Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Named after a diminutive stone outcropping along the bank of the Arkansas River, the town of Little Rock remained a small and remote settlement for much of the 19th century. “La Petit Rouche,” as the first French explorers called it, marked the transition from the flat, fertile Mississippi Delta region to the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. In 1819, the town consisted of a few scattered settlers living in makeshift dwellings. The town’s fortunes began to change in 1821 when Little Rock was declared the capital of the newly formed Arkansas Territory, at the time still a largely unsettled and unexplored wilderness. Despite its new stature, the town of Little Rock continued to grow slowly, claiming a few hundred residents by the late 1820s and a reputation as a distant and loosely policed frontier town. A full forty years later, in 1860, the population still amounted to only 3,700 souls.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock grew dramatically with the onset of the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction era. First Confederate and then Union troops occupied the town, and the local economy grew to provide support for the military personnel. The population skyrocketed, more than tripling in one decade to a total of 12,380 residents in 1870. Reconstruction brought prosperity to the entire state and much of this newfound wealth and activity flowed through the capital. Centrally located and the seat of state politics, Little Rock emerged as the nucleus and chief beneficiary of Arkansas’ rapid advances in commerce, industry, and the arts.
The earliest recorded Jewish settlers in Little Rock, Jacob, Hyman and Levi Mitchell, emigrated from Galicia and arrived in the 1830s. They quickly prospered in retail and real estate investments, and expanded to establish branches in outlying towns. In the 1840s, Jacob built one of the first hotels and bath houses in Hot Springs and operated a series of stagecoaches between Little Rock and the spa town. Others soon followed the Mitchell’s example, and through the 1850s and early 1860s a small number of Jewish residents and businesses began to establish a presence in the town.
One of these first Little Rock businessmen, Abe Navra, encountered some of the prejudices faced by Jews around the country during the period. Abe came to Little Rock from Vicksburg, Mississippi with his brother Morris in 1853, and opened a small tea and fruit shop. Although Abe was said to be a reputable businessman, an agent with the national credit rating firm R.G. Dun & Company noted of Abe that he was “a Jew of Jewish proclivities decidedly … as for confidences, he may betray as did Judas.”
During the Civil War, some Little Rock Jews earned distinction by contributing their skills and resources to the Confederate cause. Albert Cohen, a jeweler, served as a captain of the corps of mining engineers. His expertise with minerals aided him in his new task of producing sulfur and gunpowder for the soldiers. Another jeweler, Michael Stifft, forged swords for use in battle.
The Reconstruction era brought dramatic increases in population and economic activity, but Little Rock and its Jewish residents also faced a number of crises. Soon after the war’s end, hostilities escalated among factions of the ruling Republican party, ultimately erupting into the historical footnote known as the Brooks-Baxter War. In April of 1874, a series of small battles resulted in the loss of 200 lives before President Grant could intervene and restore order. The Jewish residents of Little Rock found themselves swept up in the melee. The Jewish owners of the Concordia Club contributed their building as a makeshift hospital. Other Jewish residents took an active role in the fighting, and three Jewish farmers were wounded at a battle in nearby New Gascony, just south of Little Rock.
The Panic of 1873 precipitated a nationwide cascade of foreclosures and bank failures which also reverberated in Little Rock. As local banks shuttered and investment capital grew scarce, the efforts of Jewish entrepreneurs helped sustain the local economy. One of these, Herman Kahn, emigrated from Frankfurt in 1870 at the age of 16 and decided to seek his fortunes in distant Little Rock. He worked as a sales clerk before opening his own general merchandise store. Kahn soon prospered and the 1900 census lists him as president of the Bank of Commerce. But Kahn’s greatest contributions to the Little Rock economy still lay in the future. In 1905, he established the Hotel Marion Company (named after his wife) and proceeded to build a massive 500 room hotel and conference center, which soon became known as “The Meeting Place of Arkansas.” This stately edifice rose above the otherwise unimpressive Little Rock skyline, and upon its opening the Arkansas Senate declared that the builders should be “entitled to lasting praise for having done so much to bring the state into the front rank of progress.”
Kahn participated in numerous other construction projects in the city, and left an indelible mark upon Little Rock. He also served for eight years on the Little Rock City Council and sat on the committees that constructed the city’s two bridges across the Arkansas River. After his death in 1929, the Arkansas Gazette remembered him as an archetype of the promise offered by America, writing: “His life showed what American opportunity means to one who has worth and merit, with devotion to constructive purpose.”
