History of our Congregation
By Beth K. Karon
A house, four synagogues, a growing world-famous medical clinic and a tradition dating back to biblical times of caring for the homeless, the hungry, and the needy all add up to the history of the Rochester, Minnesota, Jewish community. The first Jew known to come to Rochester was Daniel Stern. He moved here in the 1800’s and opened the One-Price Clothing Store in partnership with M.C. Lawler. Mr. Stern did not remain in Rochester, but returned to his native New York shortly thereafter.
The next Jews to arrive came with their families and stayed. That was at the turn of the 20th century, following the Russian pogroms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fourteen families formed the first congregation in 1910, officially called “The Hebrew Congregation of Rochester, Minnesota.” They worshiped in the home of the congregation’s first president, David Morris. Moshe Morris, a furrier and a scholar, was the unofficial rabbi.
“B’nai Israel Synagogue” was incorporated in 1917 with 25 families and purchased its building the following year for $500.00. Located one block from Broadway on the corners of 5th Street and 1st Avenue Northeast, it was a small frame house with quarters for a rabbi and his family on the second floor. The congregants were from Rochester, Stewartville, Eyota, Chatfield, Kasson, Preston, Spring Valley, and St. Charles. These first Jewish residents were primarily self-employed in the junk business or owned general stores.
There was one notable exception that would play a significant role in that other growing business in town, the Mayo Clinic. Samuel Sternberg opened a grocery store near the railroad tracks, on the corner of Broadway and 2nd Street Northwest. Jewish patients arriving in Rochester for care at Mayo would ask for the nearest Jewish home, and be directed to the Sternberg’s. Sternberg’s Grocery became a gathering place for many patients who looked to Sam and his family for advice, kosher food and Yiddish translation services. Mama Sternberg provided kosher meals while the seven Sternberg boys and girls were at Mayo Clinic daily assisting the Jewish patients and translating their symptoms for the doctors.
The Sternberg home could never close its doors, for they had the only kosher food available in town. Mama Sternberg would feed dozens of Orthodox Jews from her own kosher kitchen, as opposed to their public café. The congregation also accepted their share of this responsibility. After Friday night Shabbat services, troops of out-of-towners would make their way to the residents’ homes, where they often had to eat in two or three shifts because of their numbers. Not only was a Jewish congregation born in Rochester, so was a chaplaincy and social service.
After years of their service, especially that of Mama Sternberg, Samuel Sternberg put together enough money to build the Northwestern Hotel, which served as a Jewish hostelry and kosher eating establishment. It also became a meeting place for intellectuals of that period – regardless of their religion – including doctors, students, and literary enthusiasts. In the 1920’s, Mayo started charging a $100.00 deposit to select groups of patients before they could be seen. Jews were among this select group (along with “Negroes and Greeks”). Since many were immigrants with meager funds, the congregation would help provide this fee when needed.
It was B’nai Israel Synagogue that contacted the B’nai Brith Anti-Defamation League about this discriminatory treatment. Because of the protests waged by the local and non-local Jewish communities, two things happened in 1927: Frist, Mayo withdrew the deposit requirement, and second, a denominational medical social service, which included a Jewish medical social worker, was established. Thus, B’nai Brith International began serving in Rochester. The overall care of the religious needs, visiting the sick, and disposition of the deceased still rested on the shoulders of the Rochester community of 25 families.
Finally a rabbi
It was clear that a rabbi was needed to help with these duties as well as to conduct services and educate the children, another challenge for the small congregation, especially during the depression era. The first recorded rabbi was Rabbi Israel A. Becker, who arrived in 1923 when the membership was at 16. It is estimated that over 25 rabbis served our community over the next 40 years. During that time, Mayo, Rochester, and the Jewish community steadlily grew.
