02 August 2008

Wisconsin: Steven's Point Jewish community

Old synagogues may be a state's tourist attraction, such as Newport, Rhode Island's Touro Synagogue. In central Wisconsin, there is the Beth Israel Synagogue Museum in Steven's Point, which opened June 15.

The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle's Andrew Muchin wrote this story about the history and the museum which preserves the congregation's complete bimah, along with artifacts, documents and photos of local Jewish commercial, civic and religious life. The Portage County Historical Society created the exhibit.

Stevens Point Jews commissioned the plain, white wooden synagogue with its sloped metal roof in 1905. Typical of small-town traditional synagogues, the sanctuary fills 90 percent of the ground floor, with a small classroom adjacent to the entry hall. Atypical was the lack of a balcony in back for women.

Two remaining wooden pews and two pairs of the theater chairs that supplemented the seating face the raised bimah. A congregant bought the pews second-hand from a Baptist church in 1906, according to Mark Seiler, volunteer curator and author of the new book, “The Jewish Community of Stevens Point” (see sidebar).

The reader's table with a purple velvet cloth faces the glass-enclosed ark with two Torah scrolls. Shelves hold Torah ornaments, menorahs and a silver plate donated in 1934. The ark's curtain is embellished with a golden lion and the Ten Commandments. The ner tamid - eternal light - is behind a window in the wall above the ark, and memorial plaques hang on the east wall.

The south wall displays a homemade chuppah (marriage canopy) - two large prayer shawls sewn together with corner pockets for poles. Other displays are a wooden Ten Commandments tablet, WWII banner and photos of local Jews who served in the war ... a gold-painted wooden box full of faded kippahs ... five small nurse dolls and the 1950 Hadassah chapter charter ... A 1940 congregational seder photo ... old prayer books and children's books.

About 140 Jewish business operated in the town from 1871-2000; on display are reproductions of advertisements and artifacts from some: a 1945 calendar, a produce crate and a soda bottle. The town's Holiday Inn, built in 1967, was owned by a Jewish couple and the collection includes 80 playbills of entertainers who appeared every weekend.

The synagogue was in use until 1985, when it closed. The building and land were deeded to the Portage County Historical Society. Post-WWII, there were 40 families; today, about 10 Jews remain.

The society maintained the building and grounds, placed the building on the national Register of Historic Places and used it for a museum of county religious life. Following research conducted for the Register, the society was convinced to change the museum's emphasis after discovering evidence of the vibrant Jewish community.

Author Muchin is director of the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project, a program of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.

Do read the complete article at the link above.

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