Jews had been in the area of Fort Wayne since the days of the French and Indian War in the 1760s. In 1764, Captain Thomas Morris, a British officer, recalled how he had been saved from being burned at the stake through the friendship of “Mr. Levi, a Jew trader.” Many years later, pack merchants and peddlers who were Jewish were also in the Fort Wayne area.

The first Jewish residents in Fort Wayne were also merchants, all of whom were German immigrants. Twenty-three members of Jewish community organized the first Jewish congregation and called themselves “The Society for Visiting the Sick and Burying the Dead.” It was Jewish tradition in the America for cemeteries to be established before building houses of worship. On Oct. 13, 1848, the society bought for $200 the old burial ground adjoining what is now McCulloch Park. On Oct. 26, 1848, it officially organized the first Jewish congregation in the state of Indiana.[1]

The merchant who became the acknowledged leader of this early Jewish community was Frederick Nirdlinger. His home (which once stood on the southeast corner of Main and Harrison streets) became a meeting place for most of the earliest Jewish religious and social gatherings. Nirdlinger was active in community affairs, serving as city councilman, a founder of the Kekionga Guards (a militia organization) and as “Overseer of the Poor” (the predecessor of the present-day township trustee). His business, the “New York Store” on Main Street, was then the largest clothing store in town. His grandson was the internationally renowned drama critic and author, George Jean Nathan (1882-1958).

The congregation secured its first spiritual leader in Reverend Joseph Salomon, who served as cantor and as teacher in the parochial school. In 1859, the “Fort Wayne Hebrew Society,” as the congregation informally called itself, purchased and remodeled the former Bethel German Methodist Episcopal Church at Wayne and Harrison streets and dedicated the new facility as the Synagogue Achduth Vesholom (Unity and Peace.)

Throughout its early years the congregation was orthodox and German, and its liturgical practice remained conservative. But under the leadership of Rabbi Edward Rubin, who served the congregation from 1862 until his deal in 1881, many in the congregation were attracted to the Reform movement. It was led in America by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who delivered a series of lectures in Fort Wayne. The congregation briefly split on the issue, but by 1872 the congregation was united in following the Reform teachings of Rabbi Ruben and in May 1847 it became a charter member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the principal national Reform organization.[2]

[1] “Our Story,” The Temple Congregation Achduth Vesholom, (accessed 2/25/2016).

[2] The Bicentennial Heritage Trail Committee, On the Heritage Trail: A Walking Guidebook to the Fort Wayne Heritage Trail (Fort Wayne: ARCH, Inc., 1994), 179-181.