The Knowlton House, a private residence two blocks from Mayo Clinic, was purchased in 1944 by the congregation, which now numbered 35. It became the synagogue (seating 72), religious school (four classrooms), chaplaincy (office in the sunroom) and a community center (lounge replete with a TV, radio, games, and cards) frequently used by the visiting patients and their families. At one time, there was even a social director and multi-lingual greeter. Later, in the 1970’s, the synagogue housed a teen lounge in its walk-up attic.
B’nai Brith officially affiliated with B’nai Israel Synagogue in 1952 with the incorporation of “B’nai Brith Center at Rochester.” There were 40 members of the congregation, with up to 200 attending the High Holiday services held at the Mayo Civic Auditorium. The Religious School had 17 students, and was supervised by local women with training in religious education. Over 8000 visitors used the center during one documented twelve-month period.
In the mid-1950’s, kosher buffets were put on by the B’nai Israel community. These were held every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, and were attended by anywhere from 40 to 85 people. “…such crowds at the Center that they were obliged to turn some visitors away…people weep, apparently from joy, in finding companionship and activities at the Center.”
The center’s first Bar Mitzvah (Arnold Harstein) was celebrated in the 1950’s, as was the first wedding (Sam and Herta Pila). The 1970’s saw further changes: B’nai Brith Center closed its doors in 1975; B’nai Israel Synagogue did not, nor did chaplaincy services end. By now there were estimates of over 30,000 Jewish patients being seen annually at Mayo and its hospitals. The congregation and the chaplaincy continued to grow, as Mayo Clinic, IBM, and other firms were increasingly successful in attracting Jewish professionals.
In 1977, B’nai Israel Synagogue bought the Mormon Meeting House on 2nd Street Southwest, a location central to Mayo Clinic and its affiliated hospitals. Services in the new synagogue began for its 90 families in September of 1978, coinciding with the congregation’s 60th anniversary. The ark was designed and handcrafted in 1979 by Allan and Sue Schultz, synagogue members from Alma, Wisconsin.
Rabbi David Freedman joined B’nai Israel Synagogue in 1988 as its spiritual leader and chaplain to Mayo Clinic. In 1994, Rabbi Freedman was among the first 25 Jewish chaplains nationally to receive certification as a Jewish chaplain. Rabbi David Freedman retired in June of 2006, after which the congregation welcomed Rabbi Michelle Werner as its next spiritual leader and chaplain. She also marks the first female rabbi of the congregation.
A new home
Again, the congregation had outgrown its home. In 2008, after a long capital campaign, the former Mormon Meeting House and current B’nai Israel Synagogue was torn down to accommodate the construction of a more spacious facility. This would be the first time in the then 90-year history of the B’nai Israel Congregation, that a building in South East Minnesota was constructed for the sole purpose of being a house of Jewish worship.
The doors of the B’nai Israel Synagogue and Dan Abraham Jewish Cultural Center opened in 2009. It is in the same location as the prior building, the same corner at 2nd St. and 7th Ave. Southwest, but now with a new address because of a change in the location of the building entrance. Membership now averages 110 families, with members traveling from Albert Lea, Alden, Austin, Byron, Mantorville, North Mankato, Owatonna, Plainview, Red Wing and Winona.
High Holiday services are held at the synagogue for up to 200 attendees. The Religious School meets weekly with about 50 students and the rabbi teaches additional mid-week Hebrew classes and b’nai mitzvah training for the older students. Each year, we celebrate from six to twelve b’nai mitzvah of our children, and also boast adult b’nai mitzvah, weddings, memorial services, educational and social programming,
Reform and Conservative services and study to meet the needs of our eclectic congregation; and active Sisterhood, Youth Group, and Havurot. Weekday services are not held regularly, but when local or out-of-town Jews request a minyan, the congregants are readily there – as in the old days, to meet this need.
Historically, the mission of the Rochester Jewish community has not changed. We still attend to the various needs of a Jewish community that encompasses local residents and those here from around the globe who are often experiencing the additional stress of medical difficulties while far from home.