The Jewish Experience

From Dec ’06 Spotlight: The Elgin Area Historical Society recently opened a wonderful new exhibit called “The Jewish Experience in Elgin: Stories of Immigration, Identity and Assimilation,” which covers approximately 150 years of local history beginning with the arrival of Leopold and Joseph Adler in 1858. The storyboards are well-grouped by topic (religion, politics, philanthropy, etc.) while a 10-minute video features personal reminiscences by Elgin natives such as Phyllis Fischer Brenner, Ron Burstein, and Don Lesser.

Economic life had two hubs: the Douglas Avenue mercantile center (a mini-Maxwell Street) on the one hand, and Elgin State Hospital (a magnet for physicians and research scientists from some of America’s most prestigious medical schools) on the other. We’re introduced to prominent local personalities such as Max Eppenstein, the head of the Illinois Watch Case Company, and his wife Sarah, whose philanthropic commitments, both within the Jewish community and beyond, are well-documented. Newspaper columns record the local response to the Russian pogroms of 1905 as well as fund-raising efforts during the Holocaust, but the exhibit also displays menus and artifacts from Blum’s popular ice cream and candy store.

Elgin High School graduated its first Jewish student, Leopold Adler’s son Max, in 1883. Max Adler went on to endow Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. In the words of Harry Seigle of the Seigle Family Foundation: “Why is it that Elgin was a receptive home to Jewish immigrants and their progeny when other communities were not? Hopefully this exhibit will cause students and teachers to examine this question together.”

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