Despite political and financial setbacks, Little Rock followed a course of general economic prosperity during the rest of the 1870s. Charles Wessolowsky, a journalist and B’nai B’rith representative, visited Little Rock in 1878. The gentility and refinement of the Jewish community impressed him greatly and he reported: “Intelligence and respectability will compare here favorably with that of almost any city … we were deceived in our ideas that the people of Arkansas are ruffianly and uncivilized.”
Little Rock in the late 1800s provided an almost dizzying array of opportunities for Jewish entrepreneurs and craftsmen. During this period, Jewish newcomers to Little Rock saw success in manufacturing, mining, and construction. In the retail area, Jewish merchants purveyed jewelry, dry goods, liveries, horses, mules, and automobiles. Others became active in entertainment, banking, real estate, advertising and various service industries, including laundry, insurance and lodging. Some of these new Jewish arrivals to Little Rock quickly rose to positions of great prominence within their respective fields.
The large wooded areas throughout the state supported a robust lumber industry, attracting the attention of Charles Abeles, a native of Austria. In 1880, at the age of 26, Abeles established the C.T. Abeles Company, offering a full range of lumber products. Within seven years the firm was successful enough to compete with large St. Louis manufacturers. Abeles continued to prosper, and in 1908 moved into an expansive three story building that featured ornate staircases and elaborate woodwork. The firm rose to be one of the largest manufacturers in the Southwest and gained national prominence within the lumber industry. He also earned recognition as a generous philanthropist and was well regarded by the Little Rock populace.
The rich delta land along the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers provided ideal conditions for cotton cultivation, which soon became the state’s dominant crop. A number of Jewish merchants entered the cotton trade, introducing innovative practices that were soon adopted nationwide. Adolph Hamburg, a Dutchman, established himself as a cotton merchant soon after arriving in Little Rock in the 1880s. His firm Ad Hamberg and Company Cotton Buyers, served as a state manager for the St. Louis based Lesser-Goldman Company, the country’s largest domestic shipper of cotton. Julius Lesser and Jacob Goldman themselves hailed from northern Arkansas, and actively promoted Hamburg’s Arkansas cotton as “the best cotton in the world.”
Goldman, Lesser, and Hamberg developed new methods of cotton exchange more equitable to the individual growers. Previously, growers sent their crops to traders in large cities such as New Orleans, Memphis and St. Louis, and then waited weeks or even months for payment. The buyers established the rate of exchange, leaving growers little opportunity to market their own product or earn a favorable price for their crops. Ad Hamberg and Lesser-Goldman upended this system by sending buyers to visit the farms and to bid directly for their crops, paying immediately if a deal was reached. By taking advantage of new technologies, the traders streamlined the process further, communicating with banks by the recently introduced telephones to facilitate payment. They further assisted small farmers by establishing compresses so crops could be moved efficiently and negotiating for standardized transportation rates on the railroads.
Jewish residents in Little Rock did not limit themselves to business endeavors. One Little Rock native gained enormous nationwide popularity and earned a lasting legacy in the annals of American film. The world knew him as “Bronco Billy,” the star of hundreds of early Western shorts and a film legend, but to his parents and members of the Little Rock Jewish community he was Max Aronson, the youngest of six children and the son of a traveling salesman. In the late 1870s, his parents, Henry and Esther, had moved to Little Rock from New York with their five children. Their youngest son, Max, arrived soon after as the family’s first native Arkansan.
Perhaps being the youngest child in a large family taught Max to seek attention from an early age. He showed a gift for entertaining, and as a teenager left Arkansas to perform vaudeville acts in both St. Louis and New York. He adopted the stage name of Gilbert S. Anderson, and began collaboration with the early film pioneer Edwin S. Porter. Porter cast Aronson in three different roles for his 1903 film milestone “The Great Train Robbery.” Aronson subsequently starred in hundreds of western shorts, often as the character “Broncho Billy,” the first movie cowboy hero. Anderson eventually retired from film, but returned to the spotlight in 1958 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Academy Award as a “motion picture pioneer.” Tourists can still visit Aronson’s star in the Hollywood’s “Walk of Fame” at 1651 Vine Street.
