History of the Saint Paul Jewish Community

Synopsis of “We Rolled Up Our Sleeves” by Marilyn Chiat and Chester Proshan
By Judy Sherman

The early St Paul Jewish community, German immigrants at Mount Zion and more orthodox Eastern Jews at Sons of Jacob, had no unified social service organization and largely kept to themselves. But in 1882, when a trainload of Russian Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms began to arrive, members of Mount Zion and Sons of Jacob congregations joined forces to provide the impoverished new arrivals with food, clothing and jobs. This unified response set a pattern for community social action.

As more Eastern European immigrants arrived, many of them settled in “the Flats” on the West Side, a poor and bleak area abandoned by earlier groups of immigrants who had moved “up” into better housing. The earlier German immigrants separated themselves socially and religiously from the poorer, “greener” and more orthodox newcomers and shared in the prosperity of the growing city, although they continued to assist the poorer Jews. As the later immigrants prospered, they moved “up” as well and became less orthodox, founding the Conservative Temple of Aaron in 1916.

Anti- German sentiment during World War I, growing anti-Semitism between the World Wars and economic hardships during the thirties helped unify the community socially, and Zionism, which had been an important cause for some in the community since 1897, became a rallying point for many facets of the community. Increasing prosperity since World War II and the persistence of housing discrimination led to the concentration of Jewish population in areas such as Highland Park. Recently the number of Jews in St Paul has declined, and their average age has gone up.


History of the United Jewish Fund and Council (UJFC)

In Europe historically Jews had been treated as a people apart, and were forced to develop their own social and cultural institutions. By the 1870s religious institutions in St Paul, such as Mount Zion Congregation, needed to develop new patterns of service to remain viable. Did they limit their facilities and rituals to members only? In America, Jews were free to be members of the wider community, and many assimilated.

Traditions such as tzedakah, hevrah kadisha for burial of the indigent, and the “Ladies Benevolent Society” were supplemented by aid from the wider community, especially when poor immigrants poured in from Eastern Europe after 1882. The established community sought to “Americanize” the immigrants without losing them as Jews. To this end the community organized to fund and staff institutions such as employment bureaus, Sophie Wirth Camp “for tired Jewish mothers and children”, day nurseries, settlement houses and agricultural colonies in North Dakota. One aim was to keep the newcomers from becoming an embarrassment to the established community due to their poverty and foreignness.

The newer immigrants, many of whom came to St Paul by chance and not by choice, tried to meet their own economic and religious needs by establishing their own congregations. Many fraternal and “Landsmanshaft” organizations were founded along with at least eight Orthodox congregations on the West Side. There was little sense of a community as a whole, but as anti-Semitism and economic need grew in the ‘20s and 30’s the sense that unity was important grew. Many organizations meant inefficiencies in duplication of services and fund drives.

In 1932 the Council of Jewish Social Agencies was founded, formed by a conference of the Jewish Welfare Association. This precursor of the UJFC helped coordinate the activities of 28 organizations by 1940, and centralized Jewish fund-raising. In 1935 the United Jewish Fund was established, and a merger was proposed in 1943. By 1965 it was apparent that the patterns of Jewish assistance had shifted from the synagogues to the UJFC, influenced by the activism of non-religious Jews in the organization. Local rabbis were less active in the UJFC as the community became increasingly secularized. The UJFC and the synagogues had to work out an agreement about their roles and functions, as related to the specific beneficiary agencies.

Kokie Goldenberg speaking at a United Jewish Fund and Council rally in Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1949.

Kokie Goldenberg speaking at a United Jewish Fund and Council rally in Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1949.


Saint Paul Jewish Community Center (JCC)

The Neighborhood House, an organization to help poor immigrants on the West Side was founded in 1900 under the auspices of the Hebrew ladies Benevolent Society and the rabbis of Mt Zion. The settlement house offered classes in English, homemaking, and social and recreational activities. The Lowertown Community Center (Central Community House) opened in 1921 and moved to University Avenue in 1925, with the mission of preventing juvenile delinquency. Later in the 1920s both houses became more nonsectarian and Lowertown had become a Community Chest beneficiary. Other organizations such as B’nai B’rith, the YMHA and YWHA, and social clubs such as Aleph Beth sponsored activities at the houses with Jewish content.

All of these groups contributed to the emergence of the JCC in St Paul, but the main parent group was the Jewish Educational Center, which held educational and recreational activities in a 1930 building on the Hill to serve the needs of Jews who had moved west. The Depression severely affected the JEC’s financial status and in 1934 it received funding from the St Paul Community Chest, under the name Jewish Center Activities Association (JCAA). The JCAA developed musical, theatre and scouting groups, and indeed became the center of the St Paul Jewish community, although secondarily its programs were open to the wider community. By 1939 a popular day camp was established, and during WWII programs for servicemen were established. In 1948 connections with a Hebrew School were severed.

