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Jewish Camping

It has been a bad year for Bob Dylan: first and foremost the Christmas album, and prior to that, the discovery that a poem purportedly written by then 16 year old Bob Zimmerman and published in the Herzl Camp newspaper was really penned by Canadian country artist Hank Snow. Whoops. Well everybody makes mistakes, and a bit of altered truth does nothing to dim Dylan’s legend. The flurry of reporting on this subject, however, offered Herzl Camp 48 hours of national fame. Bob Zimmerman attended the camp in the summer of 1957, by which time it had already been offering Jewish youth summer camping with a Zionist flavor for a decade.

Sophie Wirth Camp, 1939.

Sophie Wirth Camp, 1939.

Herzl began operation in 1946, with the intention of being overly Zionist- that in addition to teaching appreciation for Jewish traditions and offering summer camping fun. The first year of camp was held at the Old Sophie Wirth site on White Bear Lake, and then moved in 1947 to Webster, Wisconsin, where it remains. Writing about the camp, Ruth Brin (of blessed memory) wrote of Herzl Camp:

” … Campers will remember “Here’s to Dear old Herzl” sung at the top of their lungs, as well as havdallah services on the waterfront with a burning Mogen David floating on the water. An experience remembered by many, and repeated over the years was the all day activity simulating the founding of Israel. Some campers, dressed as immigrants, came by boat from across the lake, while others hiked through the woods to converge at the lake shore. Upon meeting, campers set up a settlement akin to one in Eretz Israel, where they would speak Hebrew and learn Israeli songs and dances.”-

JHSUM has materials from a number of different Midwestern Jewish summer camps, beginning with the establishment of Sophie Wirth Camp in 1911. The camp, sponsored by the Jewish Relief Society, was the first kosher camp in the Upper Midwest. Originally named the Lake Rest Vacation Home Camp, the impetus for the camp was to offer children a place to recreate outside the confines of the city and to provide a moment of respite for “Overtired mothers … ” When the camp was consolidated in 1923 by Neighborhood House, the name was changed to Camp Sophie Worth in honor of Neighborhood House’s founder. A bulletin from 1926 noted that the camp had capacity for 90 campers as well as a staff of 25. Ruth Brin, noted in one of her camp memoirs that

“The staff and the Council (Of Jewish Women) were all for teaching and learning, developing good health habits, and even “Americanizing”, but the kids were there to have fun. Curious items were occasionally run up the flagpole, rest hours were sometimes violated, and kids who were not underweight would sneak into the “extra milk and cookies” line.

Camp Tikvah in Atkin Minnesota was purchased in 1947 by a group that included Sam Finkelstein and Ellis Peilen, with the intention of creating a camp to be affiliated with the new Minneapolis Jewish Community Center that was in its early planning stages. Tikvah could take in up to 100 campers, who came for periods ranging from two weeks to a month. The camp excelled in providing both outdoor and arts experiences, as well as offering Israeli scout and Sh’lichim visits, kosher food, Jewish programming and Shabbat services. The camp closed in 1983.

Council Camp came into being during the depths of the Depression. Activists in the community believed that offering a camping experience to children who had seen little of life’s ease or nature’s beauty could benefit from a camping experience. The physical camp was built as part of FDR’s Works Projects Administration program, which among it’s many activities built community camping facilities around the US. Part of the agreement between the WPA and the Jewish Camping program was that 1/3rd of the campers be “low-income”, and that fees were to be adjusted according to a family’s ability to pay. The first site, in Hinckley, MN, was followed by a new site in Aitkin.Because of Council Camps reliance on Federal support, the camp was non-sectarian, but operated based on the observance of Jewish principles. Services were held on Friday evening, when campers dressed in white and sat down to traditional shabbos meals, complete with singing and candlelight.

Jewish summer camping served and still successfully serves a multitude of purposes: providing outdoors and recreating opportunities for young people, educating youth about Jewish tradition, Israel solidarity and Hebrew language skills, and developing leadership skills in the next generation of Jewish community leaders.

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A History Snapshot

I once had an acquaintance who, upon viewing the Minnesota History Center, murmured, “such a large building for so little history.” While it is true that the history of European settlement in this region does not cover millennia, it still behooves us to know something about it, and in the context of this newsletter, a little bit of early St. Paul Jewish history. A few Jews were drawn here before the area became the Minnesota territory in 1849. An English-born Jew named Maurice Mordecai Samuel settled in the St. Croix valley, married an Indian woman, and ran a trading post for some time prior to the Civil War. Fur trading and the promise of cheap land was always a draw.

The first Jews to come to the village of St. Paul generally arrived by riverboat in the 1850s. Roads were non-existent, and dogsled travel was confined to wintertime. Names like Elfelt, Ullmann, Solomon, Noah, Cardozo (the only Sephardic pioneer) are recorded in the early records of Mount Zion Congregation, founded in 1856, two years before the territory gained statehood. They were generally born in German-speaking lands, were young, had lived in other parts of the United States, and arrived with some capital with which to begin business. Most of the early members opened clothing stores, while the wealthiest were fur traders . Indeed Joseph Ullmann became so successful that he opened branches in Chicago, New York, and Leipzig, Germany. He and his wife returned to Europe after selling the bulk of his business to his nephews. It continued for over a century as the Rose Brothers Fur Company .

