Religion in the New World
At the time, much of the Judaism of Chicago was Old World Orthodoxy as it was practiced in the mother countries, with traditional liturgy and services conducted in Yiddish, Hebrew, or German. However, on the South Side, affluent Germans practiced Reform Judaism, which was considered too modern and liberal for the more traditional Austro-Hungarians who lived and worked along Maxwell Street on the Northwest Side. These two groups were never truly in direct conflict as the insularity and tight-knit nature of the Jewish neighborhoods allowed each to possess an independent authority, a governance from within that resisted outside intervention. This enabled a strong social network among established friends and neighbors, and through organizations such as the landsmanshaften, which provided a support system for immigrating families as they transitioned into life in America.
The city had few synagogues at this time, but there were many worshippers who gathered behind the closed doors of storefronts, lofts, warehouses, and private homes. Small, ethnic-based minyanim sprouted up all across the Northwest Side around Maxwell Street. Throughout the fall of 1871, a group of Austro-Hungarian Jews assembled there in a second-story loft above a dry goods store. On the eve of Simchat Torah, October 8, 1871, these men congregated at the home of Moses Hirsch on Milwaukee Avenue. They were 15 men from the “old country”: David S. Eisendrath, J. Gruener, Moses Hirsch, Simon Klee, Abe Klee, Herman Renberg, S. Richter, B. Schram, L. Schulhof, L. Schwartz, Z. Sinsheimer, M. Solomon, J. Tausig, M. Tausig, and L. Weil.
Around 9 p.m., as the men discussed the details of the upcoming holiday, a fire ignited in a barn in the city’s crowded West Division. It quickly spread in the windy autumn night. As the meeting concluded, the 15 men stepped outside to find the city in flames.
Undeterred and even inspired by the disaster, the men vowed to meet again that very Shabbat, now under the banner of an officially named congregation, Gemeinde Rodef Sholom, "a gathering place for those who pursue peace.” True to their word, the men and their families assembled on Shabbat at the home of J. Ohnstein, another Austro-Hungarian transplant, and held services there in German for two more Sabbaths with a Torah donated by David Eisendrath. A new congregation—the first to meet in Chicago after the Great Fire—was born.