Isaac and Sarah Gellis: A Couple Who Made Their Mark on the Lower East Side
Sitting in the main sanctuary at Eldridge Street, it’s hard not to wonder about the lives of congregants who worshiped here. Much has been written about them on the community level: the shared experience of leaving their homes, settling in a strange, new city, and undertaking the daily struggles that made up life on the bustling Lower East Side. But what of their individual stories? Just recently a photo of Isaac Gellis, one of the founders of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and the “kosher sausage king of America” was donated to the Museum by a Gellis descendants Allison Winters and Annbeth Winters. The photo is the only image we have of Gellis.
While researching Isaac and Sarah Gellis for this article, I was struck mostly by the unique way in which they made their mark across various community folds. They were leaders within Eldridge Street’s congregation, philanthropists who supported the construction of hospitals and settlement houses, and and they also provided the community with a crucial staple: kosher meat.
Many establishments helped to ease the transition for the ever-growing Jewish population on the Lower East Side, such as Yiddish-language newspapers, programs at the local settlement houses, and synagogue communities. Gellis’ company sustained them with a more basic, but very important, provision. In fact, as historian Annie Polland points out in her book about the Eldridge Street Synagogue, Landmark of the Spirit, Gellis’ business predated many of these other institutions.
Isaac Gellis and Sarah Smolowitz came to the U.S. in approximately 1870. According to family lore, they met on the boat and married once they arrived in New York, settling at 138 Henry Street. Arriving before the climax of the immigration wave from Eastern Europe enabled the Gellis family to adjust to life in America and gain their economic footing, putting them in a position to become leaders in their community on the Lower East Side.
In 1872, Isaac Gellis Wurst Works was founded. By the time the hordes of immigrants were arriving in earnest, Gellis had secured his stake in this indispensable service. While plenty of other kosher butchers entered the scene, Gellis’ business continued to remain a community stronghold, now as a sausage factory and processing plant and delicatessen in addition to the butcher shop.
Thanks to the success of the burgeoning business, Gellis was able to join banker Sender Jarmulowsky, real estate developer David Cohen, and plate glass dealer Nathan Hutkoff, in putting down the funds necessary to build the Eldridge Street Synagogue in 1887. As a member of this core of founders, Gellis would always be one of the elite in the synagogue community. He served as vice president in 1894, and held the presidency for two terms from 1895 to 1897. As the synagogue did not have a rabbi, Gellis took on many tasks, often covering the costs himself. He oversaw the painting of the synagogue interior and the repair of the rooftop finials, auditioned cantors, settled disputes among members, delivered eulogies, visited the sick, and presided over meetings. For the first decade or so of the synagogue’s existence, the presidency passed between Jarmulowsky, Gellis, Hutkoff, and Cohen, but over time the position was turned over to a more democratic process.
As their business continued to grow, the Gellises were able to further increase their influence in the community through philanthropy. In Isaac Gellis’ obituary, it was noted that he supported the Beth-Israel, Mount Sinai, and Lebanon Hospitals, the Montefiore Home, the Home of the Daughters of Jacob, and the Hebrew Sheltering Arms Society. Sarah Gellis would regularly collect clothing and shoes for children in the community, and would regularly open up her home on the Sabbath to anyone who wanted to come and eat.
While it seems that Sarah Gellis was always supportive of her husband’s business, I wonder about how she dealt with the kosher meat boycott and riots that broke out in 1902 over the increase in meat prices from 12 to 18 cents a pound. According to a Yiddish Daily Forward newspaper article, when two women ascended the bimah (reader’s platform) during Saturday morning services in protest, a clearly infuriated Isaac Gellis motioned for fellow trustee David Cohen to get up and resolve the issue. The turmoil over the next few weeks could not have been welcomed by the Gellis family. However, it was a movement driven by women, and Sarah Gellis was very much a role model for women in the community. Is it possible that she may not have sided with her husband?
After her husband’s death in 1906, Sarah Gellis continued his legacy both in business and community involvement for the next twenty years. She was likely the instigator behind the 1906 decision to allow widows to become full-fledged members of the Eldridge Street congregation. With this decision, women’s stakes in the synagogue increased.
In fact, in 1909, Sarah was one of the signers of the synagogue’s merger with the congregation Anshe Lubz, which was one of the most important decisions made in the synagogue’s history. In 1919, just as American women received the right to vote, the congregation’s Ladies Auxiliary was formed, helping the women organize their community work in a more official way.
Next time you find yourself at Eldridge Street, admiring the beautiful sanctuary, don’t forget to look down at the floorboards, indented from the swaying of those who prayed here, or sit in one of the seats and imagine all the people who sat there before you. Check out the list of original Eldridge Street congregants here. Do you or your family members have stories about anyone who worshiped here?
Written by Jackie Bein, Eldridge Street intern