The History of The Etz Chaim Sephardic Congregation and Community of Indianapolis, Indiana
created by Sylvia Nahmias Cohen,
with the help of Anne Calderon
The Sephardim who came to Indianapolis settled in a small area near the 500-600 block of South Illinois Street. As new arrivals came in, they moved further south as far as Morris Street. They lived within an area covering the 800-1100 blocks of South Illinois Street, South Capital Avenue, Church Street (now Kenwood Avenue), and Senate Avenue.
The first Sephardic settlers to arrive in Indianapolis were Jacob and Rachel Sarfati Toledano, from Monastir, Yugoslavia, in 1906. They opened a small men's tailoring shop on West Washington Street. Following the Toledanos in 1906 was Moshon Meshulam, who worked for the railroad in a labor camp for a short time before he worked as a tailor. By 1910 he was able to send for his wife Rosa and their children from Monastir.
Almost all of the early settlers (men) came by themselves to find employment. Once they were established, they sent for their wives and children and intended, brides.
Isaac B. Cohen arrived in the U.S. in 1904. He was met at the dock with promises of a good job in the coal mines of West Virginia. He became indebted and depressed enough to manage to leave the area and come to Indianapolis in 1906. He was able to send for his wife, Esther, and his children by 1910. Both Esther Cohen and Rosa Meshulam rented rooms to boarders, which helped supplement their meager incomes. These boarders were other Sephardim from Europe. Since most of these boarders were single, it was important for them to be with their own people, eat the same foods they were accustomed to, and, of course, be able to converse in Ladino. They became like members of the family.
During 1911-1913 the families of Aroseti, Calderon, Camhi, Eskaylo, Nahmias, Toledo, and Yosha came from Monastir. These families, along with the Toledanos, Meshulams, and Cohens formed the Sephardic community in Indianapolis. Other families arriving later from Monastir were Alboher, Asael, Baruch, Cassorla, Elias, Ergas, Farash, Hazen, Ovadia, Pardo,-Passo, Russo, and Sarfaty.
David A. Nahmias owned a small shoemaker's shop at 554 South Illinois Street. Because he was so close to Union Station, his shop became the first stop for all the newly arriving Sephardim. It became a 'meeting place." Here, the new arrivals were introduced to other members of the community and given helpful information pertaining to employment, living quarters, etc.
Regina and Louis Behar (brother and sister) arrived here from Palestine in 1915. They came to Indianapolis because their sister, Bookas, and her husband, Morris Yosha, were living here.
David Eskenazi was the first Sephardi from Salonika, Greece, to settle here. He came in 1914. A year later his brother, Naphtali, arrived. David Eskenazi went into the wholesale produce commission business in the early 1920s.
In 1917, Mallah Mordoh and his wife, Oro, came to Indianapolis from Salonika also. They were followed by another small group from Salonika in 1918: Sam and Reyna Cohen, Albert and Regina Cohen, Leon and Gracia Nefouse, Louis and Ricketa Profeta, Sam and Sterina Sham, and Leon and Regina Mallah.
Morris and Gracia Abravaya were the only ones from the city of Chanakale, Turkey (near the Dardanelles). They reached here in 1917. Abravaya and all of the families from Salonika went into the produce business, either wholesale or retail.
Although Edward Dayan did not speak Ladino, he and his cousin became members of the Sephardic Congregation and community. His cousin arrived here in 1920. A year later, 1921, Edward came to join his cousin from Alleppo, Syria. They sold linens from door to door and by 1923 had prospered enough to open the Circle Linen Shop (on Monument Circle).
For many years the Sephardim were not recognized as Jews by some of the other Jews in Indianapolis because they did not speak Yiddish. Some of the Ashkenazim were rude and condescending to the new arrivals. The Sephardim, proud of their heritage, withheld social contact when they were not accepted. For many years, a social riff prevailed in the Indianapolis Jewish community between the two groups. There was no intermarriage of the Sephardim and Ashkenazim until 1932, when three marriages took place.
