Remembering the first rabbi in St. Louis

Rabbi Bernard Illowy

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

In honor of the 250th anniversary of the founding of St. Louis in 1764,  Cohnipedia will focus on a number of “firsts” in the local Jewish community. This column’s “first” takes a look at Rabbi Bernard L. Illowy, who in 1854 became the first full-time pulpit spiritual leader at United Hebrew Congregation, the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Mississippi River.   

Illowy came from a long line of distinguished rabbis and scholars, according to Walter Ehrlich, in his definitive history of local Jewry, “Zion in the Valley.” Ehrlich wrote that Illowy’s

“ collective achievements included serving as haus-rebbe (private chaplain) to the Austrian Court-Jew Oppenheim family, heading a bet din (Jewish court of law), directing a famous yeshiva, and authoring numerous theological tracts.”

Illowy’s UH career was also detailed in a commemorative booklet issued by the shul on the occasion of its 175th anniversary in 2012.  We learn from these sources that Illowy was born in Kolin, Bohemia, in 1814, and that he received a broad and thorough education.  He was trained in religious matters at first by his father, and completed his theological studies in Pressburg, Hungary, before being ordained by Rabbi Moses Schreiber, leader of the Hungarian Orthodox community.  

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In contrast to most European Orthodox rabbis, Illowy was well-educated in secular studies, culminating at the University of Budapest, where he earned a Ph.D. He also served for a few years as professor of German and French in a school for young women.  During that period he married Katherine Schiff, daughter of Wolf Schiff, a prominent merchant from Raudnitz, Bavaria.

The European revolutionary movement of 1848 was to bring Illowy’s rabbinic future in the continent to an end. Although he was not an active revolutionary, he did address some controversial rallies. 

In 1853, Illowy and his family emigrated to the United States, where he initially served as rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tzedek in New York.  Soon thereafter he moved to Philadelphia to Rodph Shalom Congregation, where he served as education director, and a year later, in 1854, accepted the pulpit of United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis.

Illowy, although remaining true to his Orthodoxy, met and became personal friends with Rabbis Isaac Mayer Wise and David Einhorn, two of Reform Judaism’s most ardent advocates. While Illowy, Wise and Einhorn argued their positions strenuously in “heated debates,” according to Ehrlich, they continued to respect one another and their printed arguments were “lauded as definitive scholarship on various rabbinic issues.”

Illowy is described in contemporary accounts as “a commanding figure with piercing gray eyes,” who regularly attracted capacity crowds for his sermons.  He was versed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as fluent in German and English, and also possessed an impressive knowledge of Hebrew in which he published some of his polemics.

Illowy served the St. Louis Jewish community for only one year, 1854-1855, during which he attained a rank among the nation’s leading and most respected rabbis.  But Ehrlich reports, “his Judaism proved to be too conservative for the members of his congregation.” Although UH maintained strict adherence to Orthodoxy, many UH member “sought almost desperately to acculturate to their new Midwestern environment.”

Illowy was to resign his UH pulpit after the congregation endorsed a new prayer book published by the nascent American Reform movement.  He remained in St. Louis long enough to conduct High Holiday services at B’nai El before he moved to lead a congregation in Syracuse, N.Y. In 1861, the year the American Civil War broke out, Illowy accepted a pulpit in New Orleans, where he ministered until he died in 1871. He remains ranked among the nation’s outstanding scholarly rabbis, whose works are consulted to this very day.

In 1878, seven years after Illowy passed away, UH formally left the Orthodox movement and joined the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Illowy served as a pivotal and transitional figure for UH, providing its first spiritual leadership during the “bridge” period as the synagogue moved from Orthodoxy to Reform Judaism. 

‘Cohnipedia’ is the feature by Editor-in-Chief Emeritus  Robert A. Cohn, chronicling St. Louis’ Jewish  history. Visit Cohnipedia online at  stljewishlight.com/cohn.