Text of the nomination papers submitted for the
Temple Beth Israel on the
National Registry of
Prepared by Mark Seiler
Temple Beth Israel is being nominated under Criterion A because it was the focal point for Stevens Point's small but vibrant Jewish community, now defunct, that for more than a century played a significant role in the religious, social and commercial development of Stevens Point, as well as the central Wisconsin area. It was the first Jewish congregation in Central Wisconsin, established a decade before congregations in Arpin and Wausau.
Religious Contributions: The development of the Jewish community in Stevens Point was part of the third wave of Jewish immigration to Wisconsin after 1880, predominantly from Eastern Europe. Nearly a decade before the arrival of the first Russian Jews, however, two Jewish families had settled in Stevens Point. In 1871, Isaac Brill, a native of Austria, opened a clothing store in Stevens Point, which he and then his son would operate until 1904. Solomon Glover, a member of the German speaking Jewish community of Rausnitz, near Brno, Bohemia (now Czech Republic) had immigrated to the United States in 1846 and first lived in New York and Georgia before coming to Wisconsin. In 1873 he moved his family from his farm in the town of Lind in Waupaca County to Stevens Point. Glover, a Freethinker, not a practicing Jew, operated a hardware store and by 1880 his daughter Ida had established a millinery business on Main Street that she would operate until about 1912. Beginning in the early 1880s Eastern European Jews began to settle in Stevens Point.
By the turn of the century about 25 Jewish families, predominantly from Russia, had taken up residence. In the first years these orthodox Jews met in homes to hold religious services, using a Torah that the Frank family had brought with them to the United States. By 1902 when the Jewish community had grown to the point that there was need for a kosher meat market, Isaac Bunin, a founding member of the congregation and a local merchant organized a "Hebrew" meat market. Also Alvin Garber, originally a member of the Arpin Jewish community, was a shochet, someone who could supervise the ritual preparation of meat. In later years members who kept kosher would procure their meat from Milwaukee or Chicago.
By October, 1904, under the leadership of Israel Shafton, the Jewish community raised $480 from merchants, including Ida Glover, 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. Construction of the synagogue began in August 1905 and on Rash Hashanah Rabbi Rubenstein of Milwaukee officiated at the dedication, most likely reading from the Frank family’s Torah, which they had promised to give to the congregation, once it was established. In April 1906 the congregation secured a $1000 mortgage, which was satisfied in July 1940. In 1908 Shabbat services, normally held at sundown on Fridays, were held Saturdays from 8-9 PM, an accommodation that Jewish merchants had to make to their Christian clientele. In later years services were on Friday at 9:15 PM. The Beth Israel Congregation did not maintain a cemetery. Burials took place in Milwaukee, Kenosha, Sheboygan, Appleton, Chicago or Wausau.
Beth Israel Congregation ultimately grew to as many as 40 families, primarily from Stevens Point, Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids, but also from Fremont, Weyauwega, Pittsville, Adams, Waupaca, Friendship, and New London. From approximately 1930 to 1964 the congregation employed full time rabbis (List appended). Prior to 1930 rabbis from Wausau sometimes conducted funeral services in Stevens Point, but graveside ceremonies were conducted by rabbis in the cities where the burials took place. From 1913 until 1951 Alvin Garber functioned as cantor, especially on high holy days. Beth Israel was organized as an orthodox congregation, reflecting the eastern European origins of many of its members, but in 1940, when Rabbi Curt Reach—a conservative Jew and refugee from Danzig, Germany—was hired, Beth Israel became a conservative congregation, which it remained until its dissolution in 1986, when a minyan no longer could be assembled.
The founders of Beth Israel were active in promoting and defending their faith. In 1905, a few weeks after the dedication of the synagogue, in the aftermath of pogroms in Russia, a news article in the Stevens Point Journal, reported that members of the community had donated $45 for the "assistance of the Jews now suffering persecution at the hands of the fanatical Russians". The founders also established a B’nai B’rith lodge in 1915. By 1921 there were 66 enrolled members, mainly from Stevens Point, Marshfield, Waupaca, and Wisconsin Rapids, but also from Thorpe, Weyauwega, Westfield, Wautoma, Coloma, Freemont, Iola, and Amherst. By 1931 the lodge had gone defunct and was reestablished. Between 1931 and 1946, the new lodge had enrolled 86 members. The B’nai B’rith lodge at its monthly meetings had invited speakers on a variety of topics. It supported a B’nai B’rith Youth Organization in the area, and twice hosted the state conference of B’nai B’rith. The lodge contributed money to the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee to endow a "Hebrew chair" and asked the college in Stevens Point to sponsor an Israeli student. The lodge was vigilant concerning anti-Semitism, or any type of discrimination. It arranged for a representative of the Anti Defamation League to visit the local high school, and in 1960 it supported the attorney general of Wisconsin in contesting the "restricted clientele" policy of the Wittig Point Resort in Boulder Junction.
