USA: Former Iowa Synagogue up for Sale
by Samuel D. Gruber
[n.b. updated 6/18/2014]
The Muscatine Journal of Muscatine, Iowa reports that the former B'nai Moses synagogue, reputedly built in the late 19th century is up for sale, after being owned for more than two decades by a local theater group. The building retains a Star of David over its entrance, and an impressive original Ark built by Charles Smith into the east wall (see Fleishaker's description below). It is not clear what will happen to the building.
You can read more here:
Though different in most details, the Ark does bring to mind that other famous and famously ornate Iowa ark built by Abraham Shulkin for the Adath Yeshurun Synagogue in Sioux City, Iowa in 1899 now in the Jewish Museum, New York.
I had not previously known of this synagogue, and it is not listed by Mark Gordon on his list of extant purpose-built American synagogue buildings published in 1986 and updated in 1996. [Mark W. Gordon, Rediscovering Jewish Infrastructure: Update on United States Nineteenth Century Synagogues, American Jewish History 84.1 (1996) 11-27], but the congregation is reported by Osacar Fleishaker to have been founded in the 1890 and the synagogue built in 1893.
From: Rabbi Oscar Fleishaker, The Illinois-Iowa Jewish community on the banks of the Mississippi River (doctoral dissertation 1957)
In March 10, 1890 t the first Congregation and what was to be the only one in Muscatine history was founded. It was called B'nai Moses. The Articles of Incorporation were signed by Mr. M. Rubenstein, B. Shames, Jacob Wolff and B. Goldstein. The other charter members were Isaac Helman, Hyman Share, Louis Siegel, Joe Siegel, Simon Lieflander, E. Powelanky and Charles Smith. The Congregation was very poor and money had to be borrowed for a charter. The Articles of Incorporation are quite interesting (see page 146). The name used is "Congregation of Israel of Moses Meier." The "Bible" is the Torah Scroll. Jake and Charles Smith were designated to build the Synagogue which they probably started in 1891.Rabbi Fleishaker has this to say about the Ark:
Meanwhile Joseph Bleeden had arrived in New York from Europe. After a few months there, he came to Muscatine to join his landsleite , his townsmen from Europe, and he became the Rabbi of Muscatine's Jewish Community. Religious services and classes were held in his home at 715 East 7th Street near where the Synagogue was being built. The new frame Synagogue was opened for worship, classes, and social events in 1893. (See page 147.) An insurance policy dated March 26, 1894, to cover the cost of the building in case of fire had a face value of $1,500 and was made out to A. C. Smith and N. Click. The Congregation had thirty members, and was very traditional, following all its European customs. Rabbi Bleeden served his landsleite until his death, April 11, 1916, at the age of fifty- eight. His children contributed the interesting picture which shows the 1910 group of Talmud Torah children outside of Rabbi Bleeden's home.
Charles Smith soon built a new ark for the Synagogue in 1905 and rather immodestly inscribed his name, which in Hebrew was Bezalel, over the ark with four Hebrew words which mean "And Bezalel made the Ark." These four Hebrew words along with the Hebrew date 5,666 (1905-1906) are inscribed over the B'nai Moses Ark.The small wood frame building is similar to many others built by Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants soon after the first wave of Eastern-European emigration and the establishment of Lithuanian-American shtetlach in town across the country. This history which has been mostly neglected by historians of the American Jewish experience, offers an fascinating alternative narrative to the dominant one - of Jewish immigrants in the majors cities, and especially in new Jewish "ghettos" such as New York's Lower East Side and Philadelphia's South and Bainbridge Streets. The Little Jerusalem of Burlington, Vermont, the subject of a recent documentary film and an effort to save at 1910 synagogue mural is one example of these Lithuanian-Jewish settlements, as is Brenham, Texas, where some of my own ancestors lived, and where they founded the B'nai Abraham synagogue.
The Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington built in 1884 was brick, and is still used by the Ahavath Gerim minyan, but Congregation Chai Adam, which split off in 1889 and closed in the 1930s, built a wood frame synagogue (decorated with a mural in 1910). The B'nai Abraham Synagogue in Brenham, Texas, built like Muscataine in 1893, still retains its Jewish identity, but will be entirely moved to Austin,Texas, later this year, where it will again be used regularly for Jewish worship. Scores of similar brick or wood synagogues were once in towns across the country, but even today a good many of these remain.