After WWII the community shifted to Highland Park, and in 1956 purchased a building on Cretin. Sophie Wirth Camp closed, and Jack Butwin Day Camp opened in 1958 to meet the needs of middle-class families. In 1963, under the auspices of the UJF, ground was broken for the current center building.

The growing membership is served by many programs including Israeli-oriented classes, retaining of a shaliach, physical education classes, programs for Russian immigrants especially the elderly, and programs for handicapped children. JCC realizes that it must be ready to change and grow if it is to meet the needs of a changing community.

Volunteer with sign at the Jewish Community Center, Saint Paul, Minnesota,1940.

Volunteer with sign at the Jewish Community Center, Saint Paul, Minnesota,1940.


The Menorah Society was founded in 1903, originally as the University Jewish Literary Society, to “cultivate ….and discuss… topics related to Judaism”, but mainly as a social group. It enrolled Jewish faculty members and most of the Jewish students on campus (who were predominantly male). Funding and the lack of a permanent home were early concerns, and despite growing membership and activities Menorah never had its own home. In the 1930’s the UJF gave them an emergency grant. Several other Jewish groups also existed on campus, sponsored by Temple Israel and Jewish professional and social fraternities and sororities.

The U of Mn Hillel Society was founded in 1940, with Rabbi Milgrom its first director. By 1941 the membership of over 500 enjoyed a full agenda of programs including classes, discussion groups, debate, drama and social activities. Hillel activities were intended not to overlap with those of existing Jewish groups on campus, including Menorah, which eventually merged with Hillel. The lack of a permanent home was an issue as early as 1943, and the UJFC sanctioned a fund drive in 1945. A permanent building (the current one) was purchased in 1956. Even without a home, activities included a model seder, Friday night services and dinners, and activities, such as vocational guidance, for returning veteran students.

In the 1960’s and 70’s problems such as insufficient funding, unpaid pledges and declining student interest became more serious. New services such as non-credit Jewish studies classes, a kosher meat cooperative and a Jewish bookstore were offered to increase relevance for its constituency. A 1980 evaluation conducted with the Minneapolis and St Paul Federations suggested more ways to increase relevance and participation. The facilities were renovated in 1981.

Jewish Community Relations Council–Anti-Defamation League JCRC-ADL

Anti-Semitic incidents in Minnesota date back to the 1880s. They were addressed by the Anti-Defamation Committee of B’nai B’rith beginning in 1913. B’nai B’rith lobbied against real estate restrictions, but although legislation was passed banning restrictive covenants in 1918, housing discrimination against Jews continued well into the 1950’s. Rabbi Samuel Deinard in the American Jewish World publicized anti-Semitic incidents. The Klan was active in Minnesota through the 1920’s, and although its membership declined after that, the Great Depression brought an increase in hate groups such as the Silver Shirts, a nativist and fascist group.

In the 1938 gubernatorial campaign overtly anti-Semitic activities, including a raw anti-Semitic cartoon, accusing some in the DFL of being pro-Communist were fostered by some of Harold Stassen’s campaign workers. This galvanized the Jewish community to form a group to openly combat anti-Semitism, which requested a small amount of funding from the UJF and the Minneapolis Federation. The organization sought to remain independent of the national B’nai B’rith ADL, but to cooperate with the group. Samuel Scheiner, hired as Executive Director in 1939, was charged with investigating reports of anti-Semitic activities and maintaining outstate offices. This was the first completely independent state-wide Jewish community relations agency in the US. In cooperation with the Chicago and other offices of the ADL, information about anti-Jewish agitators was publicized, and anti-Semitic remarks by school teachers, hate-filled leaflets and swastika paintings were noted and protested. Typical activities included letter-writing campaigns, requests for apologies (and threats of boycotts) and monitoring of letters-to-editors in papers statewide.

In the 1940s self-monitoring of Jewish community, housing issue complaints and quiet attempts to settle problems were developed. Attempts to subvert anti-discrimination laws by real estate agents, resorts and employers using euphemisms such as “selected clientele” were exposed by the ADL. A cooperative relationship was formed with the NAACP, and anti-Semitic union practices were investigated, resulting in the United Labor Committee for Human Rights. Outreach to the rural Minnesota population, which was vulnerable to anti-Semitic propaganda because they had no contact with Jews, was developed, via the 4-H Radio Speaking Contest and other programs. As WWII ended, an expected increase in anti-Semitic activities was noticed, highlighted by the 1946 Carey McWilliams article calling Minneapolis the “capital of anti-Semitism in the United States”. By 1952 the number of overtly anti-Semitic incidents had decreased, and the focus of the organization shifted to overcoming ignorance and working for better community understanding.

In the 1950s Scheiner warned against McCarthyism, fearing that charges of Communism would discourage attempts at intercultural education. The increasing “Christianization” of public education, particularly at holiday times, was a concern. Unhappiness with the operation of the local ADL led to a reorganization in 1959 to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota, and in 1975 a merger with the B’nai B’rith ADL to form the JCRC/ADL. While continuing to combat anti-Semitism, the focus has shifted to the support of Israel in the community and defense of Jews abroad.



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