With all of the media-hype about the Super Bowl earlier this month I cannot help remembering our trip to Green Bay, Wisconsin last August. Unlike most visitors to Green Bay, who come to watch the fabled Green Bay Packers, we were there to photograph Synagogue Cnesses Israel. Green Bay is a football crazy city of 104,000 hardy souls with an 80,000 seat stadium. I label them hardy because they’ve got to be to sit in frigid Wisconsin winter weather watching some guys push each other around for possession of a pointy shaped non-kosher (pigskin) ball.
Our first hint of the city’s total football focus came as we drove to our hotel on Vince Lombardi Avenue, which we reached by winding through a network of streets named after Green Bay Packers Hall of Famers. Even though I’m much more interested in synagogue photography than football, it was fascinating to see a city whose identity is so caught up in a single pursuit. The Packers are the last vestige of “small town teams” common in the NFL during the 1920s and ’30s. Every other big league professional sports team is based in a major metro area with millions of fans. The Packers are the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team based in the United States. Even the rabbi, a transplanted Okie gal, has a share of Packers stock.
Only two blocks from the synagogue, we passed City Stadium. Now a high school football venue, it was prominently labeled as the original home field of the Packers. When I commented upon this proximity to the rabbi’s husband, he offered that although it was relatively unknown, Jews had figured importantly in the early history of the Green Bay Packers. In fact, he said, “It was two Jewish guys from Green Bay who saved the team from financial collapse.”
Here’s the story: Green Bay was a meat packing center and Great Lakes shipping port. It was a tough, brawling, red necked, blue collar town with many anti-Semitic eastern European immigrants. While World War I was raging in Europe, high school football was becoming the rage here at home. Izzy and Nate Abrams, sons of Jewish merchant Sam Abrams, along with Earl “Curly” Lambeau were among the best players. Nate liked iron as well as gridiron. Rather than attend college, he opened his own scrap iron business and prospered, all the while playing football for the Skidoos, a local team. In fact, Nate called the 1919 organizational meeting for the Packers in the Green Bay Press-Gazette office where the Skidoos had previously met. Abrams passed captaincy of the team to his old high school teammate Lambeau because he was the more popular (non-Jewish) player.
Nate, along with Charlie Sauber, another Jewish player, played for the Packers from 1919 until the early 1920s. In 1921, the Packers joined the professional league that would become the NFL. Abrams played in one game, scoring a touchdown on an interception. This big time pro league had big players too. Probably too big for compact Nate, which likely explains why he didn’t play again. Nevertheless, Nate remained very interested in the team. In 1922, when Nate heard that the team was financially foundering, he handed Lambeau $3,000 (equivalent to $35,000 today) for operating expenses. In exchange, Lambeau ceded ownership of the franchise to his friend. But Abrams, due to anti-Semitic sentiment, stayed in the background letting Lambeau operate the Packers. A little over a year later, with classic Jewish creativity, Abrams began the unique system of selling stock in the franchise to the public and by 1925 his loan had been repaid.
While Nate Abrams figured as importantly as Curly Lambeau in the birth and history of the Packers, he has been ignored in Packers lore. Two Jews are honored with plaques at the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame at Lambeau Field: Charles “Buckets” Goldenberg, who played from 1933 to 1945 and former general manager Ron Wolf, a member of Cnesses Israel, who led the team to an NFL championship in 1966. In his book “The Lambeau Years” (1987, Angel Press of Wisconsin), Larry Names deals with the fact that Abrams is treated as a negligible afterthought in Packers history. Names wrote that due to the prevalent anti-Semitic attitudes, the team emphasized Lambeau’s role and minimized Abrams. All of this was with Nate’s acquiescence. His primary goal was the best interest of the team.
The 120 family Jewish population of Green Bay was near its peak in 1904 when it dedicated Anshe Keneseth Israel, the city’s first synagogue. Back then, the congregation was Orthodox, but morphed to Conservative when it adopted the name Cnesses Israel and moved to its new mid-century modern building near City Field in 1951. Nowadays, the synagogue has about 85 member families and describes itself as being fiercely Egalitarian Reservadox because they are a mixed congregation: a few Reform, a few Orthodox, mainly Conservative.
It’s a Cnesses Israel tradition that when the Packers make it to the Super Bowl, there is no Sunday School!