B’nai Abraham and the Settlement of the Iron Range
by Marilyn J. Chiat, Ph.D
The history of the Jewish people who settled outside of the mainstream is being lost in the United States. With that loss goes all memory of those Jewish communities that once flour- ished in many of our nation’s small towns and rural areas. Minnesota is experiencing a similar loss with the disappearance of all evidence of the Jewish communities that contributed so much to the magnificent cultural mosaic that identified the Iron Range. The Friends of B’nai Abraham Synagogue is a not-for- profit organization dedicated to the preservation and reuse of the one remaining Jewish monument on the Iron Range, the B’nai Abraham Synagogue in Virginia. It is the goal of the Friends to see that this structure becomes a center for the celebration of the Iron Range’s cultural and spiritual diversity.
The discovery of iron ore in northeastern Minnesota in the late 19th century opened the floodgates for thousands of immigrants seeking employment in the newly opened mines. Amongst the earliest to arrive were Jewish settlers, many of who became merchants on main street catering to the needs of the miners and their families. Settling primarily in four communities: Chisholm, Eveleth, Hibbing and Virginia, the Jewish families lived in relative isolation from major Jewish centers. However, similar to the experience of so many ethnic and religious groups on the Range, it was important to the newcomers that they maintain their unique religious identity. Toward that end four congrega- tions were formed, each with its own synagogue. Two of the synagogues, in Eveleth and Hibbing, were originally churches whose steeples had been removed and interiors reconfigured for use as a Jewish house of worship. Two were constructed as synagogues, Chisholm and Virginia. The Chisholm synagogue was a simple clapboard structure that was built in 1913; the only
photograph of the building that has survived is one that shows it in the process of being demolished in the 1960s. The Virginia synagogue, B’nai Abraham, was erected in 1908 and dedicated the following year. Built of red brick with beautiful stained glass windows, it was described in the local press at the time of its dedication as “the most beautiful church (sic) on the Iron Range.” Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s, the only synagogue in Minnesota to be so honored, B’nai Abraham continued to function as a synagogue until the last decade of the 20th century. As the economic viability of the Iron Range declined, so too did its population. By 1980, the Hibbing and Eveleth congregations had disbanded and their buildings sold. Only B’nai Abraham survives, physical evidence of the once vibrant Jewish community that existed on the Iron Range.
Once, a vibrant Jewish community with four synagogues existed on the Iron Range. Today, the B’nai Abraham Synagogue built in 1909 in Virginia, Minnesota, is the only one remaining. B’nai Abraham’s significance was recognized in 1980 when it became the only Minnesota synagogue listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Trust for Preservation.
In the late 1990’s
The synagogue was forced to close its doors because the number of congregants had declined dramatically. The building still houses many treasures, including its original Aron Ha Kodesh, memorial plaques and beautiful stained glass windows.
B’nai Abraham spring 2006
The Jews who grew up in Virginia have fond memories of events at the synagogue and love to share their stories. One man remembers being “kidnapped” while taking out the garbage by men needing to complete a minyon. (A minyon is a quorum of ten Jewish men over the age of 13 traditionally required for a Jewish service).
Many recall a “Mr. Jaffee,” who conducted services, maintained the building, and trained the boys for their Bar Mitzvah. Student rabbis sometimes came to Virginia to conduct services for the High Holy Days. In more recent times, members of the congregation and their families led services.
Besides the holidays, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, and other special events, such as anniversaries and birthdays were celebrated there. The building served as a “community center,” the meeting place for B’nai Brith, Hadassah/Council and Federation.
A well-remembered celebration is the Simcht Torah, during which the children paraded around the sanctuary with small flags. They were treated with caramel apples and thick corned beef sandwiches made by the “Ladies Aid.” (Simcht Torah is a holiday that celebrates the annual completion of the reading of the Torah scroll of the Five Books of Moses.)
Virginia Jewish Families, like other ethnic and religious groups, hoped their teen age children would have opportunities to meet other Jewish children and marry someone from the same religious background. The BA hosted monthly Young Judea meetings, and young people from all over the Range convened there to learn more about their religion and culture, and to socialize with one another.
Although the synagogue was built with a balcony for women, in later years, only a few elderly women sat there. Most of the other women sat near the rear of the sanctuary. Eventually, the balcony became a favorite hiding place for the children.
In 2002 the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota listed the Synagogue one of the as 10 most endangered historic buildings in Minnesota.
The Friends of B’nai Abraham Synagogue worked with other individuals and organizations to preserve this historic structure. The loss of the Virginia synagogue would reverberate beyond the Jewish community and would be a tragic loss to the entire Iron Range.
B’nai Abraham’s centennial was celebrated in July of 2010. Restoration efforts continue.