Jewish congregational life in Little Rock coalesced during the Civil War years, when citizens purchased a Torah scroll and a ram’s horn for the 1866 High Holy Days services. This group, the “Little Rock Congregation” soon changed its name to Congregation B’nai Israel. In 1872, the congregation built a temple downtown at 304 Center Street. In the 1870s, the community also supported a B’nai B’rith lodge, a Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society and even a children’s society, The Hebrew Children Mite Society, which raised funds for the New Orleans Orphans Home. Disagreements over religious observances and liturgy resulted in a separate traditional congregation splitting away from B’nai Israel in the fall of 1879, which ultimately adopted the name Agudat Achim. For many years the congregation met in the back of stores before building their own synagogue in 1908.
Around the turn of the century, Agudat Achim attracted new congregants from the increasing numbers of arrivals from Eastern Europe. Many of these immigrants established small businesses as peddlers, craftsmen, and shop owners. Through hard work and careful business management, many reached the same degree of success as their German predecessors. Abe Tenenbaum emigrated from Russia at age 18 and upon arrival in Little Rock began trading in assorted scrap items, including hides, furs, wool, beeswax, burlap bags, scrap iron, and metals. In time, his firm, the A. Tenenbaum Company, rose to become the largest company of its kind in Arkansas. Today, the company remains Arkansas’ largest recycler and processor of scrap metal.
Samuel Brier came to Little Rock in 1895 from his native Hungary. He and his wife Bertha set up a fruit business in a storefront on East Markham Street. Customers who thought the shop was a restaurant would enter and request meals. Recognizing the demand, the Breiers scrapped the fruit shop and opened a restaurant. In 1916, they moved to a larger space on West Markham, down the street from Kahn’s newly built Marion Hotel. For decades the restaurant indulged Little Rock high society in a luxurious dining environment with a large Venetian glass mirror, marble floors, a massive baroque backbar, and fine German cuisine. Sam and Bertha dutifully closed “Breier’s Fine Old Restaurant” every year for the High Holy Days, despite its status as one of the finest restaurants in the city.
Members of the Little Rock Jewish community , both earlier German arrivals and Eastern Europeans, took an active role in local and state politics. Frederick Kramer, a Prussian immigrant who arrived in Little Rock in the 1850s, served as a founding member of B’nai Israel. After years as a successful and well regarded merchant, he served as Mayor of Little Rock during the Reconstruction Era, from 1873 to 1875, and again from 1881 to 1887. His successful administration brought improvements to the city streets, fire department, and sewage system. Kramer was also a passionate supporter of public education. He remained a member of the Little Rock School Board for many years and served a term as president. Little Rock’s Kramer Elementary School was named in his honor.
Other early Jewish residents of Little Rock entered the political sphere. Max Hilb, a public-spirited merchant, served a number of terms as alderman and as the acting mayor during Kramer’s administration. Louis Volmer, a merchant and native of Bavaria, spent eighteen years on the Board of Aldermen and ran unsuccessfully for mayor. He also ran a clothing firm in partnership with his brothers Abe and Simon which saw success despite the economic turbulence of Reconstruction. Louis rose to such prominence and regard that a Little Rock street was named in his honor.
The Eastern European Jews who participated in local politics were more often second-generation Americans, born in this country to immigrant parents. When the first German Jews arrived in the years preceding the Civil War, many leading Americans were themselves immigrants, and the fact of being born on foreign soil was not perceived as a hindrance to participation in the public sphere. By the turn of the century however, immigrant status assumed more of a stigma and a clearer distinction evolved between “native” and “alien” residents. As native born Americans, the children of the Eastern European immigrants were able to take advantage of opportunities in politics unavailable to their parents.
Born in St. Louis to Eastern European immigrants, William B. Sanders settled in Little Rock after graduating from the Arkansas Law School. Setting up his practice in the city, Sanders also took an active role in city leadership, working with the Little Rock Improvement District and the Board of Public Affairs. He was elected to the Little Rock City Council, and upon his death in 1972, the Arkansas Gazette quoted one Little Rock mayor who described Sanders as “The Boss of Little Rock.” Edward “Eddie” Bennett was born in 1903 to Polish Immigrants Ike and Sarah Bennett. After graduating from the Arkansas Law School, Edward began a lifetime of involvement in the Democratic Party. He served on the Democratic Committee for forty three years, made an unsuccessful bid for the state senate in 1931, and helped organized the Hotel Marion Breakfast Club, a regular gathering of leading Little Rock citizenry.
