By Ralph M. Tannenbaum

B'Nai Israel Temple, Salt Lake, 1905

Jews came to Utah as a result of the 1849 gold rush in California, having found their California arrival too late for them to stake claims. These early Jewish settlers were of German and Hungarian descent, and they traveled in wagon trains from the east. Julius and Gerson Brooks came to Salt Lake in July 1853 from Illinois, and their millinery establishment became the first Jewish business in the area. Others had journeyed from Europe by ship around Cape Horn to San Francisco and then overland to Utah. The appearance of U.S. Army troops at Camp Floyd in the fall of 1857 attracted several Jewish merchants to the area. Nicholas Siegfried Ransohoff brought a load of freight from the west coast to supply the troops and later established his freight company in Salt Lake City. Samuel H. Auerbach and Samuel Kahn journeyed from California with goods, as did George Bodenberg in 1857. Kahn joined Bodenberg as early Salt Lake grocers, and later their firm became Kahn Brothers. Frederick Auerbach joined his brother Samuel as an early banking company and later in Auerbach's Department Store, which became second in size to ZCMI in the city. Samuel later married Evaline, daughter of Julius and Fanny Brooks. Early clothiers included the four Siegel brothers and the Ellis brothers. Isadore Morris came as a soldier and remained after leaving the army. Charles Popper ran a butcher shop in 1864 and later opened the area's first soap and candle factory.

The earliest record of Jewish religious observance in the area is the celebration of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in 1864 at the home of one of the Jewish merchants. The Hebrew Benevolent Society was formed in 1864 and was the first instance of organized Judaism. Religious services were held in the rented Masonic Hall in the spring of 1866. This same year saw the first cemetery, on land deeded to the Jewish community by Brigham Young. High Holyday (Rosh Hashonah [New Year] and Yom Kippur) services in 1867 were observed in the Seventies Hall at the invitation of Brigham Young.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 greatly increased the non-Mormon migration to Utah, and many Jewish families came to the area. Stores owned by Jewish men were established in Alta, Bingham, Provo, Ogden, and Ophir, as well as Salt Lake City.

The first formal Jewish congregation was established in 1873 with the name Congregation Bnai Israel (Children of Israel). However, the articles of incorporation for the congregation were not filed until 1881. The Passover observance of 1876 was reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, which noted that the Jewish congregation of Salt Lake numbered some forty families. The year 1878 saw the first recorded discussions of the building of a synagogue. Property for the building was finally purchased in 1881 on the corner of Third South and First West streets, and a brick schoolhouse was completed there in the fall of that year. The synagogue section of the building was added in 1883. Services held were basically Orthodox, much to the distaste of the Germanic congregants. After a year of Orthodox services, the congregation elected to follow the more liberal Reform service, and a Reform rabbi was employed. Rabbi Leon Strauss of Bellville, Illinois, became the first Utah rabbi, although he served only ten months. His short tenure was probably occasioned by disagreement within the congregation on his use of the Reform ritual. Plans for High Holyday observance in 1885 brought a complete rift between the Reform and the more Orthodox congregants. The resignation of a few of the Orthodox members left Congregation Bnai Israel a Reform congregation, which it remained for the next eighty-five years.

The earlier Germanic Jewish population was largely replaced by Jewish immigration from eastern Europe after 1880. These Russian and Polish Jews were primarily Orthodox in contrast to the more liberal German Jews. Much of the contention in Congregation Bnai Israel is possibly explained by the theological differences between the two groups and their attempts to adopt one acceptable ritual.

The Bnai Israel building was sold in 1889 and new property was purchased on Fourth East between Second and Third South streets. A beautiful new synagogue was dedicated in 1891. Under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Moses P. Jacobson, the congregation grew to eighty-two families. The Orthodox members who had resigned from Bnai Israel observed Sabbath and Holyday services in members' homes. While the Orthodox members did not effect a permanent organization at that time, they did name their group Congregation Montefiore, in honor of the great English Jew, Sir Moses Montefiore. In 1902, Morris Levy donated a lot at 355 South Third East and Isadore Morris placed $150 in gold dust on the table to begin contributions toward building a new synagogue. The cornerstone was laid on 13 August 1903, with a dedicatory address by President Joseph F. Smith of the LDS Church. A large contribution by the LDS Church was probably acknowledged by this honor.

The dissension concerning ritual continued within Congregation Montefiore. The Conservative ritual seemed inappropriate to several of the more Orthodox members. Accordingly, a third congregation was established under the name of Shaarey Tzedek (Gates of Righteousness) in 1918. This new congregation built a synagogue at 833 South Second East. The financial woes of the Great Depression ended Shaarey Tzedek in 1932, and its members found their way back to Congregation Montefiore. However, the three congregations had separate cemeteries--Bnai Israel and Montefiore within City Cemetery above Fourth Avenue and Shaarey Tzedek above Twelfth Avenue.

