While isolated Jewish fur traders were not rare, the first Jewish community of Minnesota was established in St. Paul, the northern-most steamboat landing on the Mississippi. They found little prejudice in a frontier town and by 1856 formed Mount Zion Hebrew Congregation. Minneapolis just upriver did not grow until the advent of the railroad system. Its pioneer synagogue, Shaarei Tov (later Temple Israel), was not founded until 1878.
These Jewish pioneers arrived from the eastern and southern United States and from Germanic lands with some capital. They became clothing and dry goods merchants, fur traders and cigar makers. Some took part in civic affairs. Impoverished Eastern Europeans arrived beginning in 1882. The population grew chiefly through chain migration as those newly settled sent back funds for their relatives. It was augmented through select migration through Galveston. The newly arrived worked as craftsmen and on railroads, they peddled, collected scrap metal, and sewed in factories. Jews tended not to be employed in the giant state industries, such as lumber, flour milling, and iron mining.
Jews filtered into market towns, such as Austin, Albert Lea, and Mankato, serving as clothing and dry goods purveyors, hide and fur merchants, and scrap metal dealers. After iron ore was discovered nearby, Duluth’s Jewish population soared, reaching a peak of about 4,000. This discovery provided the impetus for Duluth’s Jews to move inland to newly created towns, such as Virginia, Hibbing, Chisholm, and Eveleth, where they became merchants. Each town once supported a synagogue between about 1905 and the 1950s. The most famous Iron Ranger is undoubtedly Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), who was born and raised in Hibbing. Rochester, renowned for its Mayo Clinic, also has maintained a synagogue. Its population is more transient due to the high proportion of physicians in training at the Mayo Clinic. The state had a peak Jewish population of about 44,000 in 1937. While there has been migration to Sun Cities, it received a modest influx of displaced persons after World War II and a large number of Jews from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). In 2004, this group comprised 17% of the Twin Cities’ Jewish population.
By the 1930s, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth all had established Federations, which supported social service, educational, and defense institutions. Religious institutions and social clubs flourished as well, and Herzl Camp with its Zionist orientation attracted Jewish youth from all over the Upper Midwest. The weekly American Jewish World, established in 1912, is still published.
The gubernatorial election of 1938 between Harold Stassen and Elmer Benson used vicious antisemitic cartoons to vilify several of Benson’s Jewish supporters. The Minnesota Jewish Council (now called the Jewish Community Relations Council) was created soon after to counter organized antisemitism. Minneapolis was known as an unfriendly area to Jews during the 1930’s and 40’s, due to rampant discrimination. The situation changed dramatically after Hubert Humphrey was elected mayor of Minneapolis in 1945 and instituted reforms that were repeated at the state level. Since then, Jews have actively engaged in running for political office. In 1961, Arthur Naftalin, a Jew, was elected mayor of Minneapolis. St. Paul elected Larry Cohen mayor in 1972, a position that hitherto was an Irish Catholic stronghold. Rudy Boschwitz , elected in 1978, was the state’s first Jewish senator. Ironically, he was defeated by another Jew, Paul Wellstone, in 1990 in a race in which the Jewish identity of Wellstone, who was married to a non-Jewish woman became an issue. The tactic (a nasty letter campaign) backfired against Boschwitz, and Wellstone went to the Senate. Wellstone triumphed over Boschwitz a second time in 1996. Norm Coleman won in 2002 over the successor to Wellstone, who had died during the campaign. So in a state where Jews make up less than 1% of the population, Jewish candidates for U.S. Senate faced each other three times in a dozen years.
Today, the Minnesota Jewish community can be characterized as generally prosperous with great population stability, and a high level of support for communal institutions. The University of Minnesota has a Center for Jewish Studies. The Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning at the University of St. Thomas and St. John’s College promote interfaith understanding. The Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest interprets the region’s Jewish history for Jews and non-Jews alike.
Nevertheless, there are major challenges such as integrating the Jews from the FSU into the general Jewish community and devising ways of embracing the intermarried and their children. Only by inculcating both with a sense of allegiance to Jewish communal institutions will the Minnesota Jewish community remain healthy in the 21st century.
Three of the last five Presidents of the University of Minnesota have been Jewish.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, the world’s foremost Nazi-hunting task force, downgraded the United States’ rating for Nazi-hunting efforts from A to B in April 2015 for failing to prosecute a famous Nazi that lived a quiet, peaceful life in Minnesota following the Holocaust. According to the director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, this drop in ranking was due to the fact that the U.S. took no action against Michael Karkoc, after the Associated Press exposed as an ex-commander of a Nazi SS Unit made up of Ukrainian soldiers. A German investigation that led to the Associated Press report concluded that Karkoc had overseen a unit that burned villages and ruthlessly murdered women and children. Polish authorities announced on March 13, 2017, that they would be seeking the extradition of 98-year old Michael Karkoc, after confirming with 100% certainty that he was the former SS commander they had been searching for.
As of 2019, Minnesota’s Jewish population was approximately 65,900 people, nearly all (64,800) in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. H. Berman & L.M. Schloff, Jews in Minnesota (2002);
L.M. Schloff, “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher”: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1854 (1997);
W.G. Plaut, The Jews in Minnesota-the First Seventy-Five Years (1959);
Twin Cities Jewish Population Study (2004);
“In First, Annual Nazi-Hunting Report Downgrades US,” Times of Israel, (April 13, 2015)
“12 Facts About Jewish Minnesota,” Forward Magazine, (June 12, 2015);
Ira M. Sheskin & Arnold Dashefsky, “United States Jewish Population, 2019,” in Arnold Dashefsky & Ira M. Sheskin, Eds., American Jewish Year Book, 2019, (Cham, SUI: Springer, 2020).