"Look back through us from generation to generation.
From generations whom you have known,
to generations we no longer remember.
We will look forward through you to generations we do not yet know,
and we will be confident they will continue our family's proud Jewish tradition."
With these words, my wife and I blessed our twins Ian and Margo on their B'nai Mitzvah this Spring at Beth El Synagogue in Minneapolis.
Who were the generations we no longer remembered? I knew three of my four grandparents. My mother's father, Lewis Rein, died when I was only one year old. My mother, Ferna G. Rein (Heifetz) didn't know any of her father's parents except to say their names were Moses and Fanny Rein.
I had waited too long to investigate our past, anyone with even remote first hand knowledge of my maternal great-grandparents had passed away. My mother was rather certain Lewis grew up in Hurley, a small town in Northern Wisconsin that borders the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The Hurley Historical Society maintains a genealogy website, there is also a city directory web site from the turn of the century. Browsing this website showed no Reins in Hurley at that time, could my mother have been mistaken?
Our Trek North
With the kids away at Herzl and Chi Camps, my wife and I were suddenly alone for the first time in years. Our good friends Mitch and Faye Kaye recommended a vacation trip to Door County, Wisconsin. Perhaps we could combine this with a side trip to Hurley to investigate. With our plans in order Faye asked us to take a stone from our yard on the trip. A strange suggestion indeed, was this a Jewish ritual to safeguard the traveler that we had somehow missed?
After five lovely days in Door County, we headed west on Highway 2 to Hurley. It was this part of our vacation that would reveal one grand surprise after another, the first of which was Hurley is nowhere near Door County.
The highway skirts the border of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, a sparsely populated area with small towns whose names ring back to the riches of the Gogebic Range-iron and timber.
The towns were Iron Mountain, Iron River, Bessemer and finally Ironwood, Michigan, the town immediately adjacent to Hurley, Wisconsin. In between these towns, over the span of 125 miles was … nothing. It was a drive where deer sightings outnumbered people sightings, an area of the Ottawa National Forest that was untouched and pristine.
For my wife who is from New York City, and thinks the wilderness starts at the edge of the Minneapolis city limits this was a new experience. Despite this, we found ourselves becoming more excited the further west we traveled. Boredom was replaced by a feeling of awe each time we reached the top of a hill, an unobstructed view of only trees for as far as we could see.
Slowly a stark realization set in. If my grandfather and my great grandparents were from Hurley, this is the same view, the same country, in which they would have lived and traveled.
We arrived in Hurley in the early evening, too late to go to the Historical Society or begin our investigation. Driving through town, we noticed the street names attest to the industries- mining and lumber that built this city. There was Gold, Silver, Manganese, Copper, Iron, Magnetic, Hematite and Taconite streets on the South side of town, Division Street in the center and Maple, Poplar, and Oak streets on the North end.
The Village of Hurley, organized by Michael Angelo Hurley in 1884, was a raucous town at the beginning of the 20th century. With all those miners and outdoorsmen, the town provided comfort and entertainment for these gentlemen in the form of saloons, gambling parlors and an even older profession frowned upon in the Torah. Such was the city I would begin the search for my family roots.
Our First Discoveries
Traveling south on Highway 51 just a few blocks from the city center we saw a large cemetery. In the corner fenced off with stone and timber and marked by a rusty gate bearing the name "Sharey Zedek Cemetery" we found the Jewish section, the yard perfectly maintained.
With just enough light remaining, we walked among the approximately 70 headstones, reading the names and dates chiseled in the marble and granite. The oldest was placed in 1902, and the newest in 1999. Some of the names such as Ladin, Sher, Ziff, Rosen, Adler, Cohen, Milavitz, Fink, Goldman, Tobin, and others sounded familiar, names of families that were common to Minneapolis/St. Paul. We approached a very old tombstone, shaped like an obelisk near the front and center of the graveyard.
The Hebrew engraving worn by time and poorly lit at dusk was hard to read. The name in Hebrew--Fagel Gitl, at the bottom in English --
"Mrs. F. G. Rein, Mother,
Died Sept. 12, 1917 Age 52 years"
I was standing at the grave of my great grandmother. The first tangible proof my family was here. Likely the first family to visit her in over 50 years. And then I understood what our friend Faye Kaye had already realized. I took the stone we carried from our house in Plymouth and placed it atop the monument.
