Mount Zion was founded in 1856, the first Jewish congregation in the Upper Midwest. Learn more about the congregation’s history in these brief synopses. For a list of Mount Zion’s archives at the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives, click here and here.
Below on this page, you will find:
- 15 min video featuring Mount Zion’s founding history
- A Timeline of Synagogue Movement & Zip Code Changes
- A remarkable video from 1953 showing the laying of the cornerstone of our current building, our fourth synagogue building.
- Links to Minnesota History Museum’s MN150 Exhibit which had a display about Mount Zion
- The contents of four History Panels reflecting our contributions to Minnesota, our leadership, and milestone events.
New 15 min video features Mount Zion’s founding history
From the MN Historical Society Archives!
This evening marks the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. In this 1959 clip from KSTP-TV, W. Gunther Plaut, Senior Rabbi at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, MN, discusses the significance and use of the shofar or ram's horn. Shana tovah to all who celebrate! pic.twitter.com/AVMUzHrm63
— Minnesota Historical Society (@mnhs) September 25, 2022
A Timeline of Synagogue Movement & Zip Code Changes
Isaac Gamoran (Macalester ‘18) was a Mount Zion KULAM advocate for four years. As part of his senior project at Macalester College, Isaac took a close look at Mount Zion’s history and demographics. He created visuals that look at the ebbs & flows of St. Paul’s first Reform Jewish Congregation over time, from humble beginnings to vibrant growth. The website he created, explores Mount Zion’s evolution through interactive visualizations that depict the movement and growth of the community over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. These include: an animated timeline of synagogue movement, interactive charts for changes over time, and a map of zip codes moves over the past 50 years. Beyond information on the past, the study presents an insight on demographic trends today and potentially in the future.
Laying the Cornerstone of 1300 Summit Ave
The ceremony laying the Mount Zion cornerstone on August 16, 1953. Including scenes of the previous shul at Holly and Avon, Rabbi Plaut and many others. Video courtesy of the Abramson family home movies.
Mount Zion Featured in Minnesota History Museum’s MN150 Exhibit
In October, Mount Zion was a part of MN150, an exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Museum. With over 2700 nominations, Mount Zion was selected as one of 150 people or institutions that most shaped the state of Minnesota which celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2008. Following is an excerpt of an article entitled A Fine State by Molly Millett of the St. Paul Pioneer Press with quotes from Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker:
Minnesotans came up with 2,000 reasons for state pride. The History Center whittled it down to 150 that will be featured in a new exhibit and book.
MOUNT ZION HEBREW CONGREGATION OF ST. PAUL
“The first Jews who came to Minnesota in 1856, founding Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation, were part of the pioneering fabric of St. Paul,” wrote Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of St. Paul. “Theirs and future generations engaged in all areas of civic life. The women of Mount Zion, along with its rabbi at the turn of the 20th century, founded Neighborhood House to help settle large waves of Eastern European Jews coming to the state. Over a century later, Neighborhood House is still serving immigrant groups entering Minnesota, now from Mexico, Laos and Somalia, among many other lands.”
You can read more about the exhibit here.
Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation, St. Paul, Minnesota: Historic and Pioneering
The Mount Zion story was captured in the four panels for the 2003 Reform Biennial.
These panels complement the more detailed information we welcome you to read below. As well, here is a link to an NPR story done in 2002 on Mount Zion’s Torah Restoration project with Sofer Neil Yerman.
1856-99 The First Jewish Settlers
In 1856, when St. Paul only had a population of 1200, 8 Jewish pioneers (fur traders, liquor and clothing merchants) founded Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation. In 1856, Minnesota was still a territory, to become a state in 1858. Mount Zion was traditional in its beginning years. By 1862, they hired their first professional: a schohet/hazan. Soon the congregation shed some of traditional customs — men and women sat together; they adopted Isaac Mayer Wise’s prayer book for Americans, Minhag America. The first building was erected at 10th and Minnesota Streets in downtown Saint Paul. In 1871 they hired their first rabbi, Rabbi Leopold Wintner, a Hungarian immigrant who had a liberal spirit. Mount Zion joined the Reform Movement officially in 1878.
1899-1947 Classical Reform
“Classical Reform” took root among the well-established second generation. Large waves of new immigrants from Eastern Europe expanded the membership greatly. In 1900 members of Mount Zion founded Neighborhood House and three years later gave it to the community. They moved to their third structure at Holly and Avon. (The building no longer exists) The Neighborhood House became a central institution on the West Side of Saint Paul where it has welcomed successive waves of immigrants in their new building, the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Community Center.
1947-61 Creative Experimentation
In 1948 Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut became Senior Rabbi. He was a born leader with a creative mind. He brought a scholarly approach, a love of Israel, involvement in the community, and much attention to the Religious School. It was a period of creative experimentation. For example, he wrote many children’s service liturgies. He was a brilliant speaker and storyteller. He had his own radio show. He began to publish articles on passages in the Torah and to add his own insights to passages. He produced some of the material he used later for the Torah Commentary. It was during this period that the Board also consciously decided to locate its new structure on the famed Summit Avenue, the avenue of churches. They hired renowned Bauhaus architect, Erich Mendelsohn, to design the present spectacular temple building. The building was dedicated in 1954. In 2000-2001 the entire building was renovated.
1961-75 “We weren’t from here”
Increased national social mobility brought many non-native Saint Paulites to the congregation. Rabbi Frederick C. Schwartz worked very hard to engage the youth and he encouraged them to go to Jewish camps and travel to Israel. For example, Debbie Friedman (z”l), a nationally renowned song leader and composer was confirmed by him in 1967.
1975-93 Learning to open the door
From 1975-93, Rabbi Leigh Lerner helped the congregation to “open the door” by creating a welcoming community with interfaith couples and increased gender sensitivity. These years saw the beginnings of many innovative programs which have stood the test of time: Tot Shabbat, havurot, Black-Jewish dialogue, and mixed doubles programming (for mingled roots families).
In the last decades, we have worked hard to create a strengthened community and more spiritual and engaging programming. We were amongst the first congregations to hire a husband and wife rabbinic couple to share the Senior Rabbi position: Rabbi Elka B. Abrahamson and Martin (Misha) Zinkow. We participated for two years in the national program of Synagogue 2000, in which 16 congregations (8 Reform and 8 Conservative) collaborated to create models for synagogues as spiritual communities in the North American context. Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker became our first invested cantor in 1997. In 2003 over 500 members created a vision authentically rooted in our Judaism that continues to inspire our future. Now with Rabbis Adam Stock Spilker and Esther Adler and Cantors Jennifer Strauss-Klein and Rachel Stock Spilker along with strong lay-leaders and staff, we are well-positioned for offering authentic and innovative ways to strengthen connections among all who enter our doors.
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Other books that you might find interesting about Jews in Saint Paul (copies are available in the library) include:
The Jews in Minnesota: The First Seventy-five Years by Mount Zion Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut
Mount Zion: the First One Hundred Years, by Rabbi Gunther Plaut
Jewish Pioneers of St. Paul: 1849-1874 by Gene H. Rosenblum
The Lost Jewish Community of the West Side Flats 1882-1962 by Gene H. Rosenblum
Tales of Hoffman by Temple member William Hoffman
More general books on Jews in Minnesota include
Jews in Minnesota by Hyman Berman and Linda Mack Schloff
Prairie Dogs Aren’t Kosher by Linda Mack Schloff