Since they had no Kahal (synagogue) they used the Communal Building (Concord Center) for religious services and other important functions such as weddings, bar-mitzvahs, etc. The first wedding in the Sephardic community was that of Solomo M. Nahmias to Clara Sham in 1913 in the downstairs game room of the Communal Building. Others married there were Albert Nahmias to Victoria Camhi, Isaac Leby to Gracia Asael, Gabriel Calderon to Estraya Calderon and Mercado Levy to Esther Cassoda.
A sudden death of one member of the community made it imperative to purchase a cemetery. With the help of Rabbi M. Feuerlicht and the I.H.C. (Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation) the cemetery on Kelly Street was purchased in 1916. The first death was that of Joseph Nahmias who died in 1914. He was buried in the (Polish Cemetery) Shara Tefillah Congregation. The first burial in the Etz Chaim Cemetery was that of a young boy, Samuel Pardo, in 1923.
Bohor Samuel Calderon and Isaac (Avisai) Levy formed the men's burial society (Havrim) in 1921. Members of this group are called Rochessim..The women's group, the Rochesses, was formed by Rashel Toledano and Palomba Alboher at the same time.
The first marriage in the Kahal on Church Street was that of Solomo and Rayna Camhi in 1920. When there was no rabbi in the community, Isaac B. Cohen acted as spiritual leader. He conducted the services and was aided by Moshon Meshulam, David A. Nahmias, and Bohor Farash. Other elders who participated during religious services were Samuel Kimche (Camhi), Moshe S. Nahmias, Yudah Calderon, Avram Passo, and Mikael Eskalyo. Simon S. Camhi visited members of the community Sunday mornings, collecting donations and pledges to help pay the mortgage on the Kahal (synagogue).
Etz Chaim hired Rabbi Jahon in 1916 to be its first rabbi (1916-1919). (See the end of this article for a list of the community spiritual leaders.) When Sephardic rabbis were not available in later years, Ashkenazic rabbis were hired, sucJa as Axonson and Schwartz. Other times Israeli teachers who worked at the Hebrew Academy were hired to serve as readers or services leaders, aided by the elders of the community.
The children were taught Hebrew in their own very small school for a few years. By 1924 they became affiliated with the Rabbi Neustadt Hebrew School, but had their own Ladino instructor for two years.
Mr. Rabinoff of the Communal Building asked for help in collecting pledges from the Sephardic community. Both Albert (Abe) Nahmias, and Albert Morris Nahmias volunteered their services and collected for the Talmud Torah Fund.
A social men's club was formed in 1920 under the leadership of Naphtali Eskenazi. They met first at the Communal Building, then moved to a rented room in the 800 block of South Meridian Street. Two more moves were made until they were able to purchase a two story building at 1002 South Capital Avenue in 1930. During 1930-1948, the downstairs quarters were rented as a storeroom to members of the community, including Mike and Sophia Pardo, Albert and Victoria Nahmias, and Harry, Ike, and Mickey Pardo. The building was sold to Albert and Bess Hazen in 1948. The second story was used for the social clubs. On Sundays, the men played cards, pool, and discussed current events. During the week the room was used for meetings, receptions, dinners, luncheons, showers, bar-mitzvah parties, and other functions. Once a year a dance was scheduled and proceeds went to the synagogue.
During the 1930s, in the summertime on Sundays and American holidays, the congregation sponsored picnics at Garfield, Columbia, and German parks. Members and their families were loaded into chartered buses and tracks, with bushel baskets of food to last the entire day.
They were a singing and dancing people, and spent a good deal of the summer evenings on someone's porch, singing Ladino songs which were led by Morris Abravaya, David S. Nahmias, and Sam Passo. Other picnics were held at Alexo's farm on West Kessler Boulevard, with different ethnic Balkan and Near Eastern groups. Many delightful hours were spent at Alexo's dancing the "choro" with the friendly people. Alexo (a Macedonian immigrant) also sold "feta" cheese to many people who visited his farm. This cheese was used in every Sephardic home for many ethnic dishes.