The stone not only fulfilled the ancient tradition to remember our parents and grandparents, it signified the completion of a journey, we had returned to the home of our ancestors carrying a piece of their future back to them. I anticipated the call to my mother "Ferna G.", had she known who she was named after? One hour in Hurley and we already had our first unexpected discovery, but it would turn out this was just the beginning.
The following morning we awoke early, eager to start our exploration. We met first with Robert Traczyk, County Clerk of Iron County (Hurley), Wisconsin. After explaining our mission, Mr. Traczyk directed us to the volumes of county records and provided us with a short primer on record keeping practices, circa 1890.
Noticing my wife and I were both wearing white shirts, he began to laugh. The record books were over 100 years old, with similar aged dust. Poring over these books, we found immense amounts of information, and as Mr. Traczyk suspected our shirts were now a dirty gray.
We found the 1897 deed of the house at 201 Copper Street, which Moses and Fanny Rein purchased for $350.00. In 1902, Moses purchased additional land at 4th and Division Street. Mr. Traczyk told us
this land was adjacent to the old synagogue. At the time we thought this peculiar, but its deep significance would become clear by the end of the day.
With the date of death obtained from Fanny G. Rein's tombstone, we were able to find her death certificate. Fanny was from Varniai, Lithuania, and we now had the names of her parents.
Fanny's father was Israel Feinberg and her mother was Mere Malko (Miriam) Feinberg. This name sounded all too familiar. We rushed back to Sharey Zedek cemetery, which was just a block from the County Clerks office. There, next to Fanny's grave was another obelisk style headstone which read, "Miriam M. Feinberg, Mother, Died Sept. 17, 1913 Age 78 years." I was standing at the foot of my great great grandmother's grave.
Back to the Clerks office, we found Miriam's death certificate, listing the name of my great great great grandfather, Sholem Meirowitz.
Certain we had exhausted all the information available on my family, we went to the Iron County Historical Museum, to learn more about this town of my ancestors.
The Museum and Historical society are housed in the "Old County Courthouse" building at 303 Iron Street. There we met a kindly gentleman Carl Prosek. After regaling us with stories of old Hurley, Mr. Prosek offered to look for any additional information regarding my family.
We went upstairs to the second floor and wandered through the museum. There we found the original courtroom untouched since the last court case was heard. It was a scene directly out of an old Perry Mason television show. A series of anterooms next to the Judge's Chamber housed displays focusing on different aspects of life in old Hurley. We walked through the mining, textile, and music rooms and came to the "religious display". Amongst the displays from the local churches, sat oddly a very large old brass menorah. Below it were two old sepia type photographs of a woman and a man. The woman was Fanny Rein and the man, Rabbi Moses Rein. Astounding!
The Rabbi And The Synagogue
Hurley had several weekly newspapers at the beginning of the 20th century. Even mundane events such as the comings and goings of its residents were newsworthy items.
Thanks to those newspapers and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I was able to unlock the mystery of my great grandfather, the Rabbi.
At the height of the Depression, FDR established the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In Hurley, one of the WPA projects was to scan the newspapers and interview people of the time, and record the definitive history of the city. One chapter of the WPA book was the history of the "Hurley Jewish Church".
The following is an excerpt from that book published in 1937:
"The Sharey Zedek church and congregation originated back in early 1892. Mr. Louis Ladin, Jake Perl, S.L. Mark, Adolph Skud and Mr. H. Selin were the original organizers of the church and congregation. Meetings were first held in Mr. Ladin's home in Hurley, which was located down near the Soo Line tracks between 6th and 7th Avenues North.
Mr. Ladin was president and presided at all meetings. Meetings were held on Saturdays only. Later in 1892 Mr. Ladin moved to the corner of 6th Avenue North and Division Street in what is now known as old Duchan's house. His moving meant the moving of the church as the congregation continued to meet at his home. Later in 1892 he again moved the congregations meeting place. The building has been torn down.
Mr. Ladin continued to preside at all meetings and through efforts of the congregation, money was raised and a lot and house were purchased (for $125.00) on the Northwest corner of 4th and Division Street. This purchase was made in early 1893 with the intention of holding services there, but soon after the purchase was made the house burned. Services and meetings were then held in an old building located on 4th Avenue South, just off Silver Street.