Ogden attracted Jewish merchants to supply the railroad, and a congregation under the name of Ohab Shalom (Lover of Peace) was organized in 1890. The name was changed to Brith Shalom (Covenant of Peace) and a synagogue was constructed in 1921. Services conducted by a rabbi were available only on High Holydays although lay leadership still conducted services weekly.

The turn of the century saw many Jews in business in the downtown Salt Lake City area, including Siegel Brother Clothiers, Kolitz Candy Kitchen, Kahn Brothers Wholesale Grocery, N.S. Ransohoff Wholesale Liquors, Salt Lake Brewing Company (Jacob Moritz), and Wagener Brewing Plant (Jacob Wiesel). The American Jewish Yearbook of 1904-05 numbered Utah Jews at 5,000. This figure is suspect, and the 1906-07 yearbook gives the more probable number of 1,000.

Jewish names were very prominent in the formation of Masonic lodges in Utah as early as 1859. Similarly, Jews were also among the early founders of Odd Fellows lodges in Utah in 1866. Both organizations were non-Mormon fraternities.

Jewish men were active in public life. Louis Cohn was elected as a member of the city council in 1874 and was reelected in 1882. The formation of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce in 1887 records the names of J.E. Bamberger, M.H. Lipman, Fred H. Auerbach, and several other prominent Jews. Although Moses Alexander of Idaho was elected as the first Jewish governor in the United States, it is still surprising to learn of the election two years later of Simon Bamberger as the governor of Utah in 1916. Governor Bamberger was the first non-Mormon governor of Utah, and he had been prominent in the Utah State Legislature. The next notable Jewish elected official was Louis Marcus, who was elected mayor of Salt Lake City in 1932.

1911 saw the establishment of an unusual experiment in Jewish settlement. The large eastern European Jewish immigration had created overcrowded conditions in New York and other eastern cities. With their own funds, immigrant Jews planned to establish an agricultural colony in the West. The result was a Jewish community near Gunnison, Utah, that was named Clarion. The community was short lived, however, and the Jewish settlers left the area in 1916. Yet, two names are remembered from this "back to the soil" experiment: Benjamin Brown, whose poultry and egg distribution became the Utah Poultry Association, and Maurice Warshaw, whose produce marketing efforts led to the Grand Central markets.

World War I saw Jewish participation in several fields. At least thirty-nine Utah Jews joined the armed forces, and Governor Bamberger received Jewish support in Red Cross and other projects.

National Jewish organizations also established Utah chapters. Bnai Brith, a national fraternal service organization, founded its Salt Lake lodge in 1892 and a sister chapter in 1923. It became a leader in the Jewish community, as is evidenced by its support of the purchase of the Enos Wall mansion in 1923. This spacious building at 411 East South Temple became the "Covenant House" and the meeting place for all Jewish activity other than that of the synagogues. Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization, and the National Council of Jewish Women also had Salt Lake chapters, in 1943 and 1941 respectively.

World War II saw Jewish activity exceeding its proportion of the population. Approximately 200 Utah Jews were counted in the armed forces rolls, and civilian activity such as Red Cross and savings bond sales included large Jewish participation. Hospitality dances and socials at the Covenant House became a favorite recreation of the Jewish soldiers stationed at Kearns and Fort Douglas.

With the end of World War II, activity within the Covenant House became sporadic. Accordingly, the building was sold in 1949 and now houses the LDS Business College. The building of a new Jewish Community Center was delayed by the Korean War and was not completed until 1959. The new building was constructed on property at 17th South and Foothill Drive that was deeded by James E. Hogle jointly to the Jewish community and to the All Saints' Episcopal Church. It is named the James L. White Jewish Community Center in honor of a prominent Jewish leader and financier of the time.

The changing demographics of Salt Lake resulted in the two existing synagogues being quite distant from the majority of residences of the Jewish community. Further, the age and physical condition of both buildings made imperative costly repairs or reconstruction. Efforts over several years by leaders of both congregations led to a successful merger of the two in 1970. The successor congregation was named Congregation Kol Ami (All of My People). Both of the existing synagogue buildings were sold, and a new synagogue was constructed on property at 2425 East 2760 South purchased from the Salt Lake Country Club.

The Jewish community has grown. Its members now include more professionals in medicine, law, and science than merchants. Census figures are imprecise but good estimates number 5,000 Jews in this "land of Zion."

See: Juanita Brooks, The History of the Jews in Utah and Idaho (1973); L. Watters, Pioneer Jews of Utah (1952); Louis C. Zucker, Jews of Salt Lake City (1975); Harriet and Fred Rochlin, Pioneer Jews (1984); Robert Alan Goldberg, Back To The Soil (1986).

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.