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This article was published in 1875.
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  • Chicago Times -- January 17, 1875
    Biographical Sketch of Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal, Ph. D

    Among the scholars who occupy Chicago pulpits, Rev. Bernhard Felsenthal, the subject of this sketch, stands almost pre-eminent and he has the proud satisfaction of knowing that his talents are thoroughly appreciated, not only by the educated and liberal minds of his own faith, but by all classes whose appreciation is not obscured by sectarian prejudices.

    Mr. Felsenthal was born January 2, 1822, in Muenchweiler, in the Palatinate. Having absorbed all that the schools of his native place could offer, he repaired at an early age to Kaiserslautern. After finishing a preliminary academic course, he sought that famous place of learning, Munich. There he continued his path to knowledge, receiving instruction from the best master, and enjoying the fellowship of many of the best youths of the country.

    The fact of his Jewish descent debarred him from giving his service to the state, as Bernhard's father intended he should. At the age of twenty, having concluded his studies, and desiring no longer to be a burden upon his father, he struck out in an independent way, and sought a position as teacher, and was not long in securing one.


    While thus engaged in a quiet German village, he continued to pursue his studies. He devoted his especial attention to Oriental languages and literature. Having made himself a thorough master of Hebrew he passed down the philological mine to the bed-rock of Sanscrit, and explored the mysteries of knowledge therein revealed. Always a laborious student, his exclusion from an active life made him a thorough bookworm, but did not affect the clearness of his intellect or independence of character.

    In the summer of 1854 Dr. Felsenthal left his Fatherland for the United States. Having friends near of kin in Indiana, he directed his steps to the Hoosier state, but there was nothing among the Hoopoleites to attract or call in demand such a man as the doctor, and in 1858 he came to Chicago, an entire stranger. Here he soon found employment in the bank of the Greenebaum brothers. The work was not altogether congenial to one of a studious turn of mind, but necessity is a hard teacher and kept him at it for three years. His leisure hours, especially in the evening, were still devoted to study, and while there was no demand for his lore, he still continued to store it away, as it might be handy to have in the head some day.

    Meanwhile his erudition had become recognized among his brethren of the old faith.


    Soon after his arrival in Chicago, a number of liberal Israelites had formed a society under the name of Jewish Reform Association, its object being indicated by name. Of this society Dr. Felsenthal was chosen secretary, and, although of a retiring disposition, he soon became the recognized leader and the inspiring soul of the organization. This organization was the means of exercising a most potent influence for liberal Judaism throughout the entire northwest.

    In 1859 the doctor published a work under the title "Regarding Jewish Reform." The work was most favorably received, both by the Jewish masses and by many of its most advanced thinkers and severest critics. They all united in paying to the modest and the obscure author high encomiums for soundness of views, profound research, and an earnest spirit underlying and pervading the entire work.

    The organization of the Reform Association, together with the labors of the doctor, soon gave liberal Judaism a strong foothold in the western metropolis, and in due time, a Reform Synagogue rose on Monroe Street, between Clark and La Salle, of which Dr. Felsenthal was chosen rabbi. The organization was known as Sinai. Subsequently the congregation moved to the old Plymouth Congregational church, corner of Van Buren Street and Third Avenue.


    The official connection of the doctor with this society continued three years, when he received and accepted a call from Zion church, then located on Desplaines, near Washington Street. He is at the head of this congregation, but the "temple" has been removed to the corner of Jackson and Sangamon streets.

    Among his published works is one on the Jewish school system in America, and an admirable Hebrew grammar, acknowledged by scholars to stand among the best works of its kind.

    The abilities and erudition of Dr. Felsenthal have been honorably recognized by various societies and institutions. The historical society of this city, in 1863, elected him a corresponding member, and the Chicago University has given him the "Philosophical Doctor," an honor never before bestowed on a Hebrew divine by an American college.