Remembering Beth El Synagogue, contributions made by Jews to Fort Dodge
“Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. Swiftly fly the years. One season following another, laden with happiness and tears.”
Tevye the Milkman and his wife Golde sang this song at the wedding of their daughter in the iconic Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – but their haunting words of how fleeting is life could well apply to the Jewish community of Fort Dodge.
Sunrise for many Fort Dodge Jews came at the start of the 20th Century when they fled oppression in Czarist Russia to find a new home in the United States. Sunset came for their families several generations later when their children, those of the Baby Boom Generation, moved to larger cities and effectively ended a once-vibrant Jewish presence in the city.
Back in its day in the sun, Fort Dodge’s Beth El Synagogue would be immersed in preparation for one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar – Yom Kippur – which this year begins at sunset next Tuesday.
But the observance of atonement and repentance by the city’s Jews in the blond brick building at 501 N. 12th St. – distinguished by a large Jewish star on its facade – ended more than two decades ago when their dwindling population prompted its sale to the First Presbyterian Church.
Today, the Jewish population in the city and area, while never more than about 60 families and 200 members at its height, has all but vanished.
But the beloved building that was their spiritual home for 52 years, until the sale in 2000, is very much alive. It was renamed by First Presbyterian as the Shalom (Peace) Center and remains vibrant, dedicated to God and to the service of youth and the community.
It’s where First Presbyterian, one of the city’s oldest congregations, holds religious classes for middle school and high school youth, where six different 12-step recovery programs sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous hold their meetings, where Spanish-language religious services are held Sunday mornings, according to one of its pastors, Chris Helton.
“It’s gotten a tremendous amount of use over the years,” Helton said.
Fay Kaye, daughter of two of the most influential members of the synagogue, Miriam and longtime Fort Dodge veterinarian Herb Jonas, reacted:
“I think everyone would agree that while it’s unfortunate that there is no longer a Jewish community in Fort Dodge,” she said, “it is nice to know that the building is being put to good use – be that for young people or others in the community seeking a place to gather for communal love and support. When I look at pictures of the building today it brings back warm memories and I am happy to see that our former synagogue is being well used and cared for.”
Kaye, who lives in Minneapolis, has vivid memories of the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur:
“As a young girl, I remember walking down the sidewalk through deep, crisp fall leaves as we headed into the synagogue for the first of two services that day. Everyone would be dressed up in their nicest clothes. The service, which lasted for over four hours, seemed interminable to the young kids. We would sit for a while, but eventually we would quietly step out and play together under the big willow tree in the front of the synagogue. Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, so all the kids in the congregation missed school that day. Spending that day together, whether praying or playing, created a bond between us.
“The adults fasted for 25 hours on Yom Kippur. After an afternoon break, a second service went from late afternoon until sunset. The community all came together again for that evening service, but by this time the women of the congregation were busy in the basement kitchen preparing the Break-the-fast meal. Everyone could smell the coffee brewing and was eager to eat together. It was one of the community highlights each year.”
Sara Phillips Piatt, of Foster, Kentucky, recalled another Jewish holiday, the Purim Festival. Her family owned The Model Clothing, her father Bud Phillips was president of the National School Board during the 1960s and her grandfather, David Lurie, was on the board of the synagogue.
“I have many memories there. One of my favorites was the Purim Festival every spring. I would get to dress up as Queen Esther and wear a tiara. It was a joyous celebration of surviving the Persians.
“Purim is a Jewish holiday which commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, an official of the Achaemenid Empire who was planning to have all of Persia’s Jewish subjects killed, as recounted in the Book of Esther. Haman was the royal vizier to Persian king Ahasuerus. Delicious pastries called Hamentaschen filled with poppy seed of fruit fillings were served. They were triangular shaped to represent Haman’s hat. I will say that as a child and even a teenager it was hard to sit on the seats in that building for any lengthy service. The seats were a pink very scratchy velvet fabric. I was frequently fidgety during services.”
Jewish immigrants, most of them from Russia, began arriving in Fort Dodge early in the 20th Century as they fled from tyranny and sought opportunities in the New World. By 1912 there were 20 families who formed a congregation and incorporated under the name Congregation Tifereth Israel (Splendor of Israel). For many years the congregation conducted religious services and classes in rented spaces. Just before it moved to the synagogue, services and classes were held in a space above Constantine’s Restaurant at Ninth Street and Central Avenue. In the early 1940s, the congregation initiated a capital campaign that made this dream a reality. And in the summer of 1948 the congregation moved to its permanent home.
While the number of Jews who lived in Fort Dodge was never large, they had an inordinately major influence on the community, especially of business ownership in the retail and clothing sectors.
Among those businesses: The Hollywood Style Shop (Bess and Sid Haase), Lillian’s Dress Shop (the Monsein Family–David & Lillian), Fantles Department store (the Fantle Family), New Leader Clothing (the Mulmed Family–Morris and May and son David), Model Clothing (the David Lurie and Bud Phillips family), Diamond’s Clothing (the Diamond family Irv & Mildred, Jerry and Naida. They also had a store in Algona run by son Phil Diamond), Gralnek Motors (Joe and Ann Gralnek), The Bootery (Sam and Dorothy Swartz), AutoRama and then Champion Auto Store (Irv (Duke) and Fran Ducoffe), PhilSco Employment Agency (Irv (Duke) and Fran Ducoffe), Fort Dodge Fruit and Grocery (managed by Fred and Dorothy Kotok), City Realty (Fred and Dorothy Kotok), Fort Dodge Iron and Metal (Irv and Shelia Robinson), National Auto Parts Store (Charles Rotman and wives Nina and Flora), Larson Clothing (Aaron & Rose Glazer and his second wife Blanche), Home Furnishing (Morey Goldstein), The Fabric Shop (Fred and Judy Baron), Haase Photography (Howard Haase and MaryAnn Haase, who was of the Catholic faith), East Lawn Animal Hospital (Herbert and Miriam Jonas). In Webster City, there were Brin’s Furniture (Harry and Ann Brin) and Silverstein Scrap Metal (the Mike and Ben Silverstein families).