Mount Zion’s membership waxed and waned with national economic cycles, for it was not until 1871 that the congregation felt secure enough economically to build a simple structure at 10th and Minnesota Streets and hire a rabbi. Congregants lived nearby, at first in what is now the downtown area , while with prosperity they moved to the area now called the Capitol Heights.

A small group of Lithuanian and Polish Jews had arrived by the end of the Civil War. They too settled along the northern reaches of the downtown area and along Payne Avenue. They also appear to have arrived with some cash, because they soon established stores and manufacturing concerns, and one was even a physician. These people founded Sons of Jacob some time in the early 1870s and purchased a building on 1 I ‘h and Minnesota Streets to use.

Mount Zion 1881

Mount Zion 1881

By the 1870s St. Paul was no longer a frontier town. The communal structure was not as fluid, and Jews were not as welcome in every social gathering. The arrival of the “Polish” Jews manifested itself in a fracturing of the Jewish community, evident in the establishment of the Standard Club, an extension, to all extents and purposes, of Mount Zion as well as a turn by that congregation toward the Reform movement.

The city received its largest influx of Jews beginning in the early 1880s. The assassination of Czar Alexander II and the advent of pogroms, along with worsening economic conditions sent Jews fleeing over the borders. Countries like Germany and

England were not anxious to host these penniless refugees and moved them on over the ocean. In 1882 alone, around 250 Russian Jews arrived in St. Paul. They more than matched the established Jewish population and overwhelmed their ability to take care of these desperate people. City officials and civic groups stepped us to help house, feed, cloth, and find jobs for them. They found the newcomers work on railroads, on road crews, and in their trades of cigar making, carpentry and cabinet making. With these new arrivals the Jewish community had been irrevocably changed.

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Jews in Minnesota

Talk given by Linda Mack Schloff at the Minnesota History Center, June 9, 2002 to celebrate publication of Jews in Minnesota.  Revised for JHSUM website on June 21, 2012

Today I want to focus on the two immigrations from Russia: That from roughly 1880 to 1921 and that beginning in about the early 1970s and still continuing.  I’ll concentrate on the decisions, expectations, and adjustments that immigrants make.   It’s about the interior process that accompanies immigration and Americanization.  In talking about the newer immigration I will be relying on research I did and oral histories I conducted in the early 1990s, the result of a Women’s History grant from the Minnesota Historical Society.

First I want to share my Dad’s immigration story because it illustrates some of the points I will stress.   He came in about 1913 at the age of seventeen.  The son of pious Jews, his father was a Rabbi/Hebrew teacher in a small town, a shtetl, and he had three older sisters.  One married and stayed in Russia, while the other two left for America with their husbands.  My father, being the youngest and the only son, was sent to a yeshivah in a nearby town where he boarded with several families.  In one family he found a boy his own age and in return for teaching him Hebrew, he was taught Russian.   He commenced reading Russian literature hidden inside large volumes of Talmud.  This was his first act of rebellion.  Immigration was out of the question even though his sisters in America said they would pay his fare. His role in life was to carry on his father’s work.  It was not until his parents died that he came.  And here is the odd part.  When he beheld the Statue of Liberty he threw his bag containing his religious articles—his tallit and tfillin—overboard!

What was he thinking? Was he so happy to leave a decaying shtetl existence with what he may have thought of as its stultifying religiosity that he decided to shuck all further traditional religious expression?  Or, did he believe he had to transform himself to become an American—strip himself of those religious practices that would make him stand out from other Americans?  Did freedom for him mean freedom from religion?

We may enlarge upon this story to ask, what was in the minds of the other 30 to 40,000 Russian Jews who came to Minnesota before 1921 or the 4,000 to 8,000 who came beginning in the 1970s

First, why did they decide to leave?
Leaving was not a decision arrived at easily.  To pull up roots, and especially to leave parents behind was/is painful.  People remembered and wrote about those bitter leave-takings at train stations.  Unlike Italians, the expectation for Jews was that they would never see their relatives again unless those left behind immigrated at a later date.
So why did they go?  The major reason was economic compounded by an enormous increase in the Jewish population and a virulent anti-Semitism.
The late 19th and early 20th century saw a world in flux.  We often think of the shtetl as caught in a time warp, but the wind of the industrial revolution was rattling the shutters of each home.

Consider what it meant to the shtetl economy that American agriculture was so efficient:  Peasants working their own land or living on large Russian estates could not compete with cheap American grain harvested by mechanical means.  This meant less money for peasants to spend in shtetls where Jews were middlemen—owners of small stores—or skilled workers.  Jews had to wander further away from their shtetls to make a living.

