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Temple of Aaron, St. Paul

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Black-and-white photograph of the interior of the Temple of Aaron during a worship service c.1960.

Black-and-white photograph of the interior of the Temple of Aaron during a worship service c.1960.

By 1910, some of St. Paul's Eastern European Jews had moved from their original immigrant neighborhoods in Lowertown and the West Side to the Cathedral Hill district. A group of Orthodox men met that year to discuss creating a new congregation there. It would conserve traditional Jewish practices, but modernize them to appeal to the next generation.

Congregation Aaron, soon known as Temple of Aaron, was incorporated on December 28, 1911. It was named in memory of Aaron Mark, a founding member of Sons of Jacob, who had died in 1905. Lithuanian-born Mark came to St. Paul in 1873 and rose from peddling to owning the Aaron Mark Steel Co. Mark's widow, Bessie, made a significant financial contribution to establish the new synagogue.

The first High Holy Days services were held in 1913 at Ramaley Hall. Temple of Aaron purchased land at Ashland Avenue and North Grotto Street, two blocks from the Reform temple Mount Zion. By 1914, the forty-six members were able to worship in a completed basement on the site. The new building was finished in 1916. Minneapolis rabbis David Matt of Adath Jeshurun (Conservative) and Samuel Deinard of Shaarai Tov (later Temple Israel, Reform) spoke at the dedication. Mount Zion's rabbi did not attend, because the social and religious split in St. Paul between the German Jews and Eastern European Jews was still wide.

Temple of Aaron tried to position itself in the middle. Temple of Aaron's first two rabbis were ordained at the New York City seminary of the new Conservative movement. Each was thoroughly learned in Jewish scholarship, which gave them standing with Orthodox believers. They were also products of American culture, a bridge to the Reform Jews. Temple of Aaron founded a Hebrew School in 1916, a forerunner to the Talmud Torah of St. Paul. Orthodox families sent their children here.

By the 1920s, Temple of Aaron was embroiled in inner strife. A faction wanted to revert to the Orthodoxy from which its founders sprang. The majority wished to firmly claim a Conservative identity. They felt this was the only way to interest younger people, and thus survive. Temple of Aaron chose the clear-cut connection with the Conservative movement. A new rabbi, Herman Cohen, arrived in August 1928 to bring the congregation together.

Cohen believed the synagogue needed to be more than a place for religious services. It should also be a cultural and social center. This was the model that many American synagogues adopted in the post-World War II era, "a shul (synagogue) with a pool." With more English used in the services and a Mr. and Mrs. Club to attract the returning GIs and their wives, Temple of Aaron membership grew to about six hundred families.

The aging building soon became too small, making it difficult to attract new members. The congregation decided to hire a second rabbi and expand its facilities. Bernard S. Raskas was hired as the new assistant rabbi in 1951. Within six months, the building at Ashland and Grotto was ruined by fire. Raskas and his wife, Laeh, guided the design and construction of a new, modern facility. It was located on Mississippi River Boulevard in Highland Park, a neighborhood where many members now lived. The Percival Goodman-designed building was dedicated in 1956. A defining feature of the building's interior is use of modern abstract artwork.

Raskas became senior rabbi in 1953 upon Cohen's retirement. Raskas remained in this position until 1989. He was then named rabbi emeritus. Raskas was devoted to enhancing God's commandments through the arts. Temple of Aaron was known for hosting leading intellectual, religious, and artistic figures. Raskas was also a community leader and champion of liberal causes.

In 2006, the portion of Hartford Avenue that runs by the synagogue was named Raskas Road. Temple of Aaron celebrated its centennial in 2010. At this milestone, it had maintained a membership level of over a thousand families for over three decades. Raskas, age eighty-six, died the same year.

Raskas's influence cannot be understated, a congregational history says. "He left his imprint on the congregation by developing its collective personality as socially progressive and religiously creative." Temple of Aaron continues in this tradition in the twenty-first century.

