Jewish Heritage Month

Jewish Heritage Month

Jewish History in Champaign County

5/14/2024 | Angela Whitlock, CSRA

As part of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, Museum of the Grand Prairie continues to educate patrons about the local history of Champaign County through collection, preservation, and interpretation. May is Jewish Heritage Month, and May 14th is Yom Ha’atzmaut. Yom Ha’atzmaut is Israel’s Independence Day, commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, and it is celebrated by Jews around the world. In honor of this month and day, we wanted to share some information regarding early Jewish settlers in Champaign County.  

The first Jewish settlers in Champaign County migrated from German-speaking areas of Europe. Once they immigrated to the United States, they made their way towards the Midwest towns and the South. Champaign County made this particularly possible due to the railroads developed during the mid-1800s, which changed the community and allowed the small village to become a city.  

Since these individuals were mostly German Jews with secular European educations, they were in a unique position to easily assimilate into American life. This led many to become entrepreneurs and community boosters.  


The first Jewish resident to permanently settle in Urbana was Solomon Bernstein. Solomon came from Cincinnati, Ohio in 1854, and immediately set up a clothing business upon his arrival. He was born in Germany and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was thirteen years old.  

Solomon Married Fannie Wertheimer in 1855, in Cincinnati, which was her hometown. They returned to Urbana, made a home, and had an established business at 41 Main Street in Champaign. In 1875, they left the area for Napoleon, Ohio, until the death of their son gave them reason to return to Urbana. They remained in Urbana until they died, both in 1906.  


Many other Jewish entrepreneurs called Champaign County their home, and the area became a host to an assortment of Jewish-owned businesses. Some of these businesses over the years are: Jos. Kuhn & Co (emporium), W. Lewis & Co. Department Store, Eisner Food Store (grocery), M. Lowenstern & Co. (dry goods, clothing, textiles), Kaufman’s Men’s Store (clothing), Illinois Glove Co. (gloves), and Sholem’s Shoe Store (shoes).   


The Sholem family has also been an important part of the Champaign County Community for generations. Their first shop opened in 1856 in Paris, IL by Jacob Sholem and was located at 8 E. Main Street in Champaign. Jacob’s nephew, William, continued the family business and married the daughter of a successful merchant. Their son, Jerome J. Sholem, eventually inherited the family business, and expanded it. By the mid-20th century, the Sholem business was mainly in the Urbana-Champaign area. The Sholems were also major participants in community social and political activities. Jerome J. Sholem is known as one of the most prominent businessmen and policy makers in Champaign County. He was also a member of the Champaign Park District Board.  

The Museum of the Grand Prairie contains a replica of what one of the Sholem stores might have looked like, located within our permanent exhibit: The Grand Prairie Story. Stop in and get a closer look at what some of the early local businesses contained and how they may have looked.  


To the Jewish community of Champaign County, thank you for bringing major entrepreneurial contributions to this area.  


Sources: The Urbana Free Library’s Local History & Genealogy Digital Exhibits (online) 

Image Credit: Museum of the Grand Prairie’s Artifacts and Collections