Mains family portrait, Russia, 1890.

Other Jews who lived in or who moved to larger cities felt another sort of pressure, from the same economic revolution.  What if you were a shoemaker or a tailor and now you were faced with competition from machines.  Your skills were downgraded and you ended up, not as a skilled worker, but as a member of the proletariat.  You brought home less money.

I remember a St. Paul company called Bream Homes?  The elder Mr. Bream was a carpenter from Lomza, Poland.  He once told me that he traveled in a wider and wider circle of towns around Lomza looking for work.  Finally he left for America.  Probably the time he spent away from Lomza prepared him for the final leave-taking.  And it was the young wage-earning group like Meyer Bream who left first, and the elders who were content to live and die in a place that was familiar if not particularly hospitable.  The rise of Jewish population only exacerbated the problem of unemployment.  Finally the rise of anti-Semitism culminating in pogroms hastened immigration until it became a flood of people seeking to escape intolerable conditions.

The newer Russian immigration had different and yet eerily similar roots.  The great difference in this later immigration was that the political climate had so changed:  America and the Soviet Union were mortal enemies, and America saw the Jewish emigration as a way of highlighting Soviet human rights violations.  The Soviets retaliated by humiliating and then firing people who applied to emigrate, and stripping them of many of their possessions.  Some like Natan Scharansky was put in prison.   The Soviet Jews were a part of the geo-political battle that involved not only Russia and America, but the Middle East as well.
The other great difference is that instead of the skilled craftsmen and what were called “Columbus tailors” (those who suddenly became tailors on the boat to America), of yore, this newer group seemed to be mainly university-educated.

The similarities with an earlier immigration are striking.  Again they were leaving an empire that was creaking—that could not compete with an American output of everything from guns to butter.  Again they left because of anti-Semitism, but the definition had changed.  In the Soviet Union, being Jewish meant belonging to a nationality, not a religious group.  It meant having “Jew” stamped on the fifth line of your passport.  It meant that every teacher knew what nationality you were and could harass you if she/he wished to.  It meant that you could be denied the gold medal—the equivalent of the top rank at high school graduation.  It meant that you would probably not get into the university of your choice.  Jobs were generally assigned in Russia. It was pretty common however for Jews not to be assigned a job or assigned one so horrible that no one else wanted it.  Once they found a job it was not always secure.  The anti-Semitism of a superior could mean an impossible work situation or actual firing.  For example, Dina M., one woman I interviewed who was fired was told, “You’re a very nice woman.  You have a very nice education.  You can find a job anywhere.  But these (other) women (who weren’t fired) don’t have a good education; they don’t have such a nice character.  It would be very difficult for them to find a job.”  She continued, “That’s why she fired me.  She fired me and then she asked me to teach math to her niece.”   And still Dina and her husband stayed.  The driving force for her leaving was when her daughter began to have difficulties with hostile teachers.  It was not uncommon for children to suffer verbal or even physical abuse.  They were fearful for her safety and mental health, and they saw no future for her when she was grown.

As in the earlier immigration, it was those people in their twenties who first decided to move.  They saw that their advancement and those of their children would always be blocked and would not stand for it any longer.  Then they persuaded their elders to come along or tried to send for them later.

So it was the twin poles of economics and anti-Semitism that sent Jews streaming out of two separate Russian empires.


Second, what were their expectations of America?

In the earlier immigration, the religiously inclined understood that America was a treyfe medinah (unkosher state) That was why my father’s parents would not allow him to come.  From letters they knew that the pressure to work on the Sabbath and on holidays would be enormous.  They knew that rabbis and religious rulings did not have the same authority as they did in Russia.  They read that there was little time to study the Holy Scriptures.  Often those trained in Talmud were forced to become peddlers.

Another expectation may have been that they would in some sense be reborn through contact with this new country, as St. Jean De Crevecoeur stated in his famous book, Letters of an American Farmer, published in 1782. Perhaps that was why my father threw his religious articles overboard.  He may have wanted to leave that ship ready to be reborn.   But he moved to a Jewish neighborhood and then married my mother, a pious Jewish woman.

Perhaps their greatest expectation was that here was a country where they could become citizens with all the rights and protections of citizenship.  That this would be a country where anti-Semitism would not be state-inspired and directed.  This would be a country where they could live where they wanted, and utilize their talents in almost any way they saw fit.

The later immigration had the same aspirations with one exception.  They were certainly not worried about finding a treyfe medina.  After the Revolution, Russia itself had become that.  Those Jews who immigrated starting in the 1970s had little experience of attending synagogues or studying scripture.  They did, however, remember elderly relatives who were observant, and they, themselves, were familiar with some holidays such as Passover.

Beyond the freedom to become full-fledged citizens with all the rights of citizenship, beyond the expectation of good jobs that would reflect only ability, the later immigration expected that the established Jewish community would help them.  I think they based this on the informal Jewish self-help networks that they had encountered in the Soviet Union to find jobs, apartments, and those other goods in short supply.