The Communal Building was really our settlement house and it was vital to our lives. The youngsters joined many clubs and gymnastic classes, in addition to regular dances held there. It was a recreational center. Citizenship classes were formed at the Communal Center, and by the 1920s most of the community went to the English-speaking classes also. As a rule, the men went at night, while the women went during the day. Miss Frances Mazur, a volunteer, and a young lawyer, Sam Mandell (hired by the Jewish Social Services), were very instrumental in helping them to become Americanized and obtain their citizenship papers.
Theodore Stein, a bachelor who had no family, was adopted by the Sephardic community. He was invited to dinner or coffee by many families and was very helpful in many ways. He sold insurance to practically everyone in the community and gave them good advice. He read and wrote letters for the community members until they learned to themselves. He was called the "Jewish Santa Claus" because he carried candy in his pockets to give to the children wherever he went. He was considered an honorary member of the Sephardic community and was buried in Etz Chaim Cemetery.
In March 1922, two banquets were given in honor of the learned Rabbi Chaim Nahum Effendi, Chief Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire (in Europe and the Near East). A delegation from Cincinnati was sent here to represent that city. Since the group was so large, they had two banquets in order to accommodate everyone. These banquets were held in a kosher restaurant, Solomon's Cafe, at 35 South Illinois Street.
A Sephardic weekly publication called "La Vara," printed in Ladino (Spanish written with Hebrew letters), kept the community informed of important events and national news. Historical essays, poetry, and fiction were also a part of the newspaper. This paper, published in New York by Albert Levy, was an important link with the rest of the Sephardic world. It was published from 1922 to 1948.
By 1933 the community consisted of about 75 families, totaling about 350 individuals. At that time, there were 2 market stand owners, 7 wholesale fruit peddlers, 4 retail fruit peddlers, 2 secondhand dry goods dealers, 3 privately owned tailoring shops, 3 shoemakers, 2 men's furnishing shops, 1 baker, 1 grocer, 1 confectionery, and 1 dry goods store. Almost 50% of the community worked for the Kahn Tailoring Company, including some women who worked before they were married A few others worked the August Julian Tailoring Company on South Street.
Tia Rackel Camhi served successfully for several years as a midwife until home delivery proved to be quite difficult. From that time on, Dr. Witt brought most of the first-generation American Sephardim into this world. He served the whole community as their family doctor until he passed away.
The women never worked after marriage during the 1920s and 1930s. They were devoted mothers and worked very hard. They did their own laundry, sewing, and baked their own bread, in addition to all other household chores. Most were married by 20 years of age, the men by 23. Engagements were short, and weddings were simple, but very musical. The birth rate was slightly higher than that of other Jewish groups.
The women looked after one another during childbirth, sickness, or any emergency that might arise. The custom of providing food and cleaning house for those in mourning prevails even today.
The women's sisterhood group "Society" was formed in 1925. The first president was Senyora Toledo. A very special fund called the "Fundo Secreto" (Secret Fund) was formed by the women and helped those in need of financial aid. It was, as its name implies, very secret, its funds lent or given in the strictest confidence. This fund is still part of the Sisterhood's treasury. Fortunately, it has not been needed or used for many years.
When visiting friends or relatives, the first thing done to welcome guests always included serving Turkish coffee with "tadalikos" (round sweet, hard cookies) and homemade white almond jelly, with teaspoons for every guest to use for the jelly. The jelly signified a sweet life.
Children were never taken out of school to work in order to add to the family income. They were encouraged to go to school regularly. The children did, however, carry their share of the load, but only after school hours and on weekends. Boys sold newspapers, song sheets, flowers, candy, ice cream, peddled produce, worked in poultry, houses and sold shoes. The girls worked also. They were employed by stand owners at the City Market, some sold song sheets or shopping bags, and others worked at the "Store Without a Name," the Leader Store, Dayan's Linen Shop, Efroymsom's Department, Stirem Yaver Tie Shop, and the Real Silk Hosiery Company.
