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The History of the Jewish Community of Danville, Illinois


By Sybil Stern Mervis

People of the Jewish faith in Danville first appeared on the U.S. census in 1850. In the winter issue of Heritage, we told of the growth of the Reform and Conservative Jewish population in Danville, in the first half of the twentieth century. In this closing history, we shall tell of the heights and the gradual demise of the Jewish population of Vermilion County.

After the Second World War, the Jewish population of Danville grew to about 90 families, probably the largest the group ever attained. Nearly a dozen Jewish physicians, escapees from the Holocaust and war-torn Europe, found their way to Danville through the ranks of the local Veterans' Administration Hospital.

In the early 1950s, almost fifty children attended Sunday School at the Temple and the Synagogue, thanks in part, to the large Smith and Margolin clans and the offspring of the numerous Holocaust survivor physicians. Never again would there be so many Jewish children in Danville.

The one ideal that small town Jewish parents held, whether they were Reform or Conservative, was that of education. Many of these immigrants and their first generation American offsping didn't have the means to attend college, having immigrated from poverty-ridden shtetls in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Russia, and small villages in Germany, and having struggled to make a living and establish a home in a new land.

The “People of the Book” understood that a university education was the way out of poverty, and Jewish children were raised knowing that was the way to "get ahead in life." So while parents worked literally from dawn to dusk behind their shop counters or in their scrapyards, in many cases unable to read English and keeping their books in Yiddish, the children knew what their job was: to excel in school and go to college.

Throughout the 20th Century, merchants and craftsmen saw to it that, although they themselves may not have had even a high school education, their children realized the American Dream, by graduating from college and, in many cases, completing graduate school. But, in most small towns, where the prospect for socialization and "community" for Jews is limited, the children had no reason to return.

Since 1970, the Jewish population of Danville has been declining steadily as the shopkeepers and professional peope moved away or died and their educated children, seeking larger Jewish communities, moved to metropolitan areas.

In 1972, the handful of members remaining in the Reform congregation closed their Temple and gave the building to the Boy Scouts. Thus, after nearly 70 years as a congregation and 58 years in the Temple building, the Reform congregation ceased to exist.

At mid-century, many Jewish women of Danville still did not participate much in the outer community, out of fear of non-acceptance, which was valid, or because their means didn't permit it. As the congregation at Congregation Anshe Knesses Israel Synagogue enlarged, the women formed a Sisterhood, whose purpose was primarily educating the children religiously, fundraising to support the Sunday School, and scializing. After the State of Israel was established in 1948, local Jewish women chartered a chapter of Hadassah, the largest women's organization in the world, to support the medical progress of the new state.

In addition, Jewish women were active in B'nai B'rith Women, which supported college campus Hillels as social centers for Jewish collegians and the work of the Anti-Defamation League. It is sad to say that not one of these organizations is still in existence in Danville due to the dwindling number of Jews, however, the Jewish Community Chest continues to be supported by the community. Funds collected are used to aid indigent Jewish people, Jewish transients, and local needy Jewish college students, or to provide educational materials for local libraries and schools. A large pecentage of the funds raised are sent to national and internanational Jewish causes.

Two Jewish women who did participate in the affairs of Danville were Jeanette Platt, wife of Judge Casper Platt, and Alma Meis, wife of Henri Meis, owner of Meis Bros. Department Store.

Mrs. Platt was an intellectual, a graduate of the University of Chicago, and highly respected in the community for her contributions as a founder of the local branches of the American Association of University Women and League of Woimen Voters. She was an active member of the Musical Cycle, the Clover Club, the Temple Sisterhood, the Democratic Women, and was chosen by the Commercial-News as Woman of the Year.

Mrs. Meis, with her friend Jo Williamson, founded the gift shop at Lake View Hospital. She managed more than 200 women who volunteered to work in the shop which raised funds for vital equipment for the hospital. The gift shop was highly successful. In addition, she served on the boards of the Salvation Army, the hospital auxilliary, Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, and the Temple. She enjoyed entertaining frequently in her home. She, too, was chosen as the newspaper's Woman of the Year.

Dr. Otto Schaefer, Director of the V.A. from 1958 until 1969, was instrumental in transferring to Danville School District #118 the front seven buildings at the V. A. Hospital to initially create the campus of the Danville Junior College, now Danville Area Community College.

Leonard Jaffe was the first president of the college's new foundation. Lou Mervis served on the District #118 Board at the time of the building transfer.

In addition to Schaefer, there were several other Jewish physicians and psychiatrists at the V. A. Hospital. At least seven local or V. A. physicians had fled from the Nazis. These include Drs. Trude and Alfred Selinger, Dr. Schaefer, Dr. I. E. Lichtmann, Dr. Joseph Fireman, Dr. Saul Lipton, Dr. Fritz Koenig, who practiced in Catlin, and Dr. Werner Fliesser, who practiced and settled in Hoopeston.

