Community Productions

2006: The 20th Century Exodus: The Triumphant Life And Journey Of The Jewish In Our Community


Growing up in Champaign as one of a handful of Jewish children in town, Ruth Kuhn Youngerman enjoyed friendships with people from a variety of faiths. The Jewish community was small and close-knit, led by Jewish storeowners such as the Sterns, Lowensterns and Kuhns who helped develop commerce in downtown Champaign and Urbana.

Yet Jewish residents were integrated and accepted in the community, said Youngerman, who was born in 1914, the same year that the first Jewish temple was built at State and Clark streets. When her grandfather, Kuhn’s Department Store founder Joseph Kuhn, died, they called him the best “Christian” in the community, Youngerman said. “In other words, they were saying he was like them, that they (Jews) were good people.”

Urbana University High School students interviewed Youngerman and 13 other leaders of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish community for a new radio documentary, The 20th Century Exodus: The Triumphant Life and Journey of the Jewish in Our Community.

Many of those interviewed said that living in Champaign-Urbana enhanced their lives as Jews. The Jewish community of about 2,000 is large enough to be diverse, yet small enough that if you make an effort, you can know everyone in it. Everyone in it can feel needed. “I remember in New York I did not attend religious services every week, because, subconsciously, I thought that they don’t really need me,” said University of Illinois professor emeritus Maurice Friedberg. “In a small town like Champaign, I know that if I don’t go to services they will not have the quorum of 10 people without which you cannot have a normal service.”

Students in the Uni High class of 2009 conducted the interviews. Others interviewed were Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, Lee Melhado, Michael Shapiro, Rabbi Norman Klein, Arthur Robinson, Gary Porton, Beri Schwitzer, Lynn Wachtel, Raif Melhado, Maurice Freidberg, and Rosalind Weinberg. Students Bethany Hutchens, Anne Machesky, Amelia Breault (pictured left from left to right) and Ruth Welch produced the program. Welch narrated, and AM 580’s Dave Dickey and Uni teacher Jenny Yi Kim directed project. WILL-AM has been working with Uni on radio projects for more than 10 years.

In addition to the history of the Jewish community, the documentary includes stories about rituals and daily practices, and discrimination some people faced before coming to Champaign-Urbana. Breault, who worked on a previous Uni student documentary about the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that desegregated schools, said working on this year’s documentary helped her understand the struggle that Jewish people went through as well.

Dickey said that despite the problems of assimilation and generally decreasing numbers of Jews, Judaism in central Illinois is strong and healthy. “There’s an optimism that comes through in the interviews,” he said. “Members of the Jewish community are growing to appreciate their differences and are reaching a comfort level with each other.”