The Sinai Temple
The earliest recorded Jewish service in Champaign-Urbana occurred on Yom Kippur, September 28, 1895. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish faith. It is typically celebrated with a 25-hour period of fasting, prayer, and synagogue services. The 1895 Yom Kippur service was held in Champaign in a small room above a storefront presently located at the southwest corner of Church and Neil Streets. Illuminated by a single gas lamp, the group of fifteen men and women were led in prayer by early settlers Morris Lowenstern and Joseph Kuhn.
On February 7, 1904, twenty-two men from eighteen founding families met with Rabbi George Zeppin from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to charter the first Jewish congregation in Champaign-Urbana. Known originally as Champaign-Urbana Hebrew Congregation, they adopted the name Sinai Temple in January 1914. Since its establishment, Sinai Temple has been a Reform Congregation.
Reform Judaism was the faith primarily practiced by the early Germans that represented the first wave of Jewish settlers in Champaign-Urbana. The second wave who arrived in the 1880s mainly practiced Orthodox Judaism and were primarily from Eastern Europe and Russia. There was a perceived difference within the communities between the more assimilated Reform Jews and the Orthodox Jews who were raised and educated in exclusive Jewish settings prompting the formation of Congregation B’nai Israel by a group of Polish and Russian Jews in 1912.
Congregation B’nai Israel met for years in a rented house near Third and Springfield in Champaign, never acquiring a permanent sanctuary, rabbi, or Sunday school. The congregation disbanded in 1954. Due to the small Jewish population of Champaign-Urbana, true exclusion between the two groups was impossible. Several Orthodox-Conservative women joined Sinai’s Sisterhood and sent their children to Sinai’s youth group even though their husbands were not Sinai Temple members. In return, several Sinai sons were sent to Congregation B’nai Israel to receive bar mitzvah training from visiting rabbis or university students. Many Jewish families were members of both congregations.
Traditionally, the Jewish Sabbath, Sabbat, begins at sunset on Friday evening and lasts through sunset on Saturday, but in Champaign-Urbana in the early 1900s it was practiced on Sunday. In part this was due to “pride [in] their ability to assimilate to the ways of non-Jewish neighbors while clinging proudly to their ancient religious heritage,” wrote Asa Rubenstein in 1979. Another important aspect that led to services being held on Sundays was that many Sinai Temple leaders were prominent merchants who worked Monday through Saturday.
"Probably [my] most significant accomplishment was moving the services from Sunday morning to Friday night. The Reform movement had chosen Sunday morning as the time to pray so as to fit in with the rest of the world. My mother, Bernice Lewis, who was more traditional longed for the services to be moved to Friday night. I knew that our Sabbath began at sunset on Friday and thought it would be most appropriate to hold services on Friday night. However, I was afraid to go up against the rather strong-willed older members of the Board. I called Mr. [Isaac] Kuhn, who graciously agreed, and so instead of lobbying for the change, I JUST DID IT! To get the change going, we got a group of people to call their friends and ask to pick them up and take them to Temple. The first Friday night service was packed."
- Arthur Lewis, grandson of Wolf Lewis; Sinai Board President from 1947-1950
For many years, services were held at members’ homes, third floor lodge halls, or at Christian churches for the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As the congregation grew, the need for a permanent home became obvious. However, there was a fracture within the congregation over where the Temple should be located. Isaac Kuhn, president from 1908-1910, wanted the congregation to embrace all Jews within Champaign-Urbana. He was disturbed by the “divisions between town and campus, and especially between assimilated Reform Jews and recently settled East Europeans who were forming a separate congregation.” He advocated for a centrally located temple on campus, but his ideas were met with opposition from the rest of the community. Other leaders such as Albert L. Stern and Jacob Kaufman believed that the congregation should cater to townspeople and Reform Jews and the temple located far from campus.
The congregation eventually purchased a lot on the southwest corner of Clark and State Streets, and the temple building was formally dedicated on January 31, 1918. The new temple would serve as the home for the congregation until 1971, when it was partially destroyed by fire. The congregation was forced to find temporary facilities for services such as the undamaged educational wing, the Hillel Foundation at the university, or donated space from local churches. Finally, on April 11, 1975, a new temple located on the corner of Windsor and Duncan Roads in Champaign was dedicated and remains the gathering place for the congregation to this day.