Third, what did they find in Minnesota?

The older immigration found that German-Jews helped them but kept their distance, perceiving them as an untrustworthy, unskilled, and needing an American makeover.  Settlement houses were established to aid in this makeover.  Anti-Semitism while not virulent, was certainly not absent.  Buying a home in some neighborhoods or later in some of the suburbs would be difficult.  Venturing into a hostile neighborhood might mean you would receive a beating.  Obtaining jobs with some companies would prove impossible.  Whether it is true or not, Minneapolis became known as the capital of anti-Semitism in the 1930s.

They lost control of their children.  Most commonly, immigrant kids spoke better English and knew American customs more thoroughly than their parents.  Often they become defiant.  They took up sports, which was seen as a waste of time by adults and an entry into America by children and by settlement house workers.  Jewish kids took to hanging out on the streets.  Often enough they took up crime.  One of National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) programs in the 1920s was sending observers to Juvenile Court and assisting kids who got into trouble.  NCJW’s South Side Settlement House in Minneapolis and Neighborhood House in St. Paul both touted their centers as a way to keep kids off the streets and away from a life of crime.  Incidentally, we see this problem with almost every immigrant group.

The streets were not paved with gold they found. Hard work was expected. Furthermore, this country was driven by the clock.  Being laid off work was also common.  On the other hand, hard work could be very well rewarded.  The peddler might find himself the owner of several clothing stores or a wholesaler to boot.  The man who picked up junk might become quite wealthy if he could open a scrap metal yard and in effect become a junk wholesaler.  America was a topsy-turvy place; yichus (status defined by learning and pious deeds) meant little.  The proste (boorish) rich man was now more important than the poor but pious well-learned one.  There was even a Yiddish derogatory term coined for just that sort of self made man—the “allrightnik”

The newer immigration found different problems in Minnesota.  It was impossible for them to understand why fellow-Jews were unable to find jobs for them.  This was how it had been done in Russia, and they felt betrayed.
The new immigrants could not understand the necessity of taking any job at first.  They wanted to wait for an opening that utilized their skills.  It was humiliating that their professional credentials did not mean anything in America.  For example, our laws mandated that immigrant doctors and dentists would need to be retrained with the result that they often ended up as mere technicians.  There was this eerie topsy-turvy similarity that earlier rabbinic scholars had experienced. Mastery of English was critical now because, unlike the earlier immigration, these professionals could not count on a work environment where everyone spoke the language of the Old Country.

The networks of mutual aid that the newer immigrants were used to changed dramatically in America.  Consider the following three:
1.    Childcare:  While provided in Russia, it was often not up to the standards that the women I interviewed desired for their children.  In Russia it was common to rely on parents or other relatives.  One reason this was possible was that one could retire at age 55.  Childcare extended to adult children:  I recall being told one joke about the parents caring for their children until the children retired. In America the elderly are no longer critical.  For example, the parents often live long distances from their children and grandchildren.
2.    Shopping:  Lining up outside shops for food and clothing that were once prevalent in Russia.  It was a necessity to have friends or family who knew enough about your needs so they would purchase those precious oranges or sweaters that had just arrived.  Retired parents played a key role.  However, in this country, countless opportunities have opened up for the parents particularly at the Jewish Community Centers.   One daughter said of her mother, “We shop for her now.  She is too busy taking English lessons and running around.”
3.    Friendship: The people I interviewed claimed that friendships were not as rich in America.  In Russia the hardships that all Jews faced—in gaining an education, in explaining their plight to non-Jews who only saw that on average Jews lived pretty well—these hardships created a special bond among friends.  There was time, as well, to read and discuss books, go to concerts, and talk deeply.  In America friendships with fellow Russians are more difficult to maintain because no one has time, and people live at greater distances from one another.  Friendships with Americans, I have been told, are usually more shallow.  Americans don’t open up their souls in the great Russian tradition, and even American smiles appear artificial.

One pleasant surprise was the generosity of the American government, at least at first, in paying for resettlement.  The Russian-born women I interviewed had been used to extreme thrift.  “Here,” they exclaimed, “we are finally living in a Socialist society.”

Despite complaints, most of the newer Russian immigrants are making it.  Many came with good educations.  I recall one woman–an engineer–saying that within several years she held the same sort of responsible job in Minnesota that she had held in Russia.  The fact that so many have decent jobs and can afford suburban homes and travel proves this point.  Last summer the Russians organized themselves and created a fair at the Minneapolis Convention Center highlighting their achievements, and they did this by themselves.  Their kids are attending the colleges of their choice.

Immigration and acculturation, however, are difficult.  There will always be
pain involved.  Giving up a culture and language is wrenching.  Totally mastering a new language and culture can be impossible.  Think about watching a TV program like The Simpsons. Even though one understands English, one probably will not understand the jokes because the pop culture allusions are missing.

Immigrants will always be left with what I call double vision of what was and what is.

And what will be?  As with the older immigration, these people must also put their hopes for total integration on their children.

