This is the first in a series of posts I plan to do, writing the stories of my ancestors as I’ve learned about them from various sources. Some people I have more information about than others, so I’ll be adding to each biography as I learn more. First is Israel Cowen, my great-great grandfather.
Israel Cowen was born in Houston, Texas on December 12, 1861, the oldest child of Bennett Cowen and Bertha Semmel, both of whom were immigrants to the United States. From a young age, Israel was exposed to the world as he was educated in California, Texas, New York, and Germany before landing in Chicago in late 1878 or 1879. He studied at Union College of Law at Northwestern University, graduating in 1881, and he began practicing law in Chicago in 1883. In 1888, Israel traveled to Europe, where he visited Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, England, and other places.
Though his parents were reform Jews, Israel became more religious and was a practicing Orthodox Jew, at least during his time in Chicago. In conjunction with his religious beliefs, he was involved in a number of philanthropic organizations, many of which promoted the interests of Jews, but all of which served humanitarian efforts. He was a member of the Big Brother and Big Sister Federation, for which he acted as a Big Brother; he was a leader within B’nai B’rith, including acting as a president of the early Hillel Foundation; and he was a member of the executive committee of the Russian Aid Society, acting as chairman of the committee on auxiliary associations, during the 1890 immigration wave. Perhaps his longest-lasting humanitarian legacy, however, was his involvement with the Orthodox Home for Aged Jews (later named the Orthodox Jewish Home for the Aged). On October 1, 1900, Israel delivered a short speech at the laying of the foundation of this building. This institution, located at the corner of Albany and Ogden Avenues, was the premier home for elderly Orthodox Jews in Chicago. These are just a sampling of the charities Israel was involved with. He was very giving of his time and abilities.
On two passport applications- filled out in May 1888 and July 1893- Israel was 5’9″ tall, with gray eyes and dark/black hair. He described himself as having a medium forehead and chin, a long face, a large nose, and a dark complexion. Israel married Alma Desemberg on March 15, 1897, in Kalmazoo, MI, where Alma was from. They resided in Chicago and had two children, Bayard D (1901) and Elizabeth (1907). Israel died on April 3, 1922, after a brief illness of about two months.