All of the children, with the exception of just a handful, graduated from Manual Training High School (now known as Harry E. Wood High School). Several enrolled and completed their education at Butler, Purdue, and Indiana universities.
By World War II many young men had enlisted and served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Three from the community made the supreme sacrifice during World War II. These three were Hyman S. Nahmias, Jack Aroesti, and Geon M. Mordoh. Morris S. Meshulam, our fourth loss, was killed in the Korean War in 1952.
During the war years, many young women, 18 years and older, served as hostesses in the U.S.O. (United Service Organization) as Cadettes. These Cadettes were on duty at the old Kirschbaum Community Center on North Meridian Street, while the Liberty Belles were taken on chaperoned buses to Camp Atterbury and Fort Harrison.
The women knitted stocking caps, masks, and mufflers for the Red Cross, while they attended their meetings at this time.
The Sephardic people are thrifty, honest, and have a very keen sense of obligation. Pride is very important to them, and they accepted no help unless it was absolutely necessary.
Considering the circumstances and conditions during 1920-1950, they had a high regard for the law and never had any serious problems with juvenile delinquency, drinking or gambling. All of the first-generation Americans have done very well financially without help from others. With perseverance and incentive to better themselves, the community has produced many businessmen and other professionals: lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, pharmacists, judges, apartment and home builders, insurance agents, manufacturer's representatives, wholesale produce merchants, teachers, shoe store owners, grocery store owners, dry goods merchants, vending machine firm owners, office furniture and paper supply finn owners, cigarette and candy wholesale firms owners, restaurant and tavern owners, floor covering and cabinet firm owners, stenographers, reservation clerks, remodeling firm owners, stock and bond advisers, and countless others too numerous to mention.
Of the second generation born Sephardim, all of the children have completed high school and about 70% have completed college. They are represented in fields such as law, medicine, dentistry, art, jewelry design and engraving, music, language translators, banking, teaching, nursing, veterinary medicine,real estate, marine biology, engineering, advertising, construction, aircraft maintenance, marketing and advertising, vending machines, photography, medical technology, sporting goods, dry goods and shoe merchandising, and social work.
In 1927, thirteen young married couples formed a social club call the Lucky Thirteen Club (LTC). They met weekly at each other's homes for dinner, cards, and conversation. After a marriage in the community, the new bride and groom were invited to join and were given small girl items for their new home. Some of the charter members were Jack and Rae Franco, Andy and Tillie Calderon, Joe and Pauline Calderon, Albert and Clara Camhi, Sam and Pauline Meshulam, Louis and Rae Behar, Simon and Sarah Camhi, Sol and Becky Nahmias, Sol and Anna Meshulam, Albert (Abe) and Tillie Nahmias, Albert and Rachel Toledo, and Jack and Lena Nahmias.
As a group most of the Sephardim are classified as Mediterranean, with dark hair and eyes and olive skin. However, there are also many of them with fair skin, light or red hair, and blue eyes within the group. They are generally of a medium stature and can be taken for Spanish, French, Italian, or Greek.
The names of the people, with the exception of Cohen and Levy, are quite different from the names of other Jews. Many can trace their names directly to Spain, France, and Italy, while others have Biblical origins. Some names, such as Pardo, Franco, Passo, Sevilla, Calderon, Perea, Lopez, and Pinto, can be found among Jews and non-Jews.
The following names were of Sephardic families living in Indianapolis around 1916: Abravaya, Abarbanel, Alboher, Aroesti, Asael, Bension, Baruch, Behar, Calderon, Camhi, Cohen, Cassoda, Casuto, Eskalyo, Elias, Eskenazi, Ergas, Franco, Farash, Hazen, Mallah, Mordoh, Meshulam, Misrachi, Nahmias, Nerouse, Ovadia, Pardo, Passo, Profeta, Sarfaty, Sham, Toledano, Toledo, Yosofat, Yosha, Levy, Russo, Avnaim, and Raphael.
