In 1856, eight German-Jewish families in St. Paul founded the first Jewish congregation in Minnesota. It was called Mount Zion Hebrew Association. In 2012, Mount Zion Temple had 1,000 members. The synagogue building on Summit Avenue in St. Paul was designed by internationally recognized architect Erich Mendelsohn.
Jews came to Minnesota with the first wave of Euro-American settlement in the late 1840s. Most pioneer Minnesota Jews, including the founders of Mount Zion, were born in Germany. They had lived in other parts of the United States before moving to St. Paul.
Mount Zion first purchased land for a cemetery. It was located at Erastus (now Front) and Sylvan (now Jackson) Streets. In 1889 bodies were moved to the current cemetery, at Payne and Larpenteur Avenues. The new congregation hired Kalman Lion of Cleveland to conduct worship services and carry out traditional Jewish rituals, such as circumcision and kosher butchery.
The group met in rented rooms through the 1860s. Sermons alternated between German and English. By the 1870s the congregation began to modify or abandon Old World religious rituals in favor of an "American-style" Judaism focused on ethics and social justice.
Mount Zion's first permanent home was a modest wooden Gothic Revival building, completed in 1871. It was located at East Tenth Street and Minnesota Street. This was the heart of St. Paul's Lowertown retail district, where many members ran stores. Ten years later, a larger, brick Moorish-style synagogue was built on the site. Leading non-Jewish citizens such as C.C. Washburn, Alexander Ramsey, and Henry Sibley were among contributors to the fundraising effort.
In 1878 Mount Zion officially joined the liberal Reform Judaism movement. Some traditional religious practices did continue at Mount Zion through the late 1890s. In the twentieth century Mount Zion resumed religious practices that had been eliminated, such as bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies and daily worship services.
In early 1882, 200 penniless refugees from Tsarist Russia arrived unannounced in St. Paul. St. Paul civic leaders turned to Mount Zion for help. Mount Zion's Ladies Hebrew Brotherhood Benevolent Society immediately came to the aid of their fellow Jews.
These refugees were the beginning of a large wave of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to St. Paul and beyond. The Mount Zion women founded relief groups to make sure the poor Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking immigrants would not be a burden to the larger community. Two of those groups still exist. United Jewish Charities (now Jewish Family Service of St. Paul) was founded in 1890. St. Paul's first settlement house, Neighborhood House, opened its doors in 1900. It was located on the West Side flats, where many of the immigrants settled.
By 1901 Mount Zion members had moved from Lowertown. A new temple location was selected at Holly and Avon, just off Summit. Architect Clarence H. Johnston designed the new building in the then-popular Beaux Arts style. It was completed in 1904. The building was expanded twice. By the end of World War II, however, it was too small for the growing congregation.
Mount Zion bought land on prestigious Summit Avenue for a new synagogue, school, and parking lot. The parking lot was important. Most members now needed to drive from their new homes in the Highland Park neighborhood and the suburb of Mendota Heights.
German-born Erich Mendelsohn was selected as architect in 1951. His original design had to be scaled back for financial reasons. Construction began in fall 1952. Mendelsohn died suddenly in early 1953. The new building was dedicated in December 1954. Over 5,000 visitors toured the architectural landmark in its first year. The building's 1996 renovation and expansion won a city historic preservation award in 2004.
The social movements of the 1970s and beyond were felt at Mount Zion. In 1977 senior rabbi Leigh Lerner conducted the first interfaith wedding in the Twin Cities, to the dismay of his fellow rabbis. In 1984, Stacy Offner was hired as assistant rabbi. She was the first woman rabbi in the Twin Cities. When her homosexuality became public a few years later, the congregation was divided. Some left to form a new congregation, Shir Tikvah, which then hired Offner as its rabbi.
Mount Zion celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2006.
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 Bet Shalom congregation, Minnetonka, May 24, 2005.
Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
Rubenstein, Sally. "Historical Tidbits." In L'Chaim! Mount Zion Temple 150th Anniversary Commemorative Book, edited by Mary Ann Barrows Wark et. al., 15–37. St. Paul: Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation, 2009.
Plaut, W. Gunther. Mount Zion, 1856–1956: The First Hundred Years. St. Paul: North Central Publishing Company, 1956.
In 1856, a small group of German Jews establishes the first synagogue in Minnesota, known today as Mount Zion. Today it is located on Summit Avenue in a modernist landmark designed by architect Eric Mendelsohn.