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Beth El Synagogue, St. Louis Park

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Black and white photograph of Beth El Synagogue at Penn and Fourteenth Avenue North in Minneapolis, 1938.

Beth El Synagogue at Fourteenth Avenue and Penn Avenue North in Minneapolis, 1938.

Founded in 1922, Beth El was the last synagogue to be formed on the North Side of Minneapolis. It was the only one to affiliate with Judaism's Conservative movement. In the 1960s, Beth El, like other North Side synagogues (all of them Orthodox), moved to St. Louis Park.

The seeds of Beth El were planted as early as 1913. Young people at the leading North Side congregation, Kenesseth Israel, tried unsuccessfully to establish a modern worship service conducted in English. The generation gap between the immigrant, Orthodox parents and their children led to the formation of the Young People's Synagogue in 1920.

These high school- and college-aged youth were alumni of the Talmud Torah (study of Torah), a community-wide religious school for children and adolescents. They conducted their own Sabbath-eve services at the Talmud Torah building at Eighth Street and Fremont Avenue North. These services were shorter and more decorous than those at the Orthodox synagogues on the North Side. Soon, some parents joined the young people, and Beth El (House of God) was born.

Within a year, the energetic group numbered close to 150 families. It soon outgrew the Talmud Torah facility. Beth El purchased a lot at Fourteenth Avenue and Penn Avenue North in 1922. This was in the Homewood neighborhood, west of the main North Side Jewish community. Rabbi David Aronson of Duluth was hired in 1924 to lead the congregation. He would remain for the next thirty-five years.

Worship services and activities were held in a small house on the site until a new synagogue could be built. Beth El hired the Minneapolis firm of Liebenberg and Kaplan to design its new building. Liebenberg was the first Jewish architect in Minnesota.

The clean, modern lines of the neoclassical building reflected the congregation's forward-looking style of Judaism. It opened in 1926. Liebenberg and Kaplan also designed new Minneapolis synagogues around the same time for Temple Israel and Adath Jeshurun Congregation.

The Depression years were financially difficult for the young synagogue. Still, by 1948, Beth El membership had grown to about 450 families, making it the largest congregation on the North Side. Facilities expanded to accommodate many activities: religious education for all ages; clubs for men, women, and young married couples; and cultural events such as an annual interfaith Thanksgiving service and performances of Yiddish plays.

Throughout his tenure, Rabbi Aronson encouraged his congregants to adapt Jewish practices to modern American life without losing sight of important traditions. For example, Beth El hosted two popular Jewish Boy Scout troops in the 1920s and 1930s.

To counter the influence of an outside organization operating under his roof, Aronson created a synagogue-based youth group called United Synagogue Youth (USY). USY spread to other Conservative synagogues regionally, nationally, and, eventually, internationally. As of 2013, USY was still in existence. Aronson's influence was so pervasive on the North Side that he was known, not always affectionately, as "the Pope of Penn Avenue." He retired in 1959.

By the 1960s many of Beth El's approximately nine hundred families had moved from the North Side to St. Louis Park. The congregation purchased land on West Twenty-Sixth Street (later renamed Barry Street), facing Highway 100. Beth El built its Youth and Activities Building there in 1963.

By 1967, only 10 percent of Beth El members still lived on the North Side. It was time to consolidate all activities in a new synagogue on the St. Louis Park site. Beth El held its last Sabbath service on Penn Avenue in June 1968. The building was later sold to the city of Minneapolis for use as Pilot City Health Services. It was razed in 1995.

Architect Bertram Bassuk designed Beth El's new building, which was dedicated in 1970. The curved wooden roof over the sanctuary swoops skyward, evoking the Tent of Meeting, the portable sanctuary in which the ancient Israelites carried the Ark of the Covenant.

Beth El has never merged with another group or split apart into smaller groups—a rarity among Minneapolis-area synagogues. The thriving congregation numbered about 1,400 member families in 2008. A major expansion of its building, designed by Miller Dunwiddie Architecture, was completed in 2012.

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Berman, Morris. Oral history transcript, n.d.
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Beth El Synagogue.
http://www.bethelsynagogue.org/

Chiat, Marilyn. "Synagogues of Minnesota: Place and Space." Paper presented at Beth Shalom Congregation, Minnetonka, MN, May 24, 2005.
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Golden Anniversary: Kenesseth Israel Synagogue 1888–1938. Minneapolis: Kenneth Israel Synagogue, [1938].

Gordon, Albert I. Jews in Transition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1949.

Peterson, Garneth O. Jewish Settlement in Minneapolis, 1860s–1972: Historic Context for Minneapolis Preservation Plan. [Saint Paul, MN]: Landscape Research, [1997]. Copy in the State Historic Preservation Office of the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.

Plaut, W. Gunther. The Jews in Minnesota: The First Seventy-Five Years. American Jewish Communal Histories, no. 3. New York: American Jewish Historical Society, 1959.

"Sarah and Alexander Berman, a family chronicle, by their children."
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Description: Undated manuscript. The Berman family history was compiled by various Berman
family members and covers the period 1910–1946.

Silberman, Ed. E-mail to Linda Schloff, July 9, 2008.
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Description: Printed copy of an e-mail message sent from Silberman to Schloff.

"Speaking with Guita Gordon about the beginnings of Beth El."
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Description: Oral history transcript, June 7, 1982.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Beth El Synagogue at Penn and Fourteenth Avenue North in Minneapolis, 1938.
Black and white photograph of Beth El Synagogue at Penn and Fourteenth Avenue North in Minneapolis, 1938.
Black and white photograph of Rabbi David Aronson, 1936.
Black and white photograph of Rabbi David Aronson, 1936.
Black and white photograph of Minneapolis Talmud Torah at 725 Fremont Avenue North in Minneapolis, c.1950.
Black and white photograph of Minneapolis Talmud Torah at 725 Fremont Avenue North in Minneapolis, c.1950.

Turning Point

After fifty years as the only Conservative synagogue on Minneapolis's North Side, in 1968 Beth El follows the migration of the local Jewish community to St. Louis Park, where it was still located as of 2014.

Chronology

1920
A group of young people calling themselves the Young People's Synagogue begins to hold Friday-night services at the Minneapolis Talmud Torah.
1921
Beth El Synagogue emerges from the Young People's Synagogue. Beth El affiliates with Judaism's Conservative movement.
1922
A lot at 1349 Penn Avenue North is purchased. Worship services are held in a house on the site.
1924
Rabbi David Aronson becomes Beth El's spiritual leader. He remains there until 1959.
1926
A new synagogue building, designed by Liebenberg and Kaplan, is dedicated.
1948
Beth El founds United Synagogue Youth, which grows to become an international organization. With 450 families, Beth El is the largest synagogue on the North Side.
1960
Beth El membership reaches about nine hundred families. Many of them are moving to St. Louis Park.
1963
The congregation builds its Youth and Activities Building on land it has purchased at 5224 West Twenty-Sixth Street in St. Louis Park.
1968
Only 10 percent of Beth El members still live on the North Side. The last worship service is held at the Penn Avenue North site.
1970
A new synagogue on the St. Louis Park site is dedicated. Bertram L. Bassuk is its architect.
2012
With membership having reached about 1,400 families, an expansion to the building is completed.