The History of Phoenixville and Congregation B'nai Jacob
By Barbara Cohen
Barbara Cohen presented the "History of Phoenixville and Congregation B'nai Jacob" during the Congregation's Heritage Day Celebration on Sunday, February 7, 2016. The following is the text Ms. Cohen used during the presentation. (Photos courtesy of the Historical Society of Phoenixville and the Library of Congress)
Today is about celebrating B’nai Jacob synagogue so it may seem strange to begin talking about the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish people moving to many places all over the Roman Empire. But who we are today has everything to do with what happened to us in the past. The Diaspora and the movement of Jewish people throughout Europe and Asia is really part of our story too. Whether it was the Holy Roman or Ottoman Empires, or the rise of the Protestant and Catholic churches, Jewish people were always singled out and were not regarded as part of the mainstream wherever they lived. Even in the 9th century in Bagdad, Jewish people were made to wear a yellow star badge on their clothing. This is what Hitler reinvented in Germany in the late 1930’s.
Wherever they were, Jews were regarded as the People of the Book, they bathed on Fridays, they knew how to read and understand numbers, and often served as a neutral entity between two noblemen or communities fighting over land and money. Even in the 1990’s in Sarajevo, it was the synagogue where the Red Cross could safely deliver supplies for the Muslims and Catholics who were fighting each other in the former Yugoslavia.
Most importantly, all through the ages, Jewish people needed to be inventive in order to find ways to survive. Jewish men were not allowed in the guilds that taught workers how to make things, so they became merchants and traders and financial advisors to many European and Islamic monarchs. This tradition survived as Jewish people came to the New World in the 17th, 18th & 19th centuries. It isn’t surprising that Aaron Levy who lived on Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia hired Daniel Boone to explore land that he had purchased in what is now Kentucky. Also, William Penn’s sons hired Nathan Levy and David Franks, two Jewish guys, who owned a shipping company, to bring the bell they had ordered from London celebrating 50 years of their father’s experiment in religious toleration. This bell later became known as the Liberty Bell.
Fast forward to the Industrial Revolution. There was a huge influx of the number of immigrants coming to the US to find a better way of life manufacturing the products that led to the success of the industry all over the US. Phoenixville is a symbol and an example of what was happening in many places.
THE PHOENIX IRON AND STEEL COMPANY
The Phoenix Iron and Steel Company began as the US’s first nail works, and later began manufacturing first iron, and later steel products that were needed for the railroads and structural support for buildings in many US cities as well as other countries. By the late 19th century, the Phoenix Iron Company was the largest employer in Chester County! In 1889, the iron company began making steel. Twenty years later by 1910 the Phoenix Iron and Steel Company had the largest open hearth steel furnace in the world. At one time the company employed over 2,000 workers.
The early Jewish pioneers who came to Phoenixville were adventurous and innovative. They established businesses that would serve the needs of the community’s growing immigrant population – based on the tremendous success of the Phoenix Iron and Steel Co. Following the tradition of centuries of being traders, Jewish families began to emigrate here, not to work at the mill, but to sell the things that the workers needed.
ONE HUNDRED BLOCK OF BRIDGE AND MAIN STREETS
The Phoenix Hotel, which is shown here at the corner, is now a parking lot. The hotel that had a wood framework, was destroyed by a fire in the early 20th century.
The first Jewish family to come to Phoenixville was the Vogel family. We don’t know the exact date when they came, although it might have been as early as 1861. Vogel operated a hardware store on the one hundred block of Bridge St. The Benowitz family came in 1880. They established a clothing store at 135 E. Bridge St. Mr. Benowitz was also a member of the Odd Fellows men’s group. He had a shoe store on the two hundred block of Bridge St.
Jacob Siegel was one of several early families that came in 1902. Services were first held in his home. Jacob Siegel’s home and business were at 126 & 128 Bridge St. – close to the corner of Bridge & Starr Sts. at the other end of the block which is shown here. He owned a stove shop here. B’nai Jacob Synagogue is named for Jacob Siegel.
Sam Lang, and the Kaplan, Neumann & Phillips families also came at this time.
THE LUTTMAN BUILDING
In 1902 they rented a room in the Sturges Building, which is now the Luttman Studio, for services and for use as a social hall. Other early synagogue members who came in the early 20th century include Isaac Baer, Jacob Goldberg, Joseph Kohn and the Shusterman family.
By 1912 there were 30 Jewish families here in Phoenixville, so B’nai Jacob was formally chartered by the state of PA on September 26, 1912. A building on the one hundred block of Bridge St. was obtained, next to the Columbia hotel, but after a few years the Vogel’s Main St. property was purchased. We will see that image in a few minutes.
