Rosenblum: Iron Range rallies to save Jewish center

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2013 - 7:54 PM

2008: An open house at the B'nai Abraham Synagogue in Virginia, Minn., the last standing synagogue on the Minnesota Iron Range.

Photo: Mark Sauer, Associated Press

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Much has been written about the once-in-a-lifetime convergence Thursday of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, affectionately called Thanksgivukkah. The two family-centric holidays won’t merge again for 70,000 years, give or take a few.

But for Minnesota Jews and others who treasure our state’s historical gems, here’s another miracle to celebrate. It’s called the B’nai Abraham Museum & Cultural Center, in Virginia, Minn.

A thriving synagogue for more than 70 years, (on the Iron Range!), B’nai Abraham was all but abandoned in the 1990s, as young Jews bolted for college, jobs or mates, and their aging parents moved to warmer climates.

Today, its painstaking restoration as a community educational center is nearing completion.

“To be honest, I did not think I would live to see this happen,” said Marilyn Chiat, 81, who taught art history at the University of Minnesota. She has championed this project for 20 years.

“I look upon it as one of my most satisfying achievements as an architectural historian who has worked to preserve our state’s diverse cultural and religious heritage.”

It’s not lost on Chiat that the word Hanukkah means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish victory over the Syrian-Greeks more than 2,000 years ago. Fortunately, the biggest battle of this modern tale centered on keeping the sturdy red-brick building and its 13 stunning stained glass windows from being sold or razed.

Chiat is tickled that a local newspaper once called B’nai Abraham “the most beautiful church on the Iron Range.”

The eight days of Hanukkah come from the “miracle” of a tiny drop of oil burning for eight days in the Temple’s post-victory menorah. While B’nai Abraham no longer holds services, its preserved sanctuary features a floor-standing menorah.

B’nai Abraham also is a fitting Thanksgiving story, one that celebrates our state’s diversity of customs and cultures. “[Vice President] Hubert Humphrey once told a story about our nation’s mosaic,” Chiat said. “If we had lost that little synagogue, our mosaic wouldn’t be as vibrant as it is.”

Fleeing the pogroms in the 1890s, Eastern European Jews arrived on the Iron Range in a steady stream. B’nai Abraham was dedicated in 1909. Synagogues also went up in Chisholm, Eveleth and Hibbing. By 1920, the Iron Range Jewish population had exceeded 1,000 people.

To keep kosher, a costly tradition made more difficult by the dearth of kosher grocery stores, many Jews fished, catching and freezing walleye from Lake Vermilion.

In its heyday, B’nai Abraham was a gathering place for services and Jewish holidays, bar mitzvahs, anniversary parties, bake sales and clandestine poker games on Sunday mornings.

With the exception of local women supporting bake sales, non-Jews rarely stepped inside B’nai Abraham, but they were kindly neighbors, said Margie Ostrov, president of the board of the Friends of B’nai Abraham ( The not-for-profit organization was founded in 2005 to restore the building.

“There was very little anti-Semitism,” Ostrov said. The same could not be said of Minneapolis, which kept Jews from buying homes or joining certain country clubs into the 1950s.

Ostrov’s husband, Charlie, grew up in Virginia. His parents owned one of the town’s grocery stores, and the family lived two blocks from the synagogue. He remembers playing touch football on the lawn on Yom Kippur, and one cantor who doubled as the janitor.

“Sometimes he’d be cleaning the toilets when we were studying Hebrew,” he said.

As the mines began closing in the 1960s, many residents, Jewish and otherwise, moved away. In the early 1980s, Chiat took her graduate students up to Virginia to learn more about this piece of history. By then, the 125-seat congregation listed just 10 elderly members.

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