The Leadership Takes Hold
In the beginning, the fledgling minyan rented space in an assembly hall at the corner of Peoria and Ohio Streets. There, Saturday morning services were held in the Orthodox tradition with lay leadership largely provided by the Reverend Ignatz Kunreuther. He had previously conducted services at Chicago’s oldest synagogue, KAM (Kehilath Anshe Maarav—Congregation of the Men of the West), in the 1850s. A highly observant Jew whose father had been a rabbi in Gelnhausen, Germany, Rev. Kunreuther walked from his home on Harrison Street and Fourth Avenue each Shabbat to officiate at the Rodef Sholom minyan. While he was not an ordained rabbi, he was a chacham, a learned man, who had also served as ritual slaughterer and cantor in both his native community in Europe and his Chicago immigrant community.Moses Hirsch was elected as the first president of the temple, Z. Sinsheimer became vice president, and David Eisendrath, who provided the sefer Torah, became the first treasurer.
In April 1872, Gemeinde Rodef Sholom purchased—at a cost of $7,000 (roughly $102,300 today)—the wood frame of an old Norwegian Lutheran church on the corner of Huron and May Streets. The synagogue then moved the structure to land it had purchased on the corner of Huron and Peoria Streets. Reverend Kunreuther officiated there for approximately one year. At this time, the congregation was composed entirely of German-speaking immigrants from Central Europe, mainly from Bohemia, Silesia (a region comprising parts of Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia), and Austria-Hungary, with several additional members from central Germany. The liturgy and ritual practice were derived in large part from the services at older Central European synagogues, and divrei Torah were delivered in either Hebrew or German.
In March 1873, Herman Eliassof arrived in Chicago from a pulpit in Ogdensburg, New York. With a highly favorable recommendation from KAM rabbi Reverend Dr. Machol, Eliassof was hired and installed as the first official rabbi of Rodef Sholom. That June, however, an unusually powerful windstorm hit the wood-frame synagogue, uprooted it from its foundation, and demolished it. Immediately following the storm, the leaders of Rodef Sholom gathered at the home of David Eisendrath to discuss fundraising to build a new house of worship and pay back their debt of $7,000.
The congregation issued bonds at $10 each to help offset the cost of construction. Through great enthusiasm and considerable financial acumen, the members of the congregation purchased enough bonds to ensure that the $7,000 debt was quickly repaid and a new structure was speedily erected not far from the synagogue’s original plot, on the corner of Huron and May Streets.
During this time of hustle and bustle—and great Chicago muscle, for the city was again thriving just a year and a half after the great fire—Dr. Eliassof left the pulpit of Rodef Sholom to focus on writing, teaching, and translating. Further, when the new structure at May and Huron was dedicated, it bore a new name, commensurate with the Gemeinde’s vision to move forward, emboldened both by the spirit of the age of industry and the more sacred spirit of its members’ traditional faith. Rodef Sholom was now Beth El, the House of God.