Beyond commercial businesses, those contributions also included:
The Jerry Rabiner Boy’s Ranch west of the city, which was established in 1961 in memory of their son by Louis and Lee Rabiner, successful Fort Dodge realtors, in association with the Iowa State Police Association. It was a treatment center for “troubled boys” and did much good for the area until it closed in 2019.
A spring dinner-dance gala at such locations as the Hotel Warden and the Fort Dodge Country Club sponsored by the Beth El Sisterhood as a means of contributing financial support to the synagogue. For many years it was a must-attend event among business and community leaders of Fort Dodge. The women of Beth El prepared traditional Jewish foods, such as handmade cheese blintzes and other Jewish delicacies for the event.
The synagogue was a magnet for Jews in the region.
“In the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s,” recalled David Kotok of Omaha, who grew up in Fort Dodge, “the synagogue served as a regional gathering of Jews for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur from Webster City, Algona, Emmetsburg, Storm Lake and elsewhere that swelled the congregation to over 100.”
The congregation was very involved in the Fort Dodge ministerial association, said Michael Libbie, a Des Moines-area radio host who once served as president of Friendship Haven. “Leaders thought it very important that the Jewish community was represented. It offered a different flavor. Jews, we look at things a little differently.”
On the national level, Jews from Fort Dodge made their mark. Rose Blumkin, a first-generation immigrant, moved from Fort Dodge to Omaha, founded Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1937 and owned it until Warren Buffet purchased a 90 percent share in 1983. Samuel Arkoff, born to Russian Jewish parents, turned to Hollywood as a movie producer and produced low-budget movies – “I Was a Teen-age Werewolf” and “Muscle Beach Party” were two – from the 1960s into the ’80s. Libbie Hyman, valedictorian of the Fort Dodge Senior Class of 1905, became a world-renowned zoologist and between 1940 and 1967, published a six-volume treatise as well as 90 articles, despite struggling with Parkinson’s Disease, that are still in use today.
The membership of Beth El dwindled to fewer than a dozen people before the decision was made to close the synagogue and sell it to First Presbyterian. There had been no resident rabbi since the death of Sam Levi in 1983. Laymen and an occasional visiting rabbi led services since then.
“Our younger people have settled in bigger cities rather than returning to Fort Dodge,” said Irvin Robinson, long-standing member of Beth El, at the time. “The same thing is happening all over the country.”
Many of the Jewish businesses – a number of them on Central Avenue – were hurt badly when the Crossroads Shopping Center opened in Fort Dodge in the 1960s.
First Presbyterian purchased the synagogue and rabbi’s home, and soon removed the home for a parking lot. The ark in the synagogue containing two torah scrolls, artifacts and other religious items were removed and given to synagogues in St. Paul and Des Moines and to a Jewish youth camp in Des Moines. Today, a display of items once in Beth El Synagogue can be seen at the Iowa Jewish Historical Society Museum in Waukee.
Libbie said one of the torah scrolls from Beth El is now housed at the Adas Israel Synagogue in Mason City.
Once quite active at Beth El, Libbie has made the 120-mile drive to Mason City once a month from his home in Windsor Heights for 36 years to lead services for about a dozen families at the synagogue, formed in 1941 and one of Iowa’s last small-town synagogues. The Mason City and Fort Dodge synagogues were both designed by architect Stanley Griffith of Fort Dodge. Anywhere from eight to 30 people attend services – and they come from all different religious backgrounds.
When a synagogue closes, “there’s absolutely tons of loss” to a community, Libbie said. “Even if there’s just one Jewish family, there needs to be a Jewish presence that signifies that there is something besides white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants living in a community.”
Michael Pill, an attorney in Northampton, Mass., who grew up in Fort Dodge, has taken great interest in the journey of his own family. His maternal grandfather David Isaac Lurie (“Popie”) left Czarist Russia at the age of 15, got off the train in Fort Dodge in November 1909 and went to work in his brother Louie Lurie’s clothing store.
“I will say that Fort Dodge was a haven, a gateway to America for the Jewish families,” Pill said. “My grandfather David “Popie” Lurie was very proud when he was elected president of the Kiwanis Club, and that his son-in-law Bud Phillips was president of the public school board. Popie was always struck by the fact that he had immigrated to a country where Jews could own land, go to secular schools, become licensed professionals, and participate in political and civic life. None of that was possible in the Russian Empire.
“Today’s immigrants from Latin America may be fleeing from different killers, but the nature of the horrors are the same. Like today’s Latin American refugees, no one knew what awaited Fort Dodge’s Jewish immigrants in America, but they knew it could not be worse than what they left behind.
“Perhaps the best fact about the synagogue in Fort Dodge was simply that it could exist. We all could go to services, social events and Sunday school there without having to worry that Cossacks or local villagers would burn it down with us inside. For us, America was “Goldineh Medina” (“Golden Land“).”