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Temple of Aaron. History and Mission.
http://templeofaaron.org/about/history-mission/

Berman, Hyman, and Linda Mack Schloff. Jews in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

Bjorhus, Jennifer. "Bernard Raskas, prominent St. Paul rabbi." Star Tribune, June 13, 2010.

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

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.

Specktor, Mordecai. "Rabbi Bernard Raskas touched many lives." American Jewish World, June 23, 2010.

Temple of Aaron Synagogue (St. Paul, Minnesota) collection
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Description: The papers contain "Rabbi Bernard S. Raskas Reflections: A Tribute, May 21, 1989;" a eulogy for Bernard Solomon Raskas by Rabbi Barry Cytron; and other documents.

Related Images

Black-and-white photograph of the interior of the Temple of Aaron during a worship service c.1960.
Black-and-white photograph of the interior of the Temple of Aaron during a worship service c.1960.
Black-and-white matted photograph of the exterior of Temple of Aaron in 1916.
Black-and-white matted photograph of the exterior of Temple of Aaron in 1916.
Black-and-white photograph of the Temple of Aaron's religious school in 1918.
Black-and-white photograph of the Temple of Aaron's religious school in 1918.
Rabbi Herman Cohen and Cantor Maurice Goldberg at a Temple of Aaron memorial service in observance of Tishar B'ab.
Rabbi Herman Cohen and Cantor Maurice Goldberg at a Temple of Aaron memorial service in observance of Tishar B'ab.
Black and white photograph of firefighters fighting the blaze at St. Paul's Temple of Aaron in 1952.
Black and white photograph of firefighters fighting the blaze at St. Paul's Temple of Aaron in 1952.
Rabbis Herman M. Cohen and Bernard S. Raskas prepare burned sacred articles for burial at the Temple of Aaron fire site, Ashland and Grotto, St. Paul.
Rabbis Herman M. Cohen and Bernard S. Raskas prepare burned sacred articles for burial at the Temple of Aaron fire site, Ashland and Grotto, St. Paul.
Temple of Aaron, 616 South Mississippi River Boulevard, St. Paul
Temple of Aaron, 616 South Mississippi River Boulevard, St. Paul
Black-and-white photograph of Temple of Aaron's 1968 confirmation class.
Black-and-white photograph of Temple of Aaron's 1968 confirmation class.
Black-and-white photograph of Rabbi Bernard Raskas.
Black-and-white photograph of Rabbi Bernard Raskas.

Turning Point

Founded in 1910, Temple of Aaron decisively chooses the middle ground of Conservative Judaism in the 1920s, a decision that has led to it celebrating its centennial as a thriving, socially conscious, and religiously creative congregation.

Chronology

1910
A handful of Eastern European Orthodox Jews living in Hill District first meet to discuss forming a new temple that would preserve the basic traditions of their faith while adapting it to twentieth century America.
1912
A synagogue is incorporated. It is named Congregation Aaron in memory of St. Paul businessman Aaron Mark, whose "name was synonymous with devotion to Judaism."
1914
Land is purchased at Ashland Avenue and North Grotto Street for construction of a new building. When the basement is completed, services are held for a congregation of forty-six members.
1916
The new building's superstructure is completed and dedicated. A Hebrew School-a forerunner of Talmud Torah St. Paul-is established.
1923
"Final work" on the building begins, seven years after the first cornerstone was laid. The congregation numbers about 250 members.
1952
Fire destroys the building at Ashland and Grotto.
1953
Rabbi Bernard Raskas becomes the congregation's spiritual leader after serving two years as assistant rabbi.
1956
A new modernist building is dedicated at 616 Mississippi Boulevard South. It is designed by architect Percival Goodman.
1972
An addition more than doubles the building's square footage. The congregation numbers over 1,200 families.
1989
Soviet Jews arrive in Minnesota throughout the late 1980s. Many join the Temple of Aaron. Rabbi Raskas retires and is named Rabbi Emeritus.
1995
A major building renovation is completed.
2010
Temple of Aaron celebrates its centennial.