Here I want to go back to my father’s story.  After losing his modest grocery store during the Depression, he was happy to find a job–a dead end job that he kept until he died.  He was an ardent union member and attended Teamster meetings more religiously than he did synagogue.  When he died he was buried in his tallit and wearing his teamster insignia.  He once said that the proudest day of his life was when my older sister graduated college.

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Collections and Connecting

The year was 1986. There I was sitting in a small room in the basement of Hamline University’s library surrounded by 60 boxes of Minneapolis Jewish Federation records, which I was tasked with placing in order. Having taken several courses on archival practices as part of my master’s program in History, I set to work.

One of the things I learned going through the collection was that it wasn’t easy to create an organization that represented the entire community. For example, the Federation sent money to help alleged chicken farmers in Birobidjan, a marshy area in Siberia that Stalin designated as a Jewish autonomous region. Why were they supporting this in the mid-late 1940s? The donation was meant to keep Communists within the Federation big tent and wean them from giving directly to Communist-sponsored organizations. Still another way the Federation attempted to represent all segments of the Jewish community was through the studies it commissioned, which resulted in the building of Mount Sinai Hospital, the Minneapolis Jewish Community Center, and Torah Academy. I also found an uncashed check and a five dollar bill, which I returned.

Since those early days I, along with dedicated volunteers, have processed many collections, those of institutions like the Minneapolis Talmud Torah, of organizations like National Council of Jewish Women, and of individuals such as Ruth Peilen. Every collection can speak to us about the past. For instance, the Minneapolis Talmud Torah collection contains registration books from the 1920s and 30s that note names and addresses of students as well as occupations of parents. When used in a classroom setting, students can correlate the addresses with a map to discover for themselves just how dense a Jewish neighborhood the North Side really was. These 21st century children of doctors, accountants, and lawyers can ascertain that their forebears had much humbler occupations such as peddler, umbrella repairer, and second hand clothes dealer. The registration books are indeed the raw material upon which history is based.

This collection holds still more treasures. In the 1920s the Talmud Torah published students’ work in Hebrew containing stories, poems, and essays attesting to their fluency in the language. Finally the impact of the Talmud Torah is visible in the very active alumni club that conducted meetings in Hebrew and that had branches as far away as New York. An offshoot was the Alumni Athletic Club, which, in 1925, produced a play in Hebrew in order to purchase sports equipment.

The Federation and Talmud Torah archives are but two examples of collections that reflect the mainstream Jewish community. But there were other tributaries that added to the richness of the community’s history that we don’t have documented nearly as well. I became aware of this in the late 1980s when I participated in a Minnesota Historical Society initiative called the Radical History Project. It sought to gather together and consolidate all information about political movements to the left of the DFL.

I was responsible for documenting Jewish involvement. To my amazement I found hardly any former Jewish Socialists to talk to, let alone a Communist. The only records I recovered were scanty remains of the Workmen’s Circle, the old Jewish Socialist group.

Since that time I have noticed other holes in the archives. Missing as well are the records of the various Zionist groups that once existed and those of most Orthodox synagogues, past and present. There is nothing on Jewish criminals, writers, or visual artists, little on the GLBT community, or on radicals of the 1960s and 1970s. We are also sorely lacking in material about Jews from the Former Soviet Union.

My successor Susan Hoffman is aware of these gaps, and I know she will do all in her power to fill them. The last thing in the world either of us wants is to have an archive that creates the impression that our community was of one mind from the beginning. How un-Jewish that notion is.

Collecting is but one aspect of what the JHSUM has done in the 22 years I have worked here. Connecting people to the collections has been the greater challenge. “What do you do with all that stuff?” is a refrain I often heard. Through programming, exhibits, our journal, and even bike tours, we tried to make the materials in the boxes come alive and somehow “talk” to the participants. I was the interpreter. Our aim has been to connect people to their past and encourage them to understand how that past shaped the present and how it could inform the future.

Perhaps the most ambitious of our efforts in this regard was the Jewish Women’s exhibit, which opened in 1996. Based upon the premise that Jewish women had an especially large role to play in a region that had relatively few Jewish settlements of any size and few rabbis, we sought to show how women transported, transmitted, and transformed Judaism in the Upper Midwest. It was a joy to see how the exhibit was received in the community: Jews kvelled learning about their own history, one that did not focus on the Lower East Side of New York. One of my treasured moments was having a group of Russian Jews thank me and the Minnesota Historical Society for creating an exhibit that portrayed Jewish life so openly, something that could never have happened in their homeland.

Exhibits haven’t been the only way to convey our own history to an Upper Midwestern audience: The North Side video is an immense success, and our journals have featured material from our archives as well as historical essays written especially for us. The extensive programming that accompanied the Jewish Women’s Exhibit also connected people from every part of our community. For me, other notable programs were those focused on Jews who grew up in the Dakotas, on Jewish camps past and present, and on World War II.

