Minnesota Jewry at 150

Jews have been here since the time the territory was opened to white settlement. The explosive growth of St. Paul in the 1850s included enough Jews to form Mount Zion Congregation, which, by the 1870s, had moved toward Reform. Those who wished to remain Orthodox could join the newly established Sons of Jacob.  Several early Jews intermarried, while at least one man kept a connection to Judaism solely through his membership in Bnai Brith.

We can see that even in these early years there was diversity in the manner in which people decided whether or how to live Jewish lives.  Some hewed to tradition, others insisted on modernization of Jewish practices, still others felt that being a cultural Jew was sufficient, while a minority left the Jewish fold altogether.

Diversity increased with the arrival of Eastern European Jews beginning in the early 1880s.  German Jewish co-religionists aided their brethren but the communities were separated geographically and by religious practices. There were divisions as well within the immigrant community.  It is important to remember that not all Jews of that time were pious.  Members of the Workmen’s Circle were committed Socialists.  Zionists came in all shades—Socialist, religious and in-between.   Still, there was a sense of peoplehood and of a shared destiny.  Furthermore, there were not enough Jews of one persuasion or another to set the boundaries too high.  This last fact is critical in understanding the go-along and get-along mentality of Minnesota’s Jews.

The Board of Directors of the Workman's Circle Loan Ass'n, Inc.1926

The development of the unified Jewish community began with the establishment in 1930 of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.  At first, the Federation raised money for a few local institutions such as the Talmud Torah, but also contributed to Orthodox and later Communist causes in order to entice and keep those factions loyal.  Again, it was the relatively small Jewish population that necessitated this spirit of cooperation.

The 1950s and 1960s were eras that promoted belonging to established Jewish institutions. The synagogues, the Federations and its now-multiplied beneficiary agencies were the pillars upon which the community rested.  Synagogues youth groups flourished, as did AZA, BBG, and Young Judea. The anti-Semitism that had held Minneapolis’s Jews in a pariah category was removed first by city and then state Human Rights legislation. The old divisions within the communities were healed as the immigrant generation died, the Communists were driven out, and Jews became part of the middle class.

That era of praying together and staying together ended in the late 1960s. The same pressures that were roiling America were being felt in the Jewish community.  The North Side riots of 1966 and 1967 were a fiery corrective to the notion that Blacks and Jews were natural and life long allies.  Even suburbia was no longer safe: Jewish teens looked outside their own communities for excitement and role models.

By the 1980s Young Judea, BBG and AZA were either defunct or on the ropes.  Even B’nai Brith, once melding rising and fully established men, no longer attracted a younger generation.  As families moved to more distant suburbs and more women joined the work force, transporting kids to a JCC or a Talmud Torah became more problematic.  Still synagogue membership, Federation giving, and support for Israel seemed pretty solid.

That same era witnessed several new developments. The movement of Soviet Jews into our communities, which began in the 1970s and swelled in the 1980s created not only an opportunity to increase community size, but also the challenge of integration.  Newcomers were generally well-educated, but lacked religious background and language skills.  Unlike the earlier immigration, willing American-born families personally helped them navigate the shoals of American life, and synagogue gave them free membership.  Nevertheless, even with the best will, integration could not occur quickly.

There was also new energy in the Orthodox community, especially in the Lubavitch movement.  They were willing to flaunt their beliefs in the form of public outreach such as menorah-mobiles, but they established their own educational and recreational facilities. The growth of the Russian-born and Lubavitch groups, coupled with a rise in intermarriage were warnings that community cohesion was no longer a given.

The last two decades of 2000 also saw Jews playing leadership roles in powerful cultural and educational institutions such as the Minnesota orchestra, art museums, and the University of Minnesota.  Political barriers had already been broken with the elections of Jewish mayors in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and a string of senators.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem: When the larger community offers such blandishments and in fact no longer sees intermarriage as an obstacle, why give solely or even the bulk of one’s philanthropy to Jewish causes, join a Jewish adult organization, or give children a Jewish education?  Why not opt out?

Indeed, the 2003 population study found that the greatest share of the Federation annual campaign came from households with older members, that there was a rise in the percentage of intermarried couples, that only 30% of children in these marriages were being raised as Jews, and that 35% of Jews surveyed described themselves as “Just Jewish.”

There has also been a significant decline in support for Israel.  The core values of the mid-century community were being questioned.

Coupled with these sobering findings we can discern several more hopeful ones.  Concern for issues of social justice has led to the flourishing of Jewish Community Action, which appears attractive to Jews with no synagogue affiliations.  The founding of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest signaled an appreciation for the value of learning local Jewish history.  More synagogues have been founded.  There is a return to study and spirituality within virtually all congregations, and Jewish artistic expression commands a wide audience.  Jewish education from kindergarten through college is increasingly available as are adult learning venues.

So what does the future hold for Minnesota’s Jews?

Keeping American-born Jews within the community, while attracting and integrating Jews from the Former Soviet Union and intermarried couples are the greatest challenges this community faces. The institutions that flourished mid-century must now make themselves relevant and attractive to all these groups.  They will, as well, have to share power with newer organizations and with people who want to direct their philanthropy.

If the past is a guide, we can fashion this rich diversity into a community, but the rules for admission need to be changed.  We must return to the go-along and get-along mentality. There simply aren’t enough Jews in this region to create barriers to belonging.


Leave a Reply