Julie Beckman will be retiring later this month, after 36 years (double chai) at Mount Zion. During those years, she has had an inside view of our congregation for over one-fifth of the 167 years we have been in existence. Before finding her way to Mount Zion, she began her career as a master barber and has kept her barber license active to this day, perhaps on the thought that her job here might not work out.
Just to kick things off, tell me a bit about your growing up years, starting with where were you born and raised?
I grew up in Waltham, Minnesota. It was rural. There were 200 people. Still are. We actually lived on a farm outside of town. I went to school in Blooming Prairie. Austin is the closest town that you would probably recognize. We lived on a farm 10 or 12 miles north of Austin.
Did your family work at Hormel in Austin?
Well that was one of the things that actually broke my family apart. During the strike in 1985, one of my brother-in-laws worked for Hormel, and another brother-in-law worked for Weyerhauser, which were both large industries in Austin. You were either for the union or you were not. So family holidays were not the same for many years. Some of those feelings still exist in the community there today.
So you had at least two brothers-in-law. What about the rest of your siblings?
There are six of us, and we were all J’s – Jille, Judy, Jerry, Jack, Joyce, and Julie. I’m the baby.
Did you work on the farm?
We had some dairy cows, grew crops, and raised chickens. My dad died when I was seven, and my brothers were about 12 and 14 at the time. We could not work the farm, so we sold the acreage and kept just five or six acres of the homeland itself. After dad died, mom went to work in Austin.
What was your schooling like as a kid?
I went to school in nearby Blooming Prairie. There were 103 kids in my graduating class. I was on the honor roll for two years, lettered in music, and participated in a group called the Pop Singers. Our music teacher, Mr. Nelson, had us singing in nursing homes and at assemblies. I also sang the solo at homecoming during senior year.
Do you remember what the song was?
It was Dream Weaver. It was very popular at that time, in 1976.
I won’t ask you to do it, but could you still sing it?
Maybe. I don’t know if I’d remember all the words anymore. I was a soprano, so I had a much higher voice back then.
What happened after high school?
From high school, I got a job right away. I worked for seven years at the Owatonna Tool Company beginning in the late 1970s, before I moved to the Twin Cities in September of ‘83.
What prompted the move here?
I moved up here with a girlfriend. We were following men. Bands would come to play at the Owatonna Holiday Inn. I would go there because I loved music and to dance. I met him there, but that didn’t work out for me or my friend.
What did you do when you first moved here in 1983?
I got a job at Yoplait USA, a subsidiary of General Mills. During the first year, they thought I had potential so I took some personality tests to see what skills and strengths I might have. They wanted to get the best out of me for their organization. It turned out that the results showed I had artistic skills, and one suggestion was becoming a stylist or a barber. So I left there and went to school for nine months to become a master barber.
So the test to tell them how you might grow in their company, ended up having you leave to go to barber school?
Yes. Not what they expected. I went back to school. Brooks Barber School on University Avenue in St. Paul.
Editor’s note: Brooks Barber School was founded by Arthur Brooks, who passed away at the age of 80 in 1961. Services were held at Hodroff & Sons.
While attending barber school, I realized that I would need money to live. I was accepted back at Yoplait part time for several months. I also worked as a waitress for a day, but I hated it and quit the same day. I worked at several different barber shops before I started at Mount Zion. I continued working part time as a barber even after I started at Mount Zion.
Okay, now we’re gonna kick it into overdrive. How did the connection with Mount Zion come about?
I had a football injury.
That makes sense.
My husband and I were playing touch football. I was on the defensive line where I needed to rush the quarterback. We played for a while, and I think I was frustrating their quarterback. All of a sudden one guy came up and hit me from the front, and when I started to fall backward, there was a guy behind me. I went up into the air and ended up on my elbow which was fractured.
Well that brings up your husband Tony, how did you both meet?
In the barber school. He was born in Oklahoma, moved to Kansas city and lived in the projects until his family moved to St. Paul for a better life. He served in Vietnam, where his job was to intercept and interpret messages.
Did he talk about Vietnam much?
Very little. It was like a door that he kept closed. He told some stories about when he first arrived. He was supposed to stay on the base, but instead borrowed a driver’s license. He memorized the spelling of the man’s name and his military ID number. He gets stopped and the MP looks at the license and smiles and says, and who are you, sir? Tony spells the guy’s name, which was long, and recites the soldier’s ID number. The MP smiled at him and said yeah, no. The MP let him go. This was before there were photo ID’s on a driver’s license.
OK, so you were injured in a football game, so how did that get you connected with Mount Zion?
