Minnespolis and St. Paul, Minnesota
December 4, 2006,
New life planned for Iron Range synagogue
A history-minded group works to reuse B'nai Abraham in Virginia, Minn., the last surviving synagogue on the Iron Range.
In 1892, Julius Shanedling emigrated from Lithuania to Virginia, Minn., where the discovery of iron ore was revving up the mining industry. Like many Jewish immigrants, he was a merchant. By 1909, Shanedling owned a men's clothing store on Chestnut Street and a frame house in the heart of town and had helped build the stately red brick B'nai Abraham Synagogue on 5th Street that opened that year.
B'nai Abraham is the only synagogue on the Iron Range built for its purpose and the only one in Minnesota on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also the only synagogue left on the Range. The one in Chisholm was razed. The one in Eveleth became a church again and was demolished. The one in Hibbing was converted to apartments.
The congregation that once filled the 100-seat worship space is also gone. No services have been held since the 1990s, when it was no longer possible to gather the 10 men, or minyan, necessary for a service. But a history-minded group that includes Twin Cities area residents with family ties to Virginia has formed to preserve the building for reuse.
"Because of its size and acoustics, it would be perfect for events and performances," said architectural historian Marilyn Chiat, a member of Friends of B'nai Abraham. "We want a small permanent display on the Jewish presence on the Iron Range and then we would like to see it used for cultural and interfaith programs."
The Range is perfect for such programs, she said. "It still has that amazing ethnic and religious mix," which helped protect Jews from the anti-Semitism common in Minneapolis.
"In Minneapolis, AAA didn't allow Jews to join till the 1950s," she said. "But up on the Range, the Jews were just one more ethnic group."
Building remains sound
A reuse study presented in September found that the building was structurally sound despite mold and the buckled wood floor from a leaking roof. The original bema, or platform, survives, as do the ark, the pulpit and the impressive stained-glass windows.
"It's a handsome building with gorgeous stained-glass windows," said Chiat, who researched Iron Range synagogues 20 years ago.
The Friends group, which now owns the building, repaired the roof in 2005 and has received grants from the Minnesota Historical Society and the Iron Range Resources board. The Virginia Area Historical Society has supported the efforts, as have city officials. About 100 people turned out for an open house last summer.
The two-story Romanesque-style building needs new mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and handicapped access. A 1970s wooden addition on the front needs to be removed. And the lower level, where Bar Mitzvah gatherings and bake sales were held, needs a kitchen and bathrooms.
The reuse study estimated rehab would cost about $350,000.
"It was the only synagogue available to us," said Ann Shanedling Phillips, a Minneapolis resident who grew up in Virginia. "It never had a permanent rabbi. In Orthodox synagogues, the whole service was in Hebrew. The men knew Hebrew. The women, who sat separately, did not. The children ran back and forth."
Students from seminaries would come in for the high holidays. The ladies' Sunshine Club did good works. And, once a month, Jewish teenagers from the other towns gathered there.
"They had a sense of confidence," said Chiat of the Range Jewish community, which has declined from about 200 families in the 1940s to just a few.
"They had a sense of isolation," said Phillips.
"We can't let this history go down the drain," Chiat said. "Hubert Humphrey used to say that America is a magnificent mosaic. The Range is one of the most beautiful mosaics we have."