(Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
(Staff photo by Phyllis McLaughlin/pmclaughlin@madisoncourier.com)
About 25 members of the Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom in Louisville visited Madison Wednesday in a pilgrimage, of sorts, to visit the historic sites of a sister congregation that once thrived here.

Led by Senior Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport, the group visited Madison’s lone Jewish cemetery, as well as the buildings where Jewish services had been held downtown from the mid-1800s until the late 1930s.

In the morning, the group boarded the Madison Trolley, which took them to the Adath Israel Cemetery on Wilson Avenue, where Rapport led them in prayers honoring the 17 people who are buried there. Other stops included 216 E. Main, now the Subway sandwich shop, which once was owned by Henry and Benjamin Lotz, a.k.a. “Hen & Ben, The Shoe Men.”

Though records are contradictory, Rapport said he believes that before the building was a shoe store, it may have been a butcher shop owned by W.M. Hoffstadt, which would have provided kosher meats to the Jews living in the city. Hoffstadt, who Rapport said did own the building at the time, allowed the small congregation to conduct services on the second floor of his building.

Rapport then showed the group a small brick building on the alley at the back of the Subway building, which he said was a mikvah – a bath which collected rain water used for ritual purifications.

When the congregation outgrew the second floor of Hoffstadt’s building, it held services in the Masonic Lodge across the street until there were enough families and they could purchase their own building – 113 E. Third Street.

Now the Seifert & Short Folk Art and Doll Museum, that building had been a church serving Madison’s Radical Methodist Church until the late 1860s. The building served as a synagogue for about 80 years.

At noon, the group joined members of Historic Madison Inc. and the Jefferson County Historical Society at the History Center for a presentation by Rapport: “The Jews of Madison: Cradle of Jewish Life in the Midwest.”

He said Jews first came from eastern cities to the Ohio Valley and Madison about 1840, when the city was entering its boom years. The city was deemed an excellent place to set up business.

Rapport said Madison’s Jewish community was a mix of traditions because its members came from various backgrounds – European Jews from Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, and Sephardic Jews from the Netherlands.

They ranged from “spiritual rebellious types” (i.e. the Brandeis family), to orthodox to the extremely orthodox Sephardim, he said.

“What’s really unique about Madison is, instead of having three synagogues among 30 families, you have the one synagogue where everyone just somehow figured out how to get along.”

The Adath Israel congregation in Louisville was founded in 1843 and in Madison in 1853. At the time, there were only about three ordained rabbis in the United States, he said.

Because there were so few rabbis, the first leaders to serve Madison were not ordained. The first of Madison’s lay readers, Joseph Dinkelspiel, also traveled back and forth to serve Louisville, as well, he said.

But, in the 1850s and ‘60s, “somehow, two of the three rabbis in American came to Madison, Indiana,” he said. One was Rabbi Isaac Leeser, who owned a Jewish newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland, and traveled through the country to visit and write about Jewish communities. In 1851, he came to Madison and estimated the community at about 60.

Out East, “people were surprised” at that number, Rapport said.

In 1868, Rabbi Max Lilienthal came from Cincinnati to dedicate the sanctuary of the Madison synagogue.

Some of the leaders in the local Jewish community included Aaron Marks, who established a mercantile business, A. Marks & Sons – the first Jewish-owned business on Main Street, Rapport said.

He was the father of Martin Marks, who was the first Jewish child born in Madison. A member of Madison’s International Order of Odd Fellows, Martin was instrumental in bringing the original cast-iron fountain, which had been displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. It was presented to the city in 1884 and was recast in bronze and rededicated in 1981.

Adolph and Fredrica Dembitz Brandeis were the first married Jewish couple to move to Madison, living here just for a few years. In 1855, the couple moved to Louisville where their son, Louis Brandeis – the U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1916 to 1939 – was born the next year. He is the namesake of the University of Louisville’s School of Law.

Frederica’s cousin, Madison resident Lewis Dembitz, was the most celebrated Jewish scholar in the south. He studied law and left Madison at 18, with a glowing recommendation from John Lyle King, a prominent member of the Presbyterian Church.

Eventually, Dembitz had learned to speak 12 languages and was a writer, lawyer, religious leader, abolitionist and a respected Lincoln Republican. He translated “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” into German to help spread the abolitionist cause among the German Jewish community in Louisville, Rapport said.

As a political reformer, he is credited with bringing the idea of casting secret ballots in elections to the United States. “The first place it was used was in Louisville,” Rapport said. “But the last state to adopt it was Kentucky.”

In 1856, another abolitionist, Rabbi Bernard Felsenthal, came to Madison and was an instructor for the Adath Israel school. As one who favored reform among American Jewish congregations, he was basically run out of town by Madison Jews who preferred to remain traditional, Rapport said. Felsenthal then led the Chicago Sinai congregation, which also ran him out of town because of his Zionist belief in the re-establishment of a Jewish state in Israel.

Adath Israel congregant Marcus Sulzer served as Madison’s mayor for two terms, and dedicated the original Madison-Milton Bridge in December 1929. He was the last surviving member of the board of trustees for the Madison synagogue.

One of Madison’s most renowned Jewish citizens, Rachel Hoffstadt, was born in the city in 1886. A 1908 graduate of Hanover College, she was the first Hanover graduate to obtain a Ph.D.

She earned a doctorate in botany at the University of Chicago in 1915, followed by a doctorate in science at Johns Hopkins University in 1923.

Hoffstadt “helped to develop an oral vaccine for typhoid, which was essential in eliminating the disease as a major cause of death,” Rapport said. The disease was so rampant in the mid-1800s, he said, 861,000 soldiers in the Civil War died of typhoid – more than were killed in battle during the four-year conflict.

In 1929, Hoffstadt also studied at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and two years later became a professor at Washington University in Seattle, where she died in 1962. Having never married, she still considered Madison her home and is buried with the rest of her family in Springdale Cemetery, Rapport said.

Speaking for his Louisville congregation, “Madison is dear to our heart,” Rapport said. “There hasn’t been a Jewish community in Madison for a long time ... It means a great deal to the Jewish community [that remains] in the area to come back here and know that the Jewish community of Madison is not only remembered, but has been cared for in an active way.”