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Jewish American Historical Places: Chevra B’nai Yisroel Synagogue

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 7, 2007, the Chevra B’nai Yisroel Synagogue is a notable example of a public building designed by local Council Bluffs architect, J. Chris Jensen, and a well preserved representation of a diminishing number of buildings associated with the Jewish religious experience in the State of Iowa and the Council Bluffs-Omaha region. Built in 1931, the Synagogue reflects the congregation’s orthodox origins in its design, with later remodeling reflecting the subsequent changes in the congregation’s religious outlook and traditions as Conservative Judaism, and more recently Reconstructionist Judaism.  The Chevra B’nai is of local historical importance within the Council Bluffs-Omaha vicinity for its association with the settlement and evolution of the Jewish religious and ethnic community.

The first Jewish settler in what was then the Iowa Territory was Alexander Levi, who settled in Iowa in 1833 and became the state’s first naturalized citizen.  Levi was followed by other Jewish settlers, most of whom hailed from Germany, France, and Austria/Bohemia, who were fleeing the instability of Western Europe. Most of these immigrants followed Reform Jewish traditions, which had begun in Germany and France in the early 19th century. Another wave of Jewish immigration to the area began in 1881, as Jewish refugees fled Eastern Europe and the pogroms of Tsarist Russia. Many of these Jewish immigrants followed Orthodox Judaism.  This same year, 25 charter members in Council Bluffs established a new congregation: the Congregation of Bikur Cholim. The group was so small they did not have a rabbi or a synagogue, so services  were held in rented quarters. Eventually from these beginnings, the Chevra B’nai Yisroel Congregation was organized and incorporated in 1903 with a membership of 14 men.

Searching for a place to build a synagogue, the congregation selected a lot within a largely residential neighborhood in northwest Council Bluffs. The cornerstone for the first synagogue was laid in 1904 at 618 Mynster Street. The original structure, a wood frame building, burned to the ground on March 5, 1930, however, members of the congregation were able to save the Torah, sacred scrolls, and other religious items from the blaze. A building committee, consisting of George Whitebook, B. Gilinsky, Abe Gilinsky, Morris Hoffman, Dave Fox, and Simon Shyken, hired local architect J. Chris Jensen to design a new synagogue. The cornerstone from the 1904 synagogue was salvaged from the ruins, and an inscription for the new synagogue was added. The construction of the new 500-seat building was completed on January 11, 1931, at a cost of $26,000.

The congregation continued to grow, and following World War II, the congregation began to shed some of its Orthodox tradition, following instead the larger Conservative movement in the Jewish faith. While the Conservative movement remained traditional, the synagogue began to see some significant changes, including the use of English in its services and the practice of gender-integrated seating for its congregation (previously, according to Orthodox traditions, the men of the congregation sat on the main floor, while the women and children occupied the balcony level).  In 1949, Rabbi Louis Leifer was elected rabbi of the Chevra B’nai Yisroel congregation. He served for four years and was succeeded by Rabbi J.A. Wachsmann. In November 1953, the congregation changed its official name to B’nai Israel.

In the early 1960s, the congregation decided to expand and remodel its existing facilities to reflect its now Conservative traditions. They hired local architect, I.T. Carrithers, to design a new addition to the historic building. His original concept would have resulted in modern additions to the front and the rear of the building; however, only the rear addition was constructed. Plans to remove two-thirds of the interior balcony were also drawn at this time, since the balcony’s original purpose was to segregate seating for women during the orthodox phase of the congregation.

By the mid-1960s the congregation began to decline in size and lost its full-time rabbi, Rabbi Karzan. With the departure of Rabbi Emil Klein in 1969, the Talmud Torah and the Sunday School were soon closed. By 1980 plans were proposed to close and auction off the synagogue, but members of the congregation banded together to save the building by recruiting young families and new members. Their objective was to embrace a more contemporary approach to religion by forming a congregation that was more progressive in religious and social philosophy. The result was an even further divergence from the congregation’s initial orthodox beliefs. Rabbi Sharon Steifel became the first Reconstructionist rabbi for the B’nai Israel congregation in 1989, albeit part-time. During this time the congregation experienced a rebirth. Rabbi Steifel was followed by Rabbi Sheryl Shulewitz, and later Rabbi Ruth Ehrenstein, but the congregation eventually found itself without a rabbi yet again.

Over its history notable members of the Chevra B’nai Yisroel Congregation in Council Bluffs included: Dr. Sol Kulter, a local dentist who spent many years doing volunteer dental work overseas; Leo Myerson, who founded World Radio in 1935; Maynard S. Telpner, a prominent lawyer and community leader who served as mayor in 1963; Shirley Gershun Goldstein, who bravely worked to rescue Soviet Jewry from persecution in the 1970s; Norman Cherniss, a noted journalist and sportswriter; Eugene Telpner, who was influential in journalism, radio, and television; and Jack Edward Brown, a lawyer and political candidate.

As seen today, the synagogue is a two-story rectangular building that exhibits stylistic influences reflecting early 20th-century American movements in commercial and public architecture. The exterior surface of the load-bearing brick walls of the synagogue are constructed of a richly textured polychrome, rough-cast brick and capped by a classical entablature and galvanized iron cornice. A projecting three-door front entryway is raised above the street level and reached by a wide set of concrete steps. The inset panels above the doors showcase images of the Star of David and the tablets of the Ten Commandments inscribed in Hebrew. The 1960s rear addition is constructed of concrete block and metal-framed glass windows. Patterns of five Stars of David are inset within the concrete on both the exterior and interior walls.

The interior of the building features two floors and a balcony level.  The main floor is the sanctuary, which is open to the roof level. A balcony on the south end (reduced in size by the 1960’s alterations) is reached by a set of stairs leading from the vestibule. The Ark in the Chevra B’nai Yisroel Synagogue is classical in design, featuring dark wood paneling, classical pilasters, and louvered doors which cover the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept behind a velvet portiere. The congregation is blessed with seven Torahs, two of which were saved when the 1904 synagogue burned down.

Sources: National Parks Service