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LOUISVILLE, the largest city in Kentucky and home to its oldest and largest Jewish community. Jews may have owned land in the Louisville area as early as the late 18th century and a few arrived at the beginning of the 19th, but the first Jewish institutions arose in the city only in the 1830s. An Israelite Benevolent Society was listed in the Louisville city directory in 1832 and regular worship services were established around 1838. Louisville's first Jewish congregation dates from 1842, when Adath Israel was chartered. Jews continued to arrive in the city over the next decade, primarily from the German states and from Posen, and in 1851 a second congregation was established, known first as the Polish House of Israel and soon after as Beth Israel. A third congregation, Brith Sholom, was organized in 1880. Among early Adath Israel spiritual leaders was Bernhard Henry Gotthelf (1819–1878), in 1862 appointed the second Jewish chaplain of the Union Army. Both Adath Israel and Brith Sholom were early adopters of Reform practices. Other organizations established by Louisville's 19th-century German-Jewish settlers included a lodge of B'nai B'rith, chartered in 1852, and the Standard Club (forerunner of the Standard Country Club), established in 1883. Louisville's Jewish population stood at about 2,500 in 1880.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the city's most prominent Jewish residents included clothiers Moses and Henry Levy (arrived in Louisville in 1861); dry goods magnate Henry Kaufman and his colleague Benjamin Straus (partners in 1883); attorney Aaron Kohn (1854–1916), Jefferson County prosecutor and a Louisville alderman in the 1880s; distiller and philanthropist Isaac W. Bernheim (1848–1945); and lawyer and scholar Lewis Dembitz (1833–1907), city tax attorney from 1884 to 1888 and the uncle of Louis D. Brandeis, himself a Louisville native whose ashes are interred beneath the portico of the University of Louisville law school that bears his name.

Around the turn of the 20th century, East European Jews began arriving in large numbers and they tended to cluster in a cohesive downtown neighborhood centered on Preston Street. As elsewhere in America, they engaged both in commercial activities and in wage labor in trades such as tailoring and cigarmaking. Five new congregations were established in Louisville between 1882 and 1905, at least four of them byproducts of the influx of East Europeans and Orthodox in outlook. These congregations were B'nai Jacob (1882), Beth Hamedrash Hagodol (1887), Anshei Sfard (1893), Adath Jeshurun (1894, the successor to Beth Israel), and Agudath Achim (1905). In 1902, Louisville's Orthodox congregations banded together to hire a "chief rabbi" and arrange for the supervision of kashrut, the maintenance of a mikveh, and the organization of a Talmud Torah Society.

Louisville's East Europeans established a number of ethnic and cultural organizations as well. As early as 1907 there were three Zionist circles in Louisville and a Yiddish Literary Society was established around World War I. A chapter of Hadassah was organized in 1919. Louisville's Jewish population was reported to be 12,500 in 1927 and 13,800 in 1937. In the period after World War II, the number of Jews in Louisville began to decline and the city's Jewish population, as well as its institutions, gradually migrated away from the downtown area, relocating mainly to the Highlands neighborhood at first, and then farther to the east as well. Louisville's Jewish population was reported as 8,500 in 1960 and 9,200 in 1984.

Already in the late 19th century, a number of Jewish service and welfare institutions were established in Louisville. These included a chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, organized in 1893; a Young Men's Hebrew Association (the forerunner of the Louisville Jewish Community Center), incorporated in 1890; and a social service agency called Neighborhood House, founded in 1896. In 1903, Louisville's Jewish Hospital was established to provide facilities for Jewish doctors who were denied staff privileges elsewhere and to care for patients who might prefer treatment in a Jewish environment. By the end of the 20th century, Jewish Hospital was a world leader in both artificial heart and hand transplant surgery.

As the number of Jewish welfare institutions in Louisville increased, a Federation of Jewish Charities was created around 1908. This body became the Jewish Welfare Federation by 1918 and the Jewish Social Service Agency in 1951. In 1934, a second coordinating body was established: the Louisville Conference of Jewish Organizations. Intended primarily as a fundraising agency, over time the Conference developed into the community's principal coordinating and public relations body as well, adopting the name Jewish Community Federation of Louisville in 1971.

A sampling of prominent Louisville Jews of the 20th century includes bacteriologist Simon Flexner (1863–1946); juvenile justice and welfare advocate Bernard Flexner (1865–1945); medical education reformer Abraham Flexner (1866–1959); attorney Charles W. Morris (1892–1961), a civic and political activist and a founder of the Louisville Conference of Jewish Organizations; art historian Justus Bier (1899–1990) and musicologist Gerhard Herz (1911–2000), both of whom fled Nazi Germany and joined the University of Louisville faculty in the 1930s; businessman and humanitarian Arthur S. Kling (1896–81); community stalwart Lewis D. Cole (b. 1913), onetime chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council; Charles M. Leibson (1929–95), named a justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court in 1983; popular mayor Jerry Abramson (b. 1946), first elected in 1985; and community activist Marie Abrams (b. 1937), who became national chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in 2004.

Among the more prominent rabbis who served in Louisville were Adolph Moses (1840–1902), an advocate of a radical form of Judaism he called "Yahvism"; Hyman G. Enelow (1877–1934), later rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in New York; Asher L. Zarchy (1863?–1932), chief rabbi of the Orthodox community from 1903 until 1932; the civic-minded Joseph Rauch (1880–1957), for whom the city's planetarium is named; Simcha Kling (1922–91), author of the text Embracing Judaism; and Herbert Waller (1914–1994), active in interfaith work.

At the turn of the 21st century, the communal institutions in Louisville included, aside from the Jewish Federation and Community Center, the Jewish Family and Vocational Service, created in 1978 as a successor to the Jewish Social Service Agency; Shalom Tower, providing subsidized housing for the elderly; the Four Courts Senior Center, a nursing home facility; the Louisville Vaad Hakashruth; the Eliahu Academy and Torah Academy day schools; and several supplementary education programs. Louisville's congregations at the turn of the century were Anshei Sfard (Orthodox), Adath Jeshurun (Conservative), Keneseth Israel (Conservative, formed in 1926 by the merger of B'nai Jacob and Beth Hamedrash Hagodol), The Temple (Reform, created in 1976 by the merger of Adath Israel and Brith Sholom), and Temple Shalom (Reform, established in 1976). The Jewish population of the city at the turn of the century was approximately 8,700, with perhaps 10 percent being "new Americans" from the former Soviet Union.


C. Ely, Jewish Louisville: Portrait of a Community (2003); L.S. Weissbach, The Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History (1995); H. Landau, Adath Louisville: The Story of a Jewish Community (1981); I. Rosenwaike, "The First Jewish Settlers in Louisville," in: The Filson Club History Quarterly, 53 (January 1979), 37–53.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.