Through JHSUM’s collaborative programming, I was given the opportunity to connect with practically every agency and organization in our community. Perhaps the most unique partnership was with the University of St. Thomas through their student service learning program. This project allowed the JHSUM to teach classes about the Jewish North Side on the college campus as well as at Ascension Parish, also on the North Side. We culminated that project with a program at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Next year JHSUM will unveil a K-12 curriculum which uses Upper Midwest Jewish history in every lesson plan. The outreach continues.

One of my greatest pleasures through the years has been connecting with our public. So many people have donated material to the JHSUM, attended programs, or made research inquiries of us, and some became volunteers helping in the archival work, creating programs, and serving on our board or as officers. I want to express my sincere thanks to all of these members and volunteers too numerous to mention by name. And I particularly want to acknowledge my husband Len, who was the unpaid and unsung tech support for many years. As our office staff expanded, I have been privileged to work with wonderful colleagues, and I will miss that camaraderie.

We could never have accomplished all this without the support of generous funders. Building an organization from the ground up takes vision, commitment, and deep pockets. We have been fortunate that a cadre of visionaries understood how important it was to collect our own unique history, connect that history to a Jewish and a non-Jewish public, and convey it to the next generation.

The year is 2008. As I sit at my desk at the Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives in the Elmer L.Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota, one thing is clear. What started as a humble enterprise with 60 boxes and a rookie archivist has grown into a professional and well-respected organization with a regional, national, and international presence. The stage is set. I’m looking forward to seeing where the past can take us next.

Linda Schloff
Director of Collections, Exhibits and Publications
Summer 2008


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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.

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One Size Does Not Fit All

Those of you who watched the PBS special The Jewish Americans may have felt, as I did, that our history was somehow missing. Watching it was similar to putting on an ill fitting garment.  Although the sales person said it was the latest in style, we in the Upper Midwest didn’t quite feel comfortable wearing it.
To be sure, the overall tale of waves of immigration, first the Sephardim, then the German-speaking countries and finally Eastern European echo here.  And yet, we have our differences: Due to our remote location and time of settlement, the hierarchy of arrival was different.  Our very few Sephardim appeared at the same time the German speaking Jews were putting down roots.

Our earliest arrivals were trading with Indians rather than sending ships laden with tobacco or rum back to co-religionists in Europe or the Bahamas.  Commercial development continued to be different.  The story of the New York garment trade simply does not resonate here, nor does that of wealthy and influential Jewish bankers.  Jews were neither prominent in the Midwest timber nor the milling industries.  Instead they found a niche as merchants and middlemen.  They did settle in small market towns all across Minnesota and the Dakotas, and several thousand even tried farming.

The mix of people among whom they settled was also different.  This area is predominately German and Scandinavian and they arrived somewhat earlier than most of the Jews.  The majority of New York Jews arrived at the same time as Italians and a bit later than the Irish—two groups who, while statistically large—were willing to make common cause and share political power with Jews.  Not so here.  In part this was due to our relatively small numbers—2% rather than 26% of the population—in part due to entrenched anti-Semitism, which may have lasted longer here than in New York City.

Because of our small numbers we have had to learn to get along with the Lake Woebegon Lutherans and Catholics among whom we live and even take on the same self-effacing characteristics (don’t gesticulate too much or talk too loudly, don’t flaunt your knowledge).  Only in North Minneapolis could we feel we “owned” the neighborhood.  Compare this experience to that of Jews growing up on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn or the Bronx.

So, what does that mean?  If our Upper Midwest Jewish history was shaped by different forces, why should we settle for the “one size fits all” interpretation?  We should strive instead to understand and take pride in our own story. We should understand and preserve our own heritage and then pass that story down to the future generations.  The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest is the medium for translating and transferring that story.  Think of us as the tailor or dressmaker that makes a garment, in this case your history, truly fit so that you are glad to wear it.

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Teasing Out the Evidence

Joel has asked some interesting questions about recording the experiences of immigrant, or as I prefer to call them, ethnic communities.  A word now about my sponsor, The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and its offshoot, the Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives.  It was created in 1986 to save the records of a community that was hardly immigrant, and our collections reflect the acculturation of a white religio-ethnic community.  And yet, the community’s powers-that-be wished the materials to remain in the hands of the community rather than turning them over to a supra-ethnic or historical  organization.   Nevertheless, there are important chunks that were donated to the Minnesota Historical Society before the JHSUM was founded.

What do the records contain and what do they lack:  In the main the collections consist of the records of institutions concerned with religion, social planning, social welfare, Jewish defense, and education.  There are also collections of important women’s organizations as well as private papers and family histories.  We also have substantial photography and oral history collections.  Finally, we have a rich collection of materials dealing with Jewish settlement in North and South Dakota, including wonderful homesteading memoirs.

Minneapolis Talmud Torah Bet Midrash class, 1924.

