Kenesseth Israel (Assembly of Israel) is the oldest Orthodox Jewish congregation in Minnesota. Founded in 1891, it was the first congregation on Minneapolis' North Side.
Kenesseth Israel grew out of an older group. Lithuanian Jewish immigrants founded Ohel Jacob (Tent of Jacob) in 1888. That congregation quickly outgrew its rented quarters at 605 Second Street North. It bought a lot at 527-529 Fourth Street North in 1891 and promptly dissolved. The group reincorporated as Kenesseth Israel.
The immigrant members of Kenesseth Israel were mostly peddlers and small-business owners of modest means. Many were steeped in Jewish learning. The synagogue became a center of Talmud studies on the North Side.
For fifty years, Kenesseth Israel was the leading Orthodox synagogue in Minneapolis. It was also part of the larger community. Flour millers John S. and Charles A. Pillsbury contributed to the fund for a new building on the Fourth Street North lot. The mayor of Minneapolis, William H. Eustis, laid the cornerstone for the Moorish-style structure, which opened in 1894.
Kenesseth Israel was called the "mother of institutions" for its role in creating other congregations and Jewish organizations. The first was a Hebrew school for youth, founded in 1894. This school was the forerunner of the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis, a primary school for Torah study. It remained at the synagogue until 1910, when it moved to its own quarters at 818 Bassett Place.
Secular needs were not neglected. Kenesseth Israel set up social services for new immigrants, including an English-instruction night school, a medical clinic, and a shelter where people could stay free of charge for up to three days. Jewish homes for children and the aged have their roots in Kenesseth Israel's programs.
One measure of Kenesseth Israel's stature was that its first two rabbis, Issac Jaffa and S.M. Silber, were considered the Orthodox chief rabbis of Minneapolis. Synagogue records from their eras, spanning 1892 to 1925, show an ongoing discussion about how to maintain Orthodox rituals while adapting to American ways. The Minneapolis Journal reported in 1914 that a Kenesseth Israel young people's group, numbering about three hundred members, was staging a vaudeville show at the Minneapolis School of Music.
Meanwhile, the congregation was outgrowing the synagogue on Fourth Street, and the Jewish community in North Minneapolis was moving westward. Kenesseth Israel bought a lot at 518 Lyndale Avenue North in 1910. The synagogue it built there, which opened in 1913, was an impressive brick structure with symmetrical stair towers capped by twin domes.
In the same year, a group of younger members tried unsuccessfully to establish a Friday night worship service conducted in English. This gap between the needs of older, immigrant members and those of their children was one of the seeds of a new congregation on the North Side: Beth El, founded in 1920.
Kenesseth Israel's influence began to wane in the years between the world wars. In 1948, a contemporary observer wrote, "Though the beautiful synagogue structure on Lyndale remains, it is now only a symbol of glory that was once associated with traditional Orthodoxy." In that year, Kenesseth Israel moved into a former church building in the Homewood neighborhood, at 2309 Plymouth Avenue North. The "Lyndale shul" (synagogue), as it was nicknamed, was sold to an African-American Christian congregation.
The building on Plymouth was remodeled in 1961. Kenesseth Israel's days on the North Side, however, were numbered. In 1959, only 38 percent of the city's Jewish community lived in North Minneapolis, down from 60 percent just ten years earlier. Almost 30 percent lived in St. Louis Park. Kenesseth Israel followed this trend, in phases.
First, in 1965 Kenesseth Israel bought a lot at 4330 West Twenty-Eighth Street, between Joppa and Kipling Avenues. Those who had moved to St. Louis Park began a minyan (prayer quorum) in a member's home. A modern split-level synagogue that seated two hundred was completed in 1969.
Services continued to be held in both St. Louis Park and North Minneapolis until 1971, when Kenesseth Israel formally left the North Side. By that time, only 2 percent of Minneapolis Jews still lived in North Minneapolis. A remnant minyan met in private homes on the North Side until about 1982.
Despite fears that Orthodoxy could not survive the move to the suburbs, membership grew initially, from about 140 families in 1971 to about two hundred in 1974. In 2012, some 120 families made up the Kenesseth Israel congregation, still located on West Twenty-Eighth Street.
Berman, Hyman, and Linda Mack Schloff. Jews in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.
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."
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Description: Booklet published by Kenesseth Israel, April 3, 1938, and Kenneseth Israel scrapbook pages.
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, .
State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, 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.
Schwartz, Earl. "North Side Minyan." In North Side Memories: an oral history of Minnesota's largest Jewish neighborhood. Special issue, Upper Midwest Jewish History 2 (Fall 2000): 59–62.
Kenesseth Israel's grand synagogue on Lyndale Avenue opens in 1913. Community members come to refer to it as the "Lyndale shul."