In 1991 the Conservative congregation "converted" the former Ridgeview Baptist Church at 14 East Ridgeview into a Conservative Jewish synagogue. They moved in June of 1991 from the 100 year old Christian Church building they had occupied since 1929 at 949 N. Walnut Street.

Neal Ehrlich, a local businessman, has served as president of the congregation for nearly 20 years. The Conservative congregation has rabbinic leadership from Rabbi Sheldon Switkin who has communted once a month from Columbus, Ohio, for the past 15 years. His ties to the congregation go back to the mid-1950s when, as a University of Illinois student, he taught at the Synagogue.

The surviving Jewish congregation at the "shule," known simply as Congegation Israel, now draws about 40 members on the most important holiday of the year. Just as the population of Danville is aging, the Synagogue congregation is aging, also. The children of most of the larger families have been educated as professionals and have left Danville, where fewer job opportunities remined once the era of small stores ended.

Locally, discrimination against Jews has nearly disappeared as the Jews became a tiny minority of Danville's population by the end of the 20th Century. Until nearly the middle of the 20th Century, Jewish people were excluded, except for two or three, from belonging to the Danville Country Club. The same was true for the Boat Club, the local hospital boards, and women's junior auxilliaries at the hospitals; eventually there was a "token Jew" on such boards as United Way, Lake View Hospital, and the YMCA.

The contributions of the Jewish community to Danville have been quiet but steady. Culturally, Jews supported The Musical Cycle, the Danville Symphony Orchestra, and other cultural resources in the city in far greater numbers than the general population. The present maestro of the Danville Symphony Orchestra, Jeremy Swerling, is a cantor's son.

In the first half of this century, the Jewish community was comprised mainly of shopkeepers and retailers along with several clothing manufacturers, lawyers, and many immigrant doctors. When the downtown was vibrant, there were many Jewish merchants with fine stores.

In the first decade of this century, the Jewish community provided Danville with a Jewish mayor, Louis Platt, in 1909. He had been a local merchant and then instrumental in developing much of the infrastructure of the city. He was elected on the Citizens ticket and served for two years.

His son Casper was influenced to choose a legal career by Judge E. R. E. Kimbrough. Casper Platt, a highly respected and popular Democrat, served as a Circuit Court judge from 1933 until 1949, when he was appointed to a federal judgeship. He served in that capacity until his death in 1965.

The author of the Cherry Ames Nurse adventure books for girls, Helen (Weinstock) Wells, was born in Danville in 1910 and lived here until 1918 when her family moved to New York City. Helen always claimed Danville as home on the blurbs of her books. Cherry Ames lived and worked in Hilton, Illinois, a fictional name for Danville.

For most of the 20th Century, the major department store in Danville was Meis Bros., founded by Alphonse Meis and his relatives and carried on by his son Henri.

The designer of the original "windbreaker jacket," Harry Friedman, a pattern maker, was employed by the John Rissman and Son clothing factory in Danville, one of at least four Jewish owned clothing manufacturers locally. Leonard Jaffe, who headed the Windbreak Co., led the company to become the second largeest manufacturer of outerwear in the country.

Martin Young, a Hoopeston native, served as mayor of his hometown from 1965 to 1969. There were a handful of other Jewish families in Hoopeston, mainly merchants.

Another successful Danville native and Jewish businessman, Lou Mervis, in the second half of the 20th century, developed a small industrial scrapyard into Mervis Industries, operating 17 businesses in 16 cities. He would also serve on the Illinois State Board of Education, presiding as its chairman for four years.

Danville natives of note in recent decades include Irving Azoff, a successful entertainment executive in Hollywood, whose family lived here for most of the first eight decades of the 20th Century. A peer of his, Dr. Alan Halpern, an orthopedic surgeon, has gained renown developing orthopedic devices in his Kalamazoo, Michigan practice.

In conclusion, although few in numbers, the Jewish citizens of Vermilion County have left a lasting legacy in this community. This is especially true when you consider their contributions toward helping found the Chamber of Commerce as Gus M. Greenebaum did, the Economic Development Corporation as Lou Mervis did, the Danville Symphony Orchestra, as well as their leadership in supporting the community college and the new public library building, and serving as mayors of two communities in the county.

By the year 2005, there will probably be only four dozen Jewish people left in Danville. The city will be the poorer for their loss.


cantor=one who sings the Hebrew prayers according to the trope

goldene medina=literally golden country, i.e. America

greenhorn=newcomer to America

landsleit=fellow countryman

pogrom=officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group

shule=the synagogue of the Conservative Jews

schochet=authorized slaughterer of animals, according to kosher requirements

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