As we look down this street we need to imagine this thriving, growing community, and understand this context as the reason so many Jewish immigrants came and established themselves here to serve the needs of Phoenixville’s growing population.
Some of the early businesses established by the founding members of B’nai Jacob include the following:
Sam Gross – Operated a men’s store selling suits, ties & fancy dress clothes. It was located close to the Phoenix Hotel on this block. Dan Baer also tells me that there was a Chinese laundry next door to Gross’s location. Sam Gross was President of B’nai Jacob for 20 years.
Fink ‘s Market – 171 E. Bridge St. - Sold fruit and produce at this location. Now it is the Chamber of Commerce office. (Dan’s note – Sara Fink married Norman Trachtenberg)
Shulman – He had an army/navy surplus store on this block of Bridge St.
Sam Lang – Operated a bakery in this block as well.
TWO HUNDRED BLOCK OF BRIDGE STREET
This was and still is the heart of Phoenixville’s business district. Jewish entrepreneurs had businesses here throughout most of the 20th century, until the demise of the steel company in 1987. That and the growth of the big box stores in King of Prussia changed Phoenixville’s “Downtown”. It wasn’t until the nationally certified Historic District was established in 1989; along with the restoration of the Foundry Building and the success of the Colonial Theater as a niche, non-profit initiative in the late 1990’s, that Phoenixville’s downtown came alive again – but in a different way.
But, let’s go back in time and look at the places along this street that were once owned by the early members of B’nai Jacob.
211 BRIDGE STREET
Across the street is now Ellie’s Choice, but this was Dan Baer’s family store. They sold men’s furnishings (shoes, hats, shirts work clothes) Dan was born here and the family lived on the second floor above the store. Dan remembers playing on the DINKY railroad cars behind the family store on the Foundry property. His nickname was DINKY.
The family moved here from Pocahontas, VA because Allen Phillips told his Dad all about the various ethnic groups who lived here. His father had two brothers and two sisters who lived in Baltimore. His Dad spoke 8 languages, and married in 1905. (ex. Polish, Slavic & Ukranian) What better way to be successful than to be able to speak your customer’s language!
218 BRIDGE STREET
(across the street from where Dan Baer’s family store was located) Originally this was Cherashores, which began here is 1915, and was in business until 1983. (68 years) First located on the one hundred block, it moved to this location in 1923. They sold women’s apparel, and the business was located next to the Woolworth building.
JOSEPH KOHN'S DRY GOOD STORE
This was located on the two hundred block of Bridge St.
Joe Leichman, another early synagogue member, owned a hardware store near where Joseph Kohn’s business was located.
SWASTICA CATALOG STORE - ACROSS FROM THE LUTTMAN BUILDING
The Swastika Company was established here on Main St. in 1908 since Main St. was the main artery connecting Phoenixville to West Chester. This expansion came about during the Civil War. These buildings were constructed prior to the war and reflected the expanded commercial needs of the growing community. After the Civil War there were various businesses at this location.
The Swastika Company was a mail-order dry goods company. Its operation was similar to that of the Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalog stores. Mostly, it was a catalog company rather than a retail store. Before being taken as their symbol by the Nazis, the swastika was an ancient symbol for good luck!
CONGREGATION B'NAI JACOB ON MAIN STREET -
A FEW BLOCKS WEST FROM MAIN & BRIDGE STREETS
This was the Vogel home on Main St. that later became home to the B’nai Jacob synagogue. The commemorative booklets celebrating B’nai Jacob’s 50th and 75th anniversaries do not note the specific date that the congregation moved to the Vogel home on Main St. I surmise that it must have been around 1914.
In 1918 the B’nai Jacob women organized into “The Daughters of Zion”. This group became the B’nai Jacob Sisterhood in 1927. Many of the businessmen’s wives were charter members of this group. Their names - Elizabeth Siegel, Rose Jaffe, Sadie Goldberg, Fannie Kohn, Mollie Cherashore and Sophie Baer, Dan’s mom, reflect their participation and leadership in creating a very supportive arm of the synagogue, while their husbands built their businesses as a vital part of the thriving Phoenixville community. A youth group was also established here - with children playing in the backyard of the building that was once stood at this site. The synagogue grew and flourished here for over 40 years. In 1947, thanks the efforts of the Sisterhood, the mortgage on this building was repaid, and the commemorative booklet states that “a gala mortgage burning affair was held”.
It remained at this site until it moved to its present location, where we are today, in 1957.