I had a friend that worked here. Her name was Sally Wilker. She worked with Jesse Rosten. Her husband worked for Republic Airlines, but the company merged with Continental Airlines which was based in the Twin Cities, but eventually the family had to move to Houston.
She knew she was leaving, and she knew I’d had this injury and couldn’t work. She asked me if I wanted to interview for her job, so I had an interview with Jesse and got the job. I started May 26, 1987 working with Debbie Ward in the office and Joanne Zucker was clergy assistant for Rabbi Lerner at the time. I had a week of training.
What were your first impressions of Mount Zion at the time? Did you have any experience with a synagogue or anything Jewish?
No, none at all.
Was it imposing? Did you find it difficult?
Yes it was. I didn’t know anything about Judaism. It took me a while to learn the holidays and what they were and the duties of the admin assistant job.
So you started working for Jesse Rosten, the Executive Director.
Yes, my friend Sally had worked for Jesse. She said if you can work for him, you can work for anybody. It turned out that Jesse was really good at schmoozing, at keeping that vibe, you know, that welcomeness. He wasn’t as good at admin or organizing things, but the other thing he was really good at was telling you, this is what I need. Then just letting you go and figure out how to get it done, and not caring about what the process was.
And in those early days I also worked with the various cantorial soloists, like Lloyd Robinson, Maggie Burton, Holly Callen, Deb Winston before she became a Cantor, to help prepare cue sheets so clergy would know which version of a piece they were doing.
And does that sort of thing ramp up in magnitude for the high Holy Days? Do you create the script for that as well in a similar way?
Since we have had a full time Cantor since 1997, I was no longer needed in this role.The Rabbis and Cantors work together. Cantor Strauss-Klein prepares cue sheets for all the musicians and participants. I organize people who asked to participate during the High Holy Days. They are invited, and once they accept, they are sent study materials and rehearsal dates.
So let’s go back a bit to your first years with Rabbi Lerner, and I assume Rabbi Offner was here at the time. Did you work with her?
No. I really didn’t. I just remember her very blue eyes. She would come over to my desk and ask me for something, I don’t remember what she ever asked me to do. I just remember her being there and those beautiful blue eyes.
I was working mostly for Jesse so I didn’t interact with Rabbi Lerner very much. Though one of the things I did was to organize the daily service materials. I learned the names of the portions for each week. We created the binders. One for Mondays and Thursdays were Torah Readings and Tuesdays and Wednesdays were a regular reading.
Let’s skip ahead to Rabbi Schoolman, who came after Rabbi Lerner. What do you remember about him?
He used to come and get haircuts from me at the barbershop when I was working part-time. It was a little mom and pop barbershop in the neighborhood. Rabbi Rosenstein also came in for a haircut. I started here in 1987 and continued to work part-time as a barber until 1993.
I haven’t thought about Rabbi Rosenstein for a long time. What was she like?
I remember her being very ethical. Through any struggles she would never say a bad thing. We would just look at each other and be like, okay. And move on. She was really kind.
Rabbi Schoolman was probably the opposite of Jesse in terms of being a people person. He was really a fabulous administrator, knowing how to get things done. He was not charismatic. Rabbi Schoolman left in 1993 and Rabbis A and Z started in August of that same year. At the time Rabbis Lerner and Offner were leaving, Joanne also left, so Jesse offered me the position of Rabbis’ Secretary, which is where I’ve been ever since.
Tell me about Rabbis And Z.
She was a strong and fair person. They worked very well together. I just remember making a mistake once. So I went into her office and I said, well, I’m sorry, but this is what happened. She just said, okay – how are we gonna fix it? I looked at her and gave her my thoughts about doing so. She said, that’s great. Do it. It wasn’t about judgment at all. A mistake is only a mistake. Now let’s move on to fix it. I felt very appreciated by them.
Rabbis A and Z came at a time when healing was needed in the congregation. They were like a breath of fresh air.
How long were they here?
They were here for seven years, until 2000. They made great changes. I think Rabbi Abrahamson helped to start or support the growth of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association. They started MaZAL: Mount Zion Adult Learning. There were adult Hebrew classes, Torah and Haftarah. More programming bringing speakers, and trips to Israel. They really gave new life to the congregation.They left because Rabbi Abrahamson got a position in Ohio at the Wexner Institute.
Let’s skip to the temple Presidents that you’ve worked with. Over 36 years there have been a lot of them, so let’s try a lightning round. Just a couple words that come to mind.
We’ll start with Stan Kane.
Kind and capable.
Good. Mary Ann Barrows Wark.