Perhaps it might be useful to go back and describe waves of Jewish immigration as I speak about what evidence we have and what is missing.  The records of the first wave, the German Jews who began arriving in the latter part of the 19th C, are moderately extant because Mount Zion and Temple Israel congregations were diligent.  Perhaps this reflects a Germanic tidiness, because the records of synagogues, educational, and welfare institutions established by Jews from Eastern Europe are almost totally missing.  We have the bills and advertisements for cantors and rabbis of the most important Minneapolis synagogue established by immigrants from Russia, but virtually nothing about who belonged or how they governed themselves.  We also know the building was used by visiting dignitaries but don’t know who they were or what they spoke about.

Worse yet, we have virtually no records of early Jewish socialist or Zionist groups.  This is a terrible loss and can’t be made up with oral histories because the participants have either moved to sunnier climes or gone to their heavenly rewards.  As a rule of thumb, anything written in Yiddish has disappeared.  That says a lot about language retention and the desire to acculturate.  Missing as well are the records of early social welfare organization.  Even the photo collection is skewered—in the entire collection there is only one photo of Jews working in a factory.  Because of privacy issues, we have never been able to get case records of the Jewish Family services.  Finally, we have very little material on the immigration, resettlement, and acculturation of Jews from the former Soviet Union, a group that now make up over ten per cent of the total Twin Cities Jewish community.

My worst fear is that anyone browsing through our largest collections would summarily conclude that the Jewish community was always bourgeois and paranoid.    As someone trained by Rudy Vecoli himself, I have tried hard to fill in the gaps as I identify them.  Oral histories are of great help balancing the defects of the collections, and photos, as well, can be used to tease out evidence.  I do believe that we have to try harder to gain the trust of the most recent immigrant group so that we can add their accounts and experiences to the archives.

Who uses the collections and to what purpose: Usage of the collection is not as extensive or thorough as I would like to see.  The Jewish community uses the collections for commemorative events and forgets about it afterward.  We seem to have an uphill battle convincing them that the most important experience may not have been anti-Semitism but rather the consolidation of a fairly unified and fairly prosperous Jewish community that identified with and advocated for Israel.  I could make a good case that in the last forty or so years, an American-Israeli transnational identity has been deliberately created.  Yet I do understand that their focus is on raising funds, and finding dramatic tales to tell helps them in this endeavor.

We have had four PhD dissertations based in good part on our collections, while several other serious scholars have also used it.  Students at high school and even college level have a hard time getting past anti-Semitism as their choice of topic.

Who guards it and is responsible for adding to the collections:  Right now, I, like most archivists, am the gatekeeper.  I can suggest and bring ancillary materials to the notice of students and scholars, and I enjoy discussing conclusions.  I don’t believe in withholding materials that cast the community in an unflattering light.  As I see it, my duty is to bring forth all the evidence in our collection that bear on a research topic.  My duty extends, as well, to advising scholars about materials in nearby archival institutions.  This task has certainly been made easier because of internet access.

Joel’s last question—who is ultimately responsible for documenting the immigrant experience—is tricky.  It is to be expected that records that pertain to criminal or “un-American”activities would be destroyed.  I believe that the combination of foresighted members of the immigrant community working together with a skilled and persuasive archivist/historian may be able to save a more complete record than we have collected.  It takes time and dedication, as well as networking with influential members of the ethnic community whose records you seek.  None of us are experiencing an excess of funds, so perhaps this is an area where a number of archival institutions can all cooperate.

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When Did Jews Come to Minnesota and Why?

Period 1: 1820-1880: Jews from German-Speaking Countries
Almost a quarter million (250,000) Jews moved from German-speaking countries to the United States between 1820 and 1889. Some of those Jews came to Minnesota and other parts of the Upper Midwest. Most of the Jews who came during this period were from Germany and Austria. They wanted to leave those areas because there were rules there that said that Jews had to live in certain places, and that they could not do some jobs or go to some schools. There was also anti-Semitism- prejudice against Jews- that made their lives difficult. As more Jews were born, it was harder for them to find jobs among those that Jewish people were allowed to do. Also, as more things started to be produced in factories, there was less farming work available. One of the main reasons that some Jews from German-speaking lands wanted to leave was that the government there told them that they were not considered real citizens, and that they did not have the same rights as other people in their countries.

Period II: 1880-1920
Around two million Jews (2,000,000) came to the United States from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and the 1920s. The majority of these people (1,500,000) were from Russia; most of the others were from the areas we now call Romania and Hungary. About 20,000 of these Eastern European Jews settled in Minnesota and the Dakotas at this time. They left Eastern Europe for several reasons. For one, Jews in Russia had to live in an all-Jewish strip of country, known as the Pale of Settlement. The people in the Pale were not allowed to own land. There were too many people living in this small area, and not many jobs that they could do to make a living. Because of anti-Semitism, Jews were blamed for things they did not do, including the assassination of Czar Alexander II. They also suffered vicious attacks, called pogroms, from non-Jewish peasants who blamed Jews for the peasants’ own problems. The government of Russia did not stop these attacks, and may even have encouraged them. Thousands of Jews were murdered in the pogroms. Others were hurt and had their homes tom apart. At the same time as Russian Jews were suffering in the places where they lived, they received letters from friends who had moved to America and that said it was a land of great opportunity. Some even sent boat tickets to their relatives back home. For these reasons, many Eastern European Jews packed up and left their homelands forever.

