Temple Beth Israel
By GENE KEMMETER
of The Gazette
Stevens Point’s Jewish synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, at 1475 Water St. has been entered in the National Register of Historic Places by the Secretary of the Interior and listed in the State Register of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office.
The designation means the property will receive protection from encroachment by federal or state assisted or licensed projects or state facilities development projects.
“This is great,” said Tim Siebert, president of the Portage County Historical Society, which received notification Tuesday, March 13, that the site is now considered a national historic site.
The synagogue serves as a Portage County Historical Society Museum.
The site is the second to be entered in the National Register of Historic Places by the Secretary of the Interior. The other is the old Plover United Methodist Church located in Heritage Park in Plover.
“The Jewish community that built that place and maintained it was important to the community and this recognizes the contribution to the community,” Siebert said. “It is a unique building in terms of religious life in the community.”
He said the Historical Society plans to put a marker on the building but members haven’t thought about a ceremony because the letter just arrived Tuesday.
When the Beth Israel Congregation no longer could assemble the minyan (the certain number of Jewish males or females) required to conduct religious services in 1986, the trustees disbanded the congregation and deeded the building to the Historical Society as a museum to memorialize Stevens Point’s Jews.
Siebert credited Mark Seiler of Stevens Point for his work and research to earn the registry listing. “Mark Seiler has done just an unbelievable job,” Siebert said, pointing out that Seiler gathered information from newspapers, interviews and other means.
Compiling information for the listing is tedious, Siebert said, and there are two areas for listing. One is the building is architecturally significant, which Siebert said is probably the easiest listing because most of the work involves photographs showing the significance.
The second listing is for social and cultural importance to the community, and Siebert said that involves a lot more work. “To do that you have to prove why,” he said. “He (Seiler) found the integration of the Jewish community into the wider community was tremendous.”
Siebert said that the information was extremely positive. “There didn’t seem to be any bias,” he said. “The city ought to be duly proud of that.”
There were 140 Jewish-owned businesses in town from 1871 through now, Siebert said, everything from small corner groceries to major banks and industries. Seiler took a map and marked where every business was, Siebert said. “He has just done so much great work. He uncovered stuff most of us did not know.”
Seiler found that Temple Beth Israel was the first Jewish congregation in central Wisconsin, established a decade before congregations in Arpin and Wausau.
The development of the Jewish community in Stevens Point was part of the third wave of Jewish immigration to Wisconsin after 1880 and most came from Eastern Europe.
Nearly a decade before that, two Jewish families settled in Stevens Point. Isaac Brill, a native of Austria, opened a clothing store in Stevens Point in 1871, which he and then his son would operate until 1904.
Solomon Glover, a member of a German-speaking Jewish community, had immigrated to the United States in 1846 and moved to Stevens Point in 1873. Glover was a Freethinker, not a practicing Jew, and operated a hardware store while his daughter Ida had established a millinery business on Main Street that she would operate from 1880 until about 1912.
In 1888 Glover built a building on south Division Street to replace the buildings that had housed his business until fire destroyed them. That building still stands in the 2200 block.
By the turn of the 20th century about 25 Jewish families, predominantly from Russia, had moved into the area, with the orthodox Jews meeting in homes to hold religious services.
By 1902, Isaac Bunin, a founding member of the congregation and local merchant, organized a “Hebrew” meat market to provide kosher food for the growing Jewish community.
Under the leadership of Israel Shafton, the Jewish community raised $480 in 1904 from merchants to purchase a lot in a Jewish neighborhood on Water Street where they would build their synagogue. In July 1905 the Beth Israel Congregation was incorporated, with Shafton as president and construction of the synagogue began in August 1905.
Shabbat services, normally held at sundown on Fridays, were held Saturdays from 8 to 9 p.m. in 1908, an accommodation that Jewish merchants made to their Christian clientele. In later years services were on Friday at 9:15 p.m.
The Beth Israel Congregation grew to as many as 40 families, primarily from Stevens Point, Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids. But families also came from Fremont, Weyauwega, Pittsville, Adams, Waupaca, Friendship and New London. The congregation employed full time rabbis from approximately 1930 to 1964.
Beth Israel was organized as an orthodox congregation, reflecting the eastern European origins of many of its members. In 1940 Rabbi Curt Reach, a conservative Jew and refugee from Danzig, Germany, was hired, and Beth Israel became a conservative congregation, which it remained until its dissolution in 1986.
The founders of the congregation also established a B’nai B’rith lodge in 1915. The lodge supported a B’nai B’rith Youth Organization in the area and twice hosted the state conference of B’nai B’rith. The lodge helped to endow a “Hebrew chair” University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and sponsored an Israeli student in Stevens Point, while remaining vigilant concerning anti-Semitism or any type of discrimination.
The lodge sponsored a bowling team and Little League Baseball team for youth of all religions and distributed literature from the Anti-Defamation League to teachers in local schools and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The lodge also developed a “citizenship essay contest” administered in the local school districts.
The women of the congregation organized Sisterhood, an organization similar to the Ladies Aid Societies in Christian churches. The organization was interested primarily with the maintenance of the Synagogue and held public dinners, rummage sales and bake sales as fund-raisers for the congregation.
The congregation was a member of the Stevens Point Council Churches, and Rabbi Reach rotated with Christian clergy in delivering daily 15-minute devotions on radio station WLBL when it was in Stevens Point.
Rabbi Reach also served as a director of the Stevens Point Community Chest, the forerunner of today’s United Way of Portage County that was founded by congregation member Albert Schein, and was appointed to serve on the Mayor’s Committee on Interfaith Unity during World War II. His wife, Louise, served as co-chair of the Red Cross in Stevens Point.
In the information he compiled, Seiler pointed out that individual members of the Jewish congregation were recognized as leading members of the community, with many of their obituaries featured on the front page of local newspapers.
They also crossed the lines beyond their faith. For example, Ben Garber, who received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1964, was a lay advisory board member of St. Michael’s Hospital (operated by Roman Catholic nuns) and an active participant in “Panacea,” an annual fund-raiser initially started for Pacelli (Catholic) High School.
Commercially, members of the congregation were involved in a number of longtime businesses in the community, such as a variety of stores operated by members of the Shafton family, the Rudnick grocery store on the Public Square, Mirman Furniture, Northwest Liquor, Krembs Furniture and Brill’s clothing stores.
In 1969 congregation member William Zenoff built the Holiday Inn and Holidome, one of the largest such facilities in the state at the time. That facility transformed Stevens Point into a convention center in the state, and Zenoff later donated the land for a softball park, which the city developed and named after him.
Seiler wrote that the children and grandchildren of the founding Jewish community have moved away and the signs of the city’s Jewish residents are dwindling. Because the congregation did not have a cemetery in Stevens Point, its dead are buried elsewhere in the state.
The only remaining signs of Jewish residents are Glover’s building on Division Street and the front facade of Israel Shafton’s building, which was saved and incorporated into the Portage County Public Library building on Main Street.
“Temple Beth Israel is the congregation’s only visible monument,” he wrote.