Oh, a lover of Mount Zion, for sure. True and true.
I didn’t work with him much, but he had a charismatic personality, and was a lover of Rashi. I remember the Rashi Study Group started meeting in his office building.
A kind person.
Bill Lipshultz and Peter Wolf.
They were characters. Peter was so fun to work with and Bill was really a mensch. They worked together well.
OK, Pam Margolis and Ellen Sampson.
They were worker bees. They were presidents when Rabbis A and Z left. Suddenly the congregation was in the search process and Pam and Ellen took it on.
He was an intellectual. A very kind person.
Sue Lund and Steve Silverman
Sue Lund is a character and doer. Steve was a jokester. They got along well. I think those were the years that they did that second campaign, and they were part of remodeling the sanctuary. I remember Sue started Parents and Tots because she had young children. Sue was innovative and thoughtful about Mount Zion as part of her extended family.
Oh here’s a tough one. Phil Goldman. Be kind.
I always thought that you were there for us. Like you were, physically and emotionally kind and had our backs. It was a really good presidency.
Let’s stop at that point.
Oh, Joe. He was really good. He was really honest and thorough. He was diplomatic when we needed it.
Jean King Applebaum
Jean was a scholar. She was really good at making sure whatever went out, looked good and the semantics and phrasing were just right. That was only one of her gifts to Mount Zion.
Let’s do Bob Mast … tall?
Tall! And a commanding voice!
She was great, she was thorough and honest and kind.
He has a great smile. Although I didn’t see much of it because he lives across town.
She was really thorough. I felt like she held us accountable in a way, which was helpful.
Oh, he was wonderful. Really kind hearted and willing to help with programming, to make Mount Zion a better place.
Michael Wall – very Mast-like? I can take the heat for this one.
Yes, Mast-like. Tall and a commanding voice!
Let’s wrap up with your initial thoughts about our current President Amy Schwartz Moore.
Amy, wow! She has really stepped in. It’s a tough time with all the new admin positions and looking for an Executive Director. She is present and available. She’s pretty amazing.
Let’s turn to the clergy, starting with Cantors
Cantor Spilker was hired in 1997, and she came with many program ideas. She started Our Bodies Our Souls, the Jewish women’s retreat. She worked with Jerry Brakke who was the organist for a long time, and the quartet. She started the youth choir, Shir Tzion, and the adult choir, Torah Tones. She did so many things to engage people through music. Her voice warmed the synagogue.
Cantor Strauss Klein was pregnant with Ari when she was hired here. She is a go with the flow kind of person, she just trusts her abilities, and also organizes lots of musicians, chanters, and details. She is such a sweet person, and her voice is amazing.
Rabbi Adler is fabulous. As a team player, she is ready with an idea, diligent, and a hard worker. So kind and thoughtful.
Rabbi Spilker is really something. He really is something. I am amazed by his capacity to do and remember. He is scholarly, and thoughtful. Rabbi Spilker truly lives Mount Zion’s vision to make Mount Zion a welcome and vibrant home.
What are your plans for retirement?
To slow down and enjoy life, friends, and family.
Are you still doing hospice?
I’m not. When I came to Mount Zion, I was working part time as a barber, working full time at Mount Zion, while I was also a hospice volunteer. A very full plate. I wanted to give more of myself to Mount Zion, and I needed to step back on other responsibilities.
What are your plans for retirement – maybe helping with hospice again?
Hospice is one option. I would like to honor the veterans for their service, so maybe looking into an organization supporting veterans. Part time barbering, if I feel the need to work. I am looking forward to the challenge of this transition.
What do you think the future holds for Mount Zion?
Continued great programming, events, classes, and services to engage those affiliated and unaffiliated. Mount Zion has a lot to offer.
Last question, I promise. Are you hoping to keep in touch in some way down the road?
Yes. There are so many people that have been a part of my life for a very long time. One in particular is Rita Grossman. She came to my desk not too many years ago and she handed me a little box and said, “I just want you to know how much I’ve appreciated you” …. I’m not going to be able to say this without crying … in the small box was a gold necklace. It was a gold circle with the letter J on it for my first name. How nice. Then she said, “Oh, but you have to look at the other side” … and I flipped it over, and it said …hmm… it said “One in a Million”. And all I could say was, “Because one in a million gave it to me.” And she started laughing. It’s the people that have made my life richer for having worked at Mount Zion.
Well I can’t think of a better way to close than with that. Thank you for agreeing to do this, and for all that you’ve done, and for sharing this with our congregation. Let’s both dry our eyes and find a good spot to take a photo.