The reshuffling of American society in the wake of World War II brought increased attention to the country’s deep racial divisions, both in Arkansas and around the country. As in much of the South, the attitude of the Jewish Community in Little Rock towards segregation was complex. On many occasions Jews themselves experienced the sting of marginalization, and those who gained acceptance did not want to jeopardize their tenuous position. At the same time, their shared experience of prejudice led many Jews to empathize with the plight of African Americans. As a result, the Jewish responses to the civil rights movement varied. Many simply remained silent on the subject, some led the charge for equality, while others actively supported maintaining the status quo.
In some cases, the more successful and well-established Jews could afford to profess a more progressive stance on integration. Gus Ottenheimer, pictured left, operated a large garment factory through the 1940s and early 1950s. A fourth-generation Little Rock native, Ottenheimer went to great lengths to ensure an integrated workplace free from racial strife. His plant employed as many as 650 workers, and managers carefully adhered to Ottenheimer’s policy of “a total absence of any feelings of discrimination, favoritism, superiority or prejudice.” But even Ottenheimer carefully guarded his public statements so as to avoid provocation among his segregationist peers. For a 1948 magazine interview, he stated: “I wish to make it clear that this as all been accomplished without compulsion … I can foresee great harm being done … if compulsory laws are passed and the two races are thrown together without wise and proper provisions being made for them to work side by side …”
Another early advocate of racial equality took even greater steps to counter the segregation in Little Rock. Ira Sanders, pictured left, was born in Rich Hill, Missouri. He arrived in Little Rock in 1926 to serve as Rabbi of B’nai Israel. Sanders had previously served as an associate rabbi at a large, cosmopolitan congregation in New York. His involvement in civil rights began soon after he moved to Little Rock, when he sat next to a black man on a street car, and the conductor told him to move. Sanders and the conductor got into an argument, and soon after, the rabbi attacked the morality of Jim Crow laws in a sermon to his new congregation. From that point on, Rabbi Sanders never hesitated to raise his voice against racial injustice. Soon after his arrival, Sanders founded and headed the School of Social Work at the University of Arkansas. During his tenure as leader of the school, Sanders displayed the first indications of what would later in life blossom into his passionate advocacy for civil rights. The first enrolled class of 62 students contained two black women. Against the protests of white students, Sanders insisted that the black women could attend the school. Sanders lost the battle, as university policy prohibited integrated classes, but subsequent events in Little Rock would provide Sanders ample opportunity to voice his progressive values.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous landmark decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, upending the half-century old doctrine of “separate but equal” in the public school system. The following year, the Court ordered each state to integrate schools “with all deliberate speed,” launching a course of events which would soon rivet the eyes of the nation upon Little Rock.
The Little Rock School Board accepted the ruling and developed a plan for integration, set to begin with the 1957-1958 school year. In that year, nine accomplished black students registered at the all-white Little Rock Central High, in the face of a rising clamor from segregationist groups. Seeing an opportunity to improve his upcoming bid for reelection, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus vowed to oppose the integration, and deployed the Arkansas National Guard to block the students’ entry. As the nation watched, President Eisenhower placed the local unit of the Arkansas National Guard under Federal control and sent the 101st Airborne Division to escort the students to school.
The incident provoked a crisis within Little Rock, polarizing the citizenry and sparking fierce debate. Earlier in 1957, the Arkansas legislature considered four bills intended to circumvent the Brown vs. Board decision. The bills passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 88 to 1. Appalled by the measure, the Greater Little Rock Ministerial Alliance demanded a public hearing to be held in the House chambers. Despite the threats of violence, Rabbi Sanders rose and gave an impassioned speech, admonishing the lawmakers for their disregard for the Supreme Court and imploring on their behalf: “Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The bills still passed, setting the stage for the high school showdown.