Max Shapiro and family members in front of Shapiro's Butcher Shop, Tower, Minnesota, 1892.

Jews Who Came After 1930
Over the years, Jews from many places in the world have come to Minnesota. Some settled here during or after the Holocaust. While some came here directly, many lived other places first before they moved to the Upper Midwest. Perhaps you or someone in your family has moved to Minnesota from somewhere else. While this curriculum is focused more on people who came in the 1920s or earlier, all the Jews who have made this area their home have added to and changed the culture of the Midwest.

How did they get from Europe to Minnesota?

In the 1800s and early 1900s, people could not take a car, bus, or subway to the airport and then fly to the United States in 7 or 8 hours. Instead, they had to travel by foot, wagon, or train to a city on the ocean. Then, they had to buy a very expensive boat ticket and get on board. The trip often took 6 to 8 days at sea. Because most Jewish immigrants did not have money for special cabins and food on the boat, they had to stay below deck in huge crowded areas packed with bunk beds. Some immigrants could eat the meals served onboard, but most Jews could not, because the food was usually not kosher. These people had to survive the whole trip on dried bread, called suchares. Sometimes, if they were lucky, they would have a chance to buy oranges, chocolate, or a few other things on deck. Many people got sick on the trip and threw up. Since people could not keep very clean, the downstairs living quarters smelled bad. Sometimes, there were storms at sea, and the passengers could not get on deck for a breath of fresh air for days. The journey was often very unpleasant.

Once immigrants reached the United States, they had to be checked out by United States officials. If they were found to be unhealthy or “unfit” by the standards of the time, they were sent back to where they came from, even if some of their family members were allowed to stay. Some of the immigrants stayed on the East Coast, where they had landed. Others wanted to settle in different parts of the country. Some, particularly the earlier Germanic settlers, took a long river trip to get to destinations in the Midwest. Others in later generations faced a train ride that took days spent sitting up in unheated or air-conditioned compartments. At times, they had no or little food left for this part of the trip. Even when they reached their destination, such as a town in Minnesota, some immigrants would have to travel for hours or even days on foot or a wagon to reach their homestead. All in all, it was a long, hard journey.

What was life like for Jewish immigrants when they got to the Upper Midwest?

Settlers in the early 1800s sometimes became fur traders, catching animals for their fur, and trading the fur for other goods with Native Americans and Europeans who already lived in the area. Others, throughout the 1800s and early 1900s became farmers. Farming was an appealing profession, because a family could support itself on a farm and live there at the same time. Some states, such as North Dakota, had Homestead Acts, which allowed each adult man and unmarried woman to claim a large piece of land for free, as long as the person lived on the land and improved it in some way (by building a house, clearing rocks away, planting crops, etc.) over a period of several years. Especially for Jews, who had not been allowed to own land in many parts of Europe, this opportunity seemed like a miracle, though the work was extremely difficult. Instead of farming, some Jews started small stores, often the only stores in their small towns. Other Jews, though not many, became miners or shippers in the Iron Range towns, such as Duluth.

As more Jews moved to Minnesota, they developed Jewish communities with kosher butchers, tailor shops, furniture makers, Hebrew schools, grocery and other kinds of stores, where many found or made jobs for themselves. There were two Jewish districts in St. Paul. Mount Zion Hebrew Association founded in 1856, was the first synagogue there. The reformed synagogue, Temple Israel (then called Shaari Tof Hebrew Congregation), was founded in Minneapolis in 1878, and other synagogues also came into being during this time. Jewish settlers often contributed to small town life with the majority of the population, which
was not Jewish. While there was anti-Semitism in the small towns and St. Paul, much of it was mild compared to what immigrant Jews had lived through in their home countries. In Minneapolis, a city that had been settled before communities of Jews had established themselves there, the anti-Semitism was somewhat greater. Not so much by law as by exclusion practiced by business people and city leaders, some Jews were restricted in their job opportunities and unofficially kept from living in prestigious areas until the middle of the 1900s. While at some points in the mid-1900s, Minnesota was considered one of the most anti-Semitic states of the country, many Jews lived here without major problems, either within their own communities or as well integrated members of communities with many different religions. In the more than a century that Jews have lived in this part of the country, their ways of life have changed and developed. Some parts of Jewish culture today are strongly linked to the practices of the early
immigrants you have been reading about. Some are totally different. Minnesota Jews are not all alike, either: There are now, and have always been, different groups who have different beliefs and things that they do. And Jews are not isolated here. They mix every day with non-Jews. Because of this sharing of cultures, products, and friendship, Jews in Minnesota have  not only contributed to their culture, but also enhanced the development of Minnesota as a whole.

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