Whereas the men of B’nai B’rith concerned themselves primarily with matters in the society outside the congregation, the women of Beth Israel organized Sisterhood, an organization not unlike the Ladies Aid Societies that were prevalent in Christian churches, was interested primarily with the maintenance of the Synagogue. The Sisterhood at its monthly meetings had programs for the members and planned monthly card parties, public dinners, rummage sales and bake sales, all of which were fundraisers for the congregation. Indeed the Sisterhood contributed significantly to the satisfaction of the original mortgage, the financing the 1951 remodeling of the synagogue, the upkeep of the building, and to the salaries of the rabbi, a cleaning lady and a Sunday school teacher. The minutes of the Sisterhood reveal that the women were vigilant defenders of their Orthodox faith. On one occasion they passed a formal motion to be conveyed to the B’nai B’rith, stating that the men should "prohibit serving meat and milk products together in the Temple building", and on another occasion stated that "no traiffa [non-kosher] food be brought to the Shule". In 1939, the Sisterhood passed a motion that "a general meeting of the congregation shall be held, regarding as to the ways and means of eliminating the services of the rabbi". Soon thereafter the rabbi departed. In 1941 the new Rabbi Reach recognized the influence of the Sisterhood when he urged them to use their influence on their husbands to attend Friday services. The Sisterhood was affiliated with the National and State Federations of Temple Sisterhoods, and its members were also enrolled in Hadassah, a Zionist charitable organization that focuses on health care. Between 1928 and 1964 the Sisterhood maintained a membership of 25 or more women.
Social Involvement: The activities of the Beth Israel Congregation and its members was not limited to their own membership, but extended into the Stevens Point community. Arthur Levinson was active in ecumenical efforts and claims to have spoken to every Christian congregation in town. The congregation was a member of the Stevens Point Council Churches, and when Beth Israel hosted the Council of Churches, Rabbi Reach was the preacher. Rabbi Reach invited the Stevens Point community to attend a Purim play performed by the children and also rotated with other, Christian clergy in delivering daily 15 minute devotions on WLBL radio, served as a director of the Stevens Point Community chest, and was appointed to serve on the "Mayor’s Committee on Interfaith Unity", during World War II. The B’nai B’rith lodge sponsored a bowling team and little league baseball team for youth of all religions. They purchased literature from the Anti-defamation League and distributed it to teachers in local schools as well as to a sociology professor at the local college and developed a "citizenship essay contest" administered in the local school districts. The Sisterhood, as noted above hosted card parties and gave dinners, open to the community. During World War II the Sisterhood was especially active, volunteering for the USO center and the Red Cross and organizing Red Cross bandage-knitting groups. Rabbi Reach’s wife, Louise, also served as co-chair of the Red Cross. Members of the Sisterhood volunteered for the war effort, training for first aid and home nursing, functioning as block captains and minute men, assisting with sugar rationing and draft registration.
Individual members of the Stevens Point Jewish Community were recognized as leading members of the Stevens Point community, as evidenced by their obituaries being featured on the front page of the local newspapers. In January 1900, the front page obituary of Louis Wiesner stated that "a company of seventeen Odd Fellows marched up to the residence of the deceased…. On being admitted they gathered about the bier of their deceased brother and carried out the ritual for the burial of the dead…. The remains were then taken to the depot [for transport by train to Appleton] escorted by the Odd Fellows…." When the earliest Jewish settler Solomon Glover died, the front page obituary stated: "He was widely known years ago through central Wisconsin and many old friends will learn of the death of Solomon Glover with real regret.". Forty years later and editorial about A.L. Shafton stated: "He was a liberal supporter of all worthy public causes. It is safe to say the Stevens Point has had few, if any, citizens whose private benefactions were as many and varied and bestowed with such a lack of ostentation as were those of Mr. Shafton. The sadness of the community over the death of Mr. Shafton is deep, genuine and understandable." Three additional obituaries of members of Beth Israel provide examples of the extent of community involvement achieved by the second generation of the Jewish community in Stevens Point.
Ben Garber was a member of the American Legion, member and president of the Lions Club and of the Central Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce. He received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1964. Garber was a member and past president of the Stevens Point Curling Club, a lay advisory board member of the River Pines Community Health Center and of St Michael’s [Roman Catholic] Hospital, a board member of the Stevens Point Housing Authority and a member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and also was an active participant in "Panacea", an annual fund raiser for the Catholic high school.
Peter Slomann received the Jaycee’s Distinguished Citizens Award in 1963, contributed to the development of Slomann Park in Stevens Point, was president of the Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Masonic Lodge, the Shriners, the Elks, the Moose Lodge and the Kiwanis Club. He served on the Citizens Committee for the public schools and worked on the campaign to build Stevens Point’s municipal swimming pool. He was also on the board of directors of Licensed Beverage Industries, Inc.
