Mount Zion is the oldest Jewish congregation in Minnesota. It was founded in 1856 when Minnesota was still a territory and not yet a state. In February, 1857, the territorial legislature approved and Governor Gorman signed a charter for Mount Zion Hebrew Association.
One of the first acts of the new congregation was to purchase a burial ground. Even before the charter was approved, members pooled together the then considerable sum of $150 to purchase a half acre lot on the southwest corner of what is now the intersection of Front and Sylvan. The site faced the entrance to Oakland Cemetery, the oldest and most prestigious non-denominational cemetery in the city.
The congregation also hired Kalman Lion to serve as both cantor and ritual butcher. Lion was from Koblenz, Germany by way of Cleveland, Ohio.
With a charter, a cemetery and clergy, it looked like smooth sailing for the new congregation, but such was not to be. First, for reasons lost in time, a split developed and more than 2/3 of the members quit to form a new congregation, Ahabath Achim (‘Love of Brothers’). They took Cantor Kalman with them. The financial panic of 1857 caused economic ruin throughout the region. Several of the leaders of both congregations lost their businesses and were forced to relocate elsewhere. Mount Zion was left with little but the title to the cemetery.
In August, 1859, death played a part and struck the child of Ahabath Achim’s Treasurer, Joseph Ullman. He rejoined Mount Zion for the burial. Others followed and soon Ahabath Achim was desolved. It thus turned out the cemetery was Mount Zion’s greatest asset.
Early administrative issues of the Mount Zion Temple cemetery concerned the mundane matters. The congregants took action ”to prevent the fence (made of wood) to take fire from the prairies” and replaced the wooden fence with a sturdy metal enclosure.
As Mount Zion grew, it also changed. In 1871, it hired its first Rabbi. In 1878, it joined the Reform movement. Services were being conducted both in English and German. As Mount Zion grew, so did St Paul. By 1889, the congregation had outgrown its half-acre cemetery and there was no adjacent land available. Five acres of land were purchased for a new burial site along the west side of Payne at Larpenteur. More than a hundred burials from the Front and Sylvan site were exhumed, transferred to the new location and the land was sold off for housing.
By the late 19th century, money was a problem for the Mount Zion Temple cemetery fund, and these deficits were made up by the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society, a precursor to the Mount Zion Sisterhood. They raised dollars with annual strawberry festivals!
Tombstones of the 19th century became more elaborate as the 20th century approached. The grave of a 20-year-old held a monument on which were carved the words:
He gave to misery all he had
A tear he gained from Heaven
‘Twas all he sought–rest.
Some of the Mount Zion Temple cemetery monuments and markings are remarkable for style and message. Tombstones of another era often included symbols; an anchor for hope, an oak leaf for strength, a resting lamb for purity and innocence on a child’s grave, columns for strength or an obelisk for power.
On the stone of a noted tax attorney appeared the phrase “Mortality is the tax”…whereas on the foot stone/marker of a well-known hostess and party-giver: “Let’s make it fun.”
Unique, notable, and historic individuals rest in the Mount Zion Temple cemetery:
- Entire families and their kin often rest together in contiguous grave sites.
- Four Union veterans of the Civil War, Michael Harris, Bernhard Neumann, Benjamin H Plechner, and Joseph H Smith, as well as the grand-daughter of a Confederate gun runner, Ruth Wolff.
- Members of the Cardozo and Seixas families that were among the earliest Sephardic families to come to the Americas.
- Kalman Lion – Hazan, Shochet, Mohel
- Yetta Frank – the first recorded death at Mount Zion on June 29, 1859 at age 49
- Marcus Tessler – trained not only as a rabbi but also a physician. He served as the Mount Zion Temple president when the third temple was built at Holly and Avon.
In 1921, state law was changed, and management of the cemetery was vested in a Board of Cemetery Trustees. By virtue of this reorganization, the cemetery, though owned by the congregation, has all of the exemptions, immunities and powers accorded to incorporated private cemetery associations.
From time to time the congregation had acquired additional land for the cemetery. By 1970 it covered fifteen acres between California and Kingston. Larpenteur ended at the cemetery front gate. When Ramsey County wanted to extend Larpenteur through to Arcade, the county offered to add six acres of land to the north of the cemetery in return for the right of way. This was agreeable, and all of the burials south of Larpenteur were exhumed, transferred to new locations to the north and the land was sold off for housing.
In 2012, the Barbara and Larry Bentson Commemorative Garden was dedicated as a place of reflective contemplation on the cemetery grounds. N. Lawrence Bentson, a broadcaster and founder of Midcontinent Media, and Barbara Baer Braman Bentson, Founder of Fernanda Designs, were long time members of Mount Zion. The garden commemorates their marriage as well as the memory the first spouse of each, Nancy Ruben Bentson and Edwin Charles Braman.