the American Jewish community experienced its own "Great Awakening:" "It was characterized by a return to religion, a heightened sense of Jewish peoplehood, new opportunities and responsibility for women, a renewed community-wide emphasis on education and culture, and a burst of organizational energy."

Many new Jewish educational undertakings were created during this period, including the creation of the Jewish Publication Society (1888), the Jewish Chautauqua Society (1893), which focused on adult education, and Gratz College, a Hebrew teachers' college in Philadelphia (1893). Some of these Jewish renewal trends had been germinating for many decades, while others emerged as part of the modernization of America, largely through the influences of urbanization and industrialization.

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Jeanne E Abrams

Jeanne E. Abrams is a professor at Penrose Library at the University of Denver and the longtime director of the Beck Archives and the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, part of the University of Denver's Center for Judaic Studies and Penrose Library.