As for customs, they vary from the Ashkenazim. One important and ancient custom has been to name children after living grandparents or relatives, to the dismay of other Jews. Of course, they name children at~er the deceased also, but to a Sephardi who is still living, it is considered an honor and assurance that the name is carried on.
While attending religious services, when the husband is called up to the Bima (altar) to read, his wife and children will stand up as a sign of respect.
Another custom used by the Rochessim (Burial Society) is the Sedaka (charity) Blanket. This blanket is placed on the ground near the exit of the cemetery. When leaving the cemetery after a funeral service, money is voluntarily tossed upon the blanket. This money goes to the Burial Society and is put into a special fund to be used for needy members at burial time.
The Rochessim and Rochesscs also provide hard-boiled eggs, bread, and raisins for the family in mourning, which is a very significant part of our mourning ritual.
The cuisine is also quite different. Where the Yiddish speakers have kugel, gefilte fish, kreplach, and tzimmes, the Sephardim have Borekas, Boyeekos (filled pastries), Keries De Spinache and Poro (meatballs with spinach & leeks), Fejones (bean stew), Yogurt & Haminados (brown eggs), and Tadalikos (sweet cookies). Some of the snack food are: Pivites (pumpkin seeds), Bilibis (toasted Chickpeas), Tramusos (cooked lupini beans, Sumsam (sesame seed candy), and Walnuts in Water.
Since most of the members moved to the north side of Indianapolis by 1960, it became necessary to find another location for their synagogue, closer to the majority of its members.
In 1963, a committee consisting of Albert P. Nahmias, Morris P. Nahmias, Jack I. Cohen, Morris G. Calderon, Leon J. Calderon, Isaac Levy, A1 Mordoh, and Sol Mordoh purchased the Pleasant View Lutheran Church at the comer of 64th and Hoover Rd. The steeple was removed first, and extensive remodeling and additions were made to convert it to a proper place of worship for the congregation. A special celebration and reception was held when the Torahs were moved from the old synagogue to the new one.
The men meet once a month and are responsible for maintenance, repairs, purchasing prayer books, furniture, Anios (memorial reminders), and the cemetery. The building is also rented to other Jewish groups for various activities. The religious leader is hired by the Men's Congregation, and all decisions concerning burials or other vital issues are taken care of by them. At present, there are 70 members.
A yearly picnic is also sponsored by them, with free drinks, watermelon, and favors (for the children). Sometimes games and races are planned for both the children and adults. Many women dance and sing with the Pandero (tambourine) to collect donations for synagogue during the picnic. Raffle tickets are sold for various prizes donated by members of the congregation.
In 1964, Al Hazen, Morris P. Nahmias, Morris G. Calderon, A.P. Nahmias, Isaac Levy, and A1 Mordoh purchased an additional plot of ground at Bluff Road and West Street for the new cemetery.
At one time the congregation had 8 Torahs. One was given to Fort Harrison during World War II, and another was given to Rabbi Aronson when he left the congregation to move to Israel. Of the 6 remaining, the one from Italy is the oldest. It is over 300 years old, is in surprisingly good condition, and is quite valuable.
The members have been generous in their donations to the Israel Emergency Fund in 1974 and have purchased many Israel bonds. They have given donations and pledges to Yeshiva University in New York, in addition to donations to the J.E.A. and the Jewish Community Center. When the community center opened its picnic grounds, the Men's Congregation purchased and donated 10 picnic tables and benches, in addition to having an outdoor brick grill built in the picnic area.
The Men's Congregation also had a Fundo Secreto (Secret Fund). It was active during 1920-1950.
A special law in the constitution of the synagogue provided a Sedaka (charity) clause that was started in 1920. Five dollars were collected from each member of the synagogue and were to go to the widow and family of a deceased member.
In 1972, Chaham (Rabbi) Hervert Dobrinsky, Director of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University, was a guest speaker. Many pledges and donations were made to aid Yeshiva's Sephardic Studies program and to provide scholarships.
Mother's Day luncheons were held annually, along with joint meetings with the men's groups. Various other receptions and special events are sponsored by the Sisterhood, along with presentation of films and entertainment.