In 1895 the congregation reorganized and got enough money together to build their present church. The building was put up by a carpenter named Mr. Rankey. In 1919 an addition was put on the church as the increase in the congregation necessitated this.
The first Rabbi to hold services in the church which was in the later part of 1892 was from Pennsylvania. The second Rabbi, the Reverend B. Perlman, a (half) brother of Mr. Ladin's was here only a short while when he was called to Ashland (Wisconsin) to take over a church at a salary more than the Hurley congregation could afford to pay. Neither of the first two Rabbis stayed over 1½ months. Mr. Louis Ladin then went to Chicago and brought back with him the Reverend Rein.
Reverend Rein at that time had only been in the States a few months. He continued as the Rabbi here from 1893 through 1921 and during his time here he became very well known throughout the Range. Upon leaving here he moved to Minneapolis where he continued to live until his death (in 1937).
From 1928 to 1930 Reverend Temkin was in charge and from 1932 to 1934 Reverend Radin was Rabbi. During some of the years and during the past 3½ years no steady Rabbi was in charge. When circumstances called for a Rabbi one was hired. The congregation at present soon hopes to hire a steady Rabbi, at least they are working hard with that aim in view. At one time 45 families constituted the congregation. Today this has been cut to 25-30."
Rabbi Rein was a strong supporter of his new American Jewish community. Newspaper articles of the day report he attended the Zionist Convention in Chicago in 1919, and traveled throughout Copper County, Michigan to raise money for Jewish Relief in 1920.
After moving to Minneapolis he was elected president of the local Mizrachi (religious branch of the Zionist movement).
A Childhood Memory Recalled
On September 3, 1921 a headline in the local paper read,
"Rabbi Rein Leaves Hurley".
The article is as follows:
"After more than 30 years of working among the Jewish people of the Gogebic range and continuous residency in Hurley, Rabbi M. Rein severed his connection with the local synagogue and left Thursday with his family for Minneapolis where he has been given a charge. His departure is greatly regretted by his congregation to whom he has been a faithful friend and advisor and the best wishes of the entire community will follow him to his new field. A farewell party was given to him in his honor at the synagogue Sunday afternoon at which 14 year old Morris Sher gave the farewell address. Other addresses were given by J. Perl, L. Ladin, H. Selin, and B. Hummel. The meeting was well attended many coming from Ashland and Bayfield as well as from Gogebic Range towns. Rabbi Rein was presented with a handsome gold watch by the men of the congregation and a silver cigar holder and gold fountain pen by the women as evidence of their esteem."
Forty one years ago when I was four years old, I remember going next door to visit with my great aunt Esther, of blessed memory, in her North Minneapolis apartment.
Esther was Moses Rein's daughter and an elementary school teacher with the Minneapolis Public Schools. Esther would teach me to read, and at the end of each session for my reward she would take a stick of gum out of a silver case. Once back in Minneapolis I re-read the 1921 news article, I went down to our basement and rummaged through a box of Esther's personal items. I found that silver case which I remembered so well. On the top was a monogram "MR" and on the back an engraving I had never noticed, "Compliments from the Ladies of the Sharey Zedek Congregation to Rev. M. Rein".
Walking In The Rabbi's Shadow
The story of my great grandparents has become a living tribute through association. I visited Moses Rein's house at 201 Copper Street, and talked with its current owner. I traveled those same avenues, the four blocks to the synagogue at 400 Division Street. I walked on its original wood floors, and along the women's gallery.
The outline of the five great arched windows representing the five Books of Moses can still be seen. Sharey Zedek Synagogue (translation-gates of charity) is still standing. Since 1940 it has functioned as an apartment building, the great Dome removed less than ten years ago.
The Mikvah building also remains, as a private house. Returning to the Historical Museum, I held the synagogue's large brass menorah, bits of wax and candlewick still present, and imagined Rabbi Rein lighting the candles.
A Vanishing Jewish Community
Today there are no Jews remaining in Hurley and less than a handful in Ironwood and Bessemer Michigan, but physical reminders of their presence as well as pleasant memories of their Jewish neighbors are recalled by several of the people I talked to.
Walking along Silver Street in Hurley, the original sign of Dr. H. Sher, the dentist can be seen on a second floor window of the Gertz building. The Gertz and Sher families were related through marriage.