Following the events at Central High, segregationists mounted intense pressure upon the Jewish community to avoid speaking out in favor of integration. Some openly distributed literature denouncing a “Communist-Zionist conspiracy” against the South, handily playing upon Cold War fears prevalent during the era. Fearing boycotts of their business or more harmful reprisals, many Jews in Little Rock adopted a policy of self-censorship on the issue. The segregationist Capitol Citizens Council threatened a boycott of the large Jewish-owned department stores, demanding that they cease newspaper advertising in the pro-integration Arkansas Gazette. In the high schools, Jewish children faced similar pressure from their classmates to oppose integration, and many left for schools in other states to avoid the choice between compromising their convictions or their safety.
A spate of synagogue bombings throughout the South compounded the fears of the Little Rock Jewish community. In October 1958, both Rabbi Sanders at B’nai Israel and Rabbi Groner of Agudath Israel received letters stating that the synagogues would be destroyed the following Friday. Sanders boldly declared: “we are going ahead with our normal duties,” and in both congregations, the shabbat services passed without incident. Unlike many of their congregants, both rabbis openly supported the struggle for integration. An interview of 100 white Little Rock clergymen found only eight in favor of ending segregation: the Rabbis of B’nai Israel and Agudath Achim, and six Protestant ministers.
A group of bold Little Rock women helped to shatter the silence that had descended upon many of the pro-integrationist voices in Little Rock. In September of 1958, Governor Faubus closed all Little Rock public schools. This act of brinksmanship roused the formerly silent opposition. A group of women, including many mothers of school-aged children, organized the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC). The membership of the organization swelled to over sixteen hundred, including much of the Jewish community. Irene Samuel, the executive secretary, was not Jewish herself, but was married to a local Jewish physician and raised both her children as active participants of B’nai Israel. Many temple members followed her example; Josephine Menkus, president of the local chapter of National Council of Jewish Women, teamed up with Irene to direct WEC propaganda efforts. Jane Mendel operated the group’s secret phone tree list, which could disseminate important news to its large membership in a short period of time.
WEC generated a strident opposition to the segregationist voices in Little Rock. Despite the threat of boycotts against businesses owned by their husbands and families, these brave women pursued their campaign. Their efforts ultimately contributed to a reshuffling of the school board and the ousting of the segregationist elements. In June of 1959, a federal court declared the school closing unconstitutional, and the following fall a fully integrated Little Rock school system opened for classes.
A 1958 Time magazine article on integration identified the three most common white attitudes among Little Rock citizens as the “Passives,” “Pushers,” and “Powers.” Many Jews fell into the “Passives” category, out of fear of reprisal, while others such as the members of WEC and Rabbis Sanders and Groner emerged as vocal “Pushers.” However, the Jewish community did also contain some “Powers,” those who actively sought to pursue the status quo and resist integration. Sam Strauss, owner of the large Pfeiffer’s department store, maintained strict segregation among his white and black workers. Irene Samuel of WEC met with Strauss, but he refused any suggestions to integrate, from fear that he might lose his wealthy white customer base. The nationwide campaign of sit-ins reached Arkansas in March of 1960, when fifty students were arrested at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. In April, four demonstrators conducted a sit-in at the Pfeiffer’s lunch counter and picketers began protests outside the store. Furious, Sam Strauss responded by removing all the seats at Pfeiffer’s lunch counter.
Time has healed many of the wounds from this turbulent period, and today greater Little Rock enjoys a robust economy and maintains the largest Jewish population in the state. In the 1970s, the Jewish Welfare Agency reorganized as the Jewish Federation of Little Rock, and due to the organization’s regional influence it soon became the Jewish Federation of Arkansas. The Little Rock Chapter of Hadassah originally drew members primarily from the Agudat Achim community, but subsequent years saw rising membership from B’nai Israel as well. In the 1980s, this organization also recognized its regional role and changed the name to the Arkansas Chapter of Hadassah. In addition to the continued success of congregations B’nai Israel and Agudath Achim, the Hasidic sect of Lubavitch Judaism opened a Little Rock branch in 1992.
Little Rock’s Jewish community has declined over the last several decades. In 1937, 2,500 Jews lived in the city. By 1968, it had declined to 1,200 Jews. Today, an estimated 1,100 Jews live in Little Rock. Although by national measures, Little Rock is a small Jewish community, it looms large in Arkansas as almost 2/3rds of Jews in the state live in the capital city. While Jewish life has declined in so many of the smaller cities and towns in Arkansas, Little Rock’s Jewish community remains stable and active.