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June 22: A Synagogue, a Cyclone

June 21, 2015

ChicagofireChicago’s Congregation Beth El, founded immediately after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, was destroyed by a cyclone on this date in 1873. That evening a meeting of the congregation raised sufficient funding to start the building of a new synagogue on the same site. The congregation still thrives today as a Reform temple. A second major fire in Chicago the following year destroyed 812 buildings, including two synagogues, and killed 20 people in a neighborhood that had been home to the city’s Jewish immigrant community and to middle-class African-American families; both groups were displaced to, respectively, the city’s West and South Sides in the years that followed. “They are,” said the Chicago Journal of the displaced Jews, “the peddlars whose pack-ridden backs are humped and known in every land: whom children fear, and dogs bark at in the country, and who, in a trade, can out-jew all other jews. Last night they packed up with a unanimity quite unusual with even these natural-born wanderers, and, need it be said, unusually quick?”

“Jews and Gentiles, whites and blacks, the virtuous and the depraved, lived in the neighborhood, and their haunts and homes have been swept out of existence. These worse than Ishmaels whom the world condemns have lost palace of sin and hovel of vice in a single hour. It was only thus the foul section could be purged and purified; but the work was not well done. Three or four blocks south and east and west should have been ingulfed in the common fate for the city’s good. There must be another fire there before the city is fully purged.” —New York Times, July 19, 1874