Agudas Achim Congregation   


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A History of Agudas Achim

by Doug Jones

Jewish history began in Iowa when Alexander Levi settled in Dubuque.
Moses Bloom, who had left Alsace in 1850, settled in Iowa City and opened a clothing store. The railroad had just arrived in Iowa City, promoting the town, briefly, to a major railhead for travelers going west by the overland route. Over the next year, the Hesselberger, Rothchild, Hilfman Kaufman and Fleishman families moved to town.
The United States Hebrew Association of Iowa City was founded for the purpose of establishing the cemetary that currently serves congregation Agudas Achim.
Moses Bloom was elected mayor of Iowa City; he was the first Jewish mayor of any city in the United States, and in 1875, he turned down the Democratic Nomination for Leutenant Governor of Iowa. In 1877, Moses Bloom was elected to the state senate, where he led the effort to get a standing appropriation for the State University of Iowa added to the budget.
Mary Grove Chawner was hired by the University of Iowa as an instructor in the English department. She was probably the first Jewish faculty member at the University.
Joseph Braverman came to Iowa City as to teach in the newly established Talmud Torah run by the Iowa City Hebrew School Association. With the arrival of a new wave of Russian immigrants, many arriving via the Baron de Hirch's Galviston plan, the character of Iowa City's Jewish community changed from being dominated by relatively assimilated German Reform Jews to being dominated by Orthodox Russian immigrants.
The Jewish Ladies' Relief Organization was founded. This organization would eventually be absorbed by the Agudas Achim Sisterhood.
Dr. Benjamin Kramer arrived in town as a physiology instructor at the University. He went on to a distinguished career as a pediatric physiologist, but during his 6 year stay in Iowa City, he was heavily involved in the Jewish community, helping found a "night school for Aliens" in 1914, the Iowa City Zionist Organization in 1915 and the Iowa Chapter of the Intercollegiate Menorah Society in 1916.
Articles of incorporation were filed on behalf of Agudas Achim for the purpose of maintaining "a church for worship by people of the Hebrew race and religious faith." Prior to this, the congregation met in members' homes for services.
Agudas Achim purchased a house at 432 South Clinton Street street, across from the county courthouse, to serve as a synagogue. This building would serve the congregation until 1951. In the same year, the United Palestine Appeal of Iowa City was founded and the Alpha Beta chapter of Phi Epsilon Phi was founded as the first Jewish fraternity on campus.
Agudas Achim repurchased the old Jewish cemetary. Why the cemetary was sold remains one of the most mysterious episodes in the history of Iowa City's Jewish community, but it appears that most of the first wave of German Jewish families left town as the new wave of Russians arrived, and when they left, they dug up the graves, sold the cemetary and took the bodies with them.
The Hillel Club at the University of Iowa was founded. This was seen as a "groping, faltering attempt to unite the Jewish student body on campus."
The School of Religion at the University of Iowa was opened, with Dr. Maurice Farbridge as Jewish Chair; as such, he became Hillel Director, but he was an aloof detatched scholar and was not particularly effective in this position.
Moses Jung came to campus as Hillel director and Jewish Chair in the School of Religion. For a decade, he was heavily involved in the Jewish community, and while he was not a rabbi, as the most educated member of the Jewish community, he served as such on many occasions. Jung was not loved by all, though, and as a result of a spat with Rabbi Louis Mann of the new national Hillel organization, he was forced to change the name of the Iowa Hillel Club to the Philo Club.
The Agudas Achim Sisterhood was founded.
Rabbi Morris Kertzer was hired by the School of Religion to replace Moses Jung. Kertzer, a graduate of JTS, was a dynamic leader who was rapidly embraced by the local community as "our rabbi." Rabbi Kertzer renamed the Philo Club back to the Hillel Club and in 1940 established formal ties with the national B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation. He was also widely accepted in the larger community, serving as chair of the Iowa City Interfaith Council in 1942.
Rabbi Kertzer left to serve as an army chaplain; he held Passover services at the beseiged Anzio beachhead, reopened synagogues in Rome and Marseilles, and was active in helping Jewish refugees on the road to Israel. During the two years he was away, Rabbi Gilbert Klapperman filled his position at Iowa. Klapperman would go on to a position of leadership in the Modern Orthodox movement.
The B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation of Iowa City was incorporated, for the purpose of building a permanent Jewish student center on campus. Up to this point, rented quarters and university facilities had been used for all Hillel (and Philo) activities. In 1946, the old Youde's Inn at 122 East Market had been purchased, and it served as the Iowa Hillel House until 1970.
Rabbi Judah Goldin replaced Rabbi Kertzer as Professor of Religion and Hillel Director; as with his predecessors, he served as de-facto rabbi to Agudas Achim.
Agudas Achim moved into a new cinderblock and brick building on the current site at 602 East Washington Street. This building is still there, serving as the core of the current building and almost completely surrounded by later additions.
Fredrick Bargebuhr replaced Rabbi Golden on the School of Religion. Bargebuhr was an enthusiastic eccentric, and during his tenure at Iowa, ties between the School of Religion and Hillel grew progressively less comfortable.
Rabbi Ben Zion Gold came to Iowa City as interem Hillel director. Rabbi Gold was a JTS grad, and sometime during the late 1950's, Agudas Achim formally affiliated with the Conservative movement. Prior to this, up through at least the early 1950's, it had been nominally Orthodox, although unaffiliated.
Rabbi Sanker arrived to serve jointly as rabbi of Agudas Achim and as director of Hillel. This joint arrangement served Hillel and Agudas Achim into the 1980's.
Rabbi Sheldon Edwards replaced Rabbi Sanker. Sheldon Edwards is remembered as the most controversial rabbi in the history of the congregation, pushing ambitious plans and spending money that he may not have had authority to spend, both at Hillel and at Agudas Achim.
Rabbi Samuel Lehrer replaced Sheldon Edwards, to be replaced in 1968 by Rabbi Leroy Diamond. Plans for a new Hillel house, built in 1970, were developed under Rabbis Lehrer and Diamond.
The first addition to Agudas Achim's building was completed, expanding the sancturary to the south and adding new classroom space in the basement. The growth in the Jewish community that necessitated this expansion was largely the result of university faculty hiring, primarily in the medical school.
Rabbi Roy Abramovitz replaced Rabbi Diamond as Hillel Director and congregational rabbi. Rabbi Abramovitz left after only a short stay, leaving behind a scathing but accurate description of the sad state of American Judasim in his final report to the national Hillel office.
Rabbi Jeffrey Portman, a graduate of HUC, came to town and stayed, putting an end to the instability of the 1960's when it seemed that Agudas Achim and Hillel could not retain a rabbi for more than a few years.
Agudas Achim became an egalitarian congregation, counting women towards a minyan for the first time. Surprisingly, those who remember this change remember it as being unremarkable.
With ever shrinking membership, the national B'nai B'rith foundation cut off funds to the University of Iowa School of Religion's Jewish Chair. B'nai B'rith funding for this chair had been established under Rabbi Kertzer when it was expected that the chair would serve as Hillel director. Within a few years, B'nai B'rith finances would reach the point where they could no longer afford to fund the Hillel house itself!
Hillel hired a full-time director, Elliot Zashin, allowing Rabbi Portman to become the first full-time rabbi to serve Agudas Achim.
Leah Girnun became the Hillel director.
Jerry Sorokin became Hillel director
 Jacobs Succah was dedicated


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Last modified: 08/05/06