Albert Schein was a member of the Elks, the Lions Club, the Stevens Point Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion, the Stevens Point Music Council, the Masonic Lodge, and the Central Wisconsin Shrine Club. He was a member and district chairman of the Samoset Council of the Boy Scouts. Schein was the founder of the Stevens Point Community Chest, an active campaign worker for the Red Cross, and president of the Central Wisconsin Underwriters association.
Commercial Involvement: From the beginnings of the Jewish community in Stevens Point, members of Beth Israel Congregation played a significant role in the commercial development of the community. From 1871 to 2000 there were at least 100 Jewish enterprises in the city. These ranged from individuals who were horse and cattle traders, peddlers, junk dealers, or operators of small stores to multi-million-dollar enterprises with state-wide operations. Many of these remained in business for 20-30 years, while 10 or more were in business for 50-60 years. For a century, the Stevens Point downtown business district was home to many, prominent retail stores. Among the earliest were a millinery store on Main Street operated by Ida Glover from 1880- ca.1912 and Brill’s clothing store operated by Isaac Brill and his son Louis from ca. 1871 until 1904. Louis Brill also became vice president and then president of Citizens National Bank, now JP Morgan Chase Bank, aka Bank One. The first president of Beth Israel Congregation, Israel Shafton, with his sons, operated variety and clothing stores from 1898 until his death in 1947. He built one building in the business district (now part of the Portage County Public Library building) and owned a number of others. Shafton also was on the board of directors of the Citizens Building and Loan, which today is the Anchor Bank. Albert and Adele Schein were New York Life Insurance agents from 1940 - 1987. Albert served as president and member of the Central Wisconsin Underwriters association. After her husband’s death Adele continued the agency and became one of Stevens Point’s most prominent businesswomen. She was president of the Underwriters Association, received the National Quality Award for 35 years and was a life member of the women’s Leaders Round Table and the New York Life’s Top Club. Albert Mirman, his son Harvey, and son-in-law Arthur Levinson, together with their wives, operated a furniture store on Main Street for 50 years. Leon and Ida Rudnick operated a grocery store on the public square for 50 years. A. L. Shafton operated the popular City Fruit Exchange from 1905-1919, when he and Peter Slomann formed A.L. Shafton & Co., a wholesale grocery firm. When Prohibition ended Shafton and Slomann decided to expand into liquor. In 1939 Slomann transformed the liquor division into Northwest Liquor, which developed into a multi-million-dollar wholesale liquor business with operations in Stevens Point, Eau Claire, Superior, La Crosse, and Rhinelander. A.L. Shafton also was part owner in Shafton, Inc. of Superior and of the Wisconsin Distributing Co., Wausau. With these business ventures, Shafton distributed wholesale groceries to all of central and northwest Wisconsin. William Zenoff who started in business as a small grocer in 1940, later purchased Krembs Hardware and transformed it into a large furniture store. In 1969 Zenoff built the Holiday Inn and Holi-dome, at the time, one of the largest in the State of Wisconsin, which transformed Stevens Point into a lucrative convention location. Zenoff also donated the land for a baseball park, which the city developed and named after him.
These are but several examples of the contributions of the Stevens Point Jewish community to the economic development of the city and region (A more complete list is appended).
Epilogue: For 129 years members of the Beth Israel Congregation contributed greatly to the development of the Stevens Point Community. The Jewish community had begun when Isaac Brill Glover opened his clothing store and had seen at least 100 business enterprises established. From 1930-1950 twenty to thirty businesses were operating in Stevens Point, mainly in the downtown business district (chart appended). During those peak years, as many as forty Jewish families resided in Stevens Point and the membership of Temple Beth Israel numbered more than 100. After 1950 the Jewish population declined, as the older generation died or retired to other cities, and their children left town. By 1960, eighteen Jewish businesses were still in operation. By 1970 this number had dwindled to ten, and by 1990 only two remained. With the sale of the Holiday Inn in 1996, only one small grocery store remained in operation, and with its closing in 2000 there no longer were any Jewish firms in Stevens Point.
When, in 1986, the Beth Israel Congregation no longer could assemble the minyan required to conduct religious services, the trustees disbanded the congregation and deeded it as a museum to the Portage County Historical Society, to memorialize Stevens Point’s Jews. The founders of the Jewish community had died. Their children or grandchildren had moved away. The only signs of Stevens Point’s Jewish residents are the synagogue, David Kalisky’s building on the public square, and the front facade of Israel Shafton’s building, which was saved and incorporated into the Portage County Library building. Since Beth Israel Congregation did not bury its dead in Stevens Point, Temple Beth Israel is the congregation’s only visible monument.
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