Beysbohl from Left Field

Chances are if you’ve taken in a South Bend Silverhawks’ game, or have seen any of the news revolving around the stadium’s overhaul under its new owner, you probably can’t help but wonder what that old brick building is doing sticking up above the left field fence. It looks like a church, but yet, sorta not.

The building is a synagogue and it is the former home of the Sons of Israel congregation. It represents in built form the rich Jewish history of its neighborhood and the City of South Bend. The synagogue was the first house of worship constructed by members of the Jewish community in South Bend and was at the heart of a once thriving Jewish neighborhood south of the downtown.

During the late 1840s and the 1850s the first Jewish people settled in South Bend. These settlers were largely of German origin. They first peddled goods and merchandise prior to the establishment of many successful business houses, financial institutions, and real estate developments. By 1878 South Bend’s Jewish population had reached 125 persons. The number of Jewish people in South Bend grew to 1,200 by 1912 after a large immigration of Jews from Russia and Poland during the late 1890s through the early 1900s. They were part of a large wave of migration by Jews escaping persecution in Europe between about 1880 and 1920.

While Jewish immigrants to the United States enjoyed acculturation in many aspects of social interactions and enterprise, the Hebrew practice of religion is what set the people apart from their largely Christian neighbors. The first Jewish congregation formed in South Bend in 1887; it was known as the Hebrew Orthodox Congregation and over time met in several locations in the city. In April of 1900 twenty-two Russian and Polish members of that congregation withdrew and formed a separate congregation called the Sons of Israel. The congregation purchased a lot on South William Street in the same year by raising $1800. The lot was in the heart of the Jewish neighborhood and was surrounded with residences. Construction on the Sons of Israel Synagogue began in October, 1901; some of the members assisted by digging the basement. It was dedicated on June 8, 1902.

The Sons of Israel Synagogue represents a more orthodox approach to religious practice by the Jewish community, most notably in its separation of men and women during assemblies by use of a balcony. The Orthodox congregation also incorporated a mikveh in the basement of the building. The orthodox plan is likely due to its founders’ Russian and Polish traditions. The building also maintains the practice of its eastern wall being the front wall of the assembly hall in which the ark is centered, facing the land of Israel.

The Sons of Israel Synagogue is important architecturally on a number of levels. First, it is the oldest synagogue in the City of South Bend and it retains a significant amount of its character defining features. Second, its design is a unique blend of the Romanesque Revival style with a form of European brick gothic design, and according to Chicago architect Robert Nevel, it is thought to be the only synagogue of its kind in the United States that introduces the Chicago school influence of architectural design. It also is believed to be the sole surviving synagogue of its simple scale remaining without alteration in the Midwest.

The fate of the now vacant synagogue seems promising under the new ownership of the Silverhawks. Masonry restoration is underway and the building is heading for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. I just hope they don’t sell ballpark franks out of it…….but if they do, they should at least be kosher.


Kestrel said…
Informative post! I have often wonder what the future held for that building. I am glad to see that it is being preserved.
Timothy J. Shaw said…
Today is July 4 -- in the WNDU news features -- the Chandelier is a major focus for the TV reporter -- sounds like the Dedication of the new SilverHawks gift shop did include a religious "dedication service" -- see my blog :

POSTED by Timothy Shaw -- Niles, Michigan
hoosier reborn said…
Thank you Timothy for the notice of the news feature. I didn't catch that. I wrote the National Register nomination on the building and it was quite a privilege.

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