The original building of Sloan and Feinberg Jewelers stands, albeit with a new fascade. Morris Feinberg was a brother of Fanny Rein. Morris and his wife Sarah later moved to Chicago. The townspeople remember the synagogue as the building with "the onion" on top, and they speak of "the bathhouse" (mikvah) adjacent to it.
In Ironwood the original "Lieberthal Block Building- 1887" can be seen downtown. Michael's Shoes on the outskirts of Ironwood is still in business, although Mr. Michael Rosen has recently retired. The Rovelsky Company too is still in business and Mr. Ed Rovelsky has become the de facto caretaker for the remaining assets of the Jewish community and the Sharey Zedek Cemetery. In Bessemer, Michigan the Abelman Clothing Store started in 1887 is currently operated by Bob Abelman.
Paul Sturgul, a lawyer in Hurley was himself too young to remember many of the Jewish inhabitants but with wit and an encyclopedic memory recalled tales his aunt had told him of their Jewish neighbors and the Jewish community.
He told the tale of the wedding of Rose Perl attended by his aunt and officiated by Rabbi Rein. She remembered the beautiful chupa and ceremonial breaking of the glass. The practices of these early Jews must have been foreign to their new neighbors, and the local terminology reflected this. The synagogue was referred to as the "Jewish church" and the mikvah as, the "bathhouse". An article from the Iron County Miner newspaper dated September 18, 1901 described the significance of the recent Rosh Hoshanah holiday and the upcoming Yom Kippur service…
"On both these days holy convocations are held. Both days are days of repentance and reformation and have only religious names. These two days are the only ones of the whole year that are strictly observed by the most reckless Israelite. The service was….largely attended by the Hebrews of the range."
Mr. Sturgul described the history of the early Jewish settlers. Throughout the Gogebic range, Jews mostly from Lithuania became the local merchants for these new mining towns. After finding success in business and an accommodating community, they were followed by other family and friends from their native homeland. Jews could be found in each of the mining communities.
As the riches of the mines tapped out, the prominence of these cities declined, and the Jews moved out toward the larger cities. Sharey Zedek Synagogue in Hurley closed by 1940. Kaleva Hall in Ironwood was used for High Holyday services until 1946 when the Jewish community reorganized and formed Temple Beth El on Ayer Street in Ironwood.
The contents of the Hurley synagogue were transferred to this new, smaller synagogue. Rabbi Cyrus Arfa officiated during some of the Ironwood years. When Temple Beth El closed in 1967, the religious items were transferred to Superior, Wisconsin and elsewhere. A few remnants are preserved by Mr. Rovelsky. B'nai Israel Synagogue in Ashland, Wisconsin was torn down in 1988, but there is still an active synagogue- Temple Beth Shalom in Ishpeming, Michigan and the beautiful Temple Jacob in Hancock, just celebrated it 90th anniversary.
Look Back From Generation To Generation
Our trip to the "homeland" only spurred more interest in this branch of our family. Through the power of the internet, I discovered that Rabbi Moses Rein was originally from Telsiai, Lithuania. The headstones of his parents, still standing in the Telsiai cemetery read, Avraham Zvi (ben Itzchak) "the schochet" 1845-1920 and Beila (bat Leib Govshen) 1846-1920. The family name, Rein, engraved in Hebrew (resh yud yud nun) on their headstones was not changed. Other descendants of Avraham and Beila include the Joelson, Bindler, Aleskow, Sarfatty, Gusse, Tobin, and Cooper families.
My wish for my children is to remember the Jewish concept of zechut avot:
"The merits of our ancestors contribute to the welfare of their descendants."
I hope they remember their past and the communities they are a part of, in this way they will carry on our rich Jewish tradition for future generations.
Steven Heifetz, M.D
this entire essay and all the photos are the property of Steven Heifetz.
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Look Back Through Us From Generation To Generation
… a family lineage rediscovered, a Jewish Community revisited.
By Steven Heifetz, M.D.
a picture of
his wife Fanny Rein and their first born son, Ed Rein.
The Moses Rein Home
as it is now, 2002.
The Sharey Zedek Synagogue, 2002
Now used as an apartment building
From left to right:
Miriam Feinberg (seated), Fanny Feinberg Rein