IDAHO HISTORY: Boise's Jewish pioneers built their first synagogue in 1895

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANJune 23, 2013 

"Boise has reason to be proud of her citizens of this old Hebrew stock, as they have ever been among the foremost in every enterprise and good work having for its object the building up of the city and the welfare of its people. The tenth day after this Jewish New Year's day will be the Day of Atonement, which will also be duly observed here."

The occasion for this tribute in the Idaho Statesman of Sept. 26, 1889 was the annual observance of Rosh Hashanah, a time the paper had regularly explained to its readers since 1865, along with the meaning of other Jewish holidays.

On Oct. 3, 1865: "The Day of Atonement…This sacred fast was religiously observed last Saturday by all of the Israelitish persuasion in the city. All their places of business were closed and appropriate services were held which nearly all the residents of Hebrew descent attended, as well as several strangers who happened to be in town. We understand that Mr. Baer officiated with credit to himself and pleasure to the faithful assembled." (Morris B. Baer is listed in the 1864 Boise directory as a Main Street merchant, but does not appear in the 1870 census.)

Boise's Jews were years away from having a house of worship of their own, and the paper reported on Sept. 14, 1869, that they had held Yom Kippur services in the Masonic Hall. Since Boise had no resident rabbi, David Falk sent to Portland in November 1871 for Rabbi Herman P. Bories to perform the rite of circumcision on his young son. "The novel and interesting ceremony was witnessed by a number of invited guests. We acknowledge the receipt of the compliments of the happy parents." In February 1875, "Rev. H. Lowenberg, a rabbi of high standing in the Jewish church, arrived here by Saturday night's stage. He performed the rite of circumcision on Mr. Falk's youngest boy Monday, and will circumcise Mr. Weil's twin boys today (Tuesday) and also Mr. Spiegel's son on Wednesday."

After a lengthy description of the Jewish Day of Atonement in October 1875, the Statesman concluded its story with "The Christian doctrine of atonement, according to which Christ, by the offering of himself, has obtained the forgiveness of human sins, connects itself with the older religions and especially with that of the Jews."

The leading Jewish businesses in Boise in the early 1890s were Shainwald Brothers, Falk-Bloch Mercantile Co., H. Seller & Co., William Hardman & Son, George Spiegel, Leo P. Grunbaum, Ben Heymanson, Nathan Falk & Brother, L. Weil, and Moses Alexander. It was Alexander, later mayor of Boise and governor of Idaho, who led the effort to organize the Beth Israel congregation by filing articles of incorporation with the secretary of state in February 1895. In August the architectural firm of Chesney & Schroeder had completed plans for a synagogue, 30 x 60 feet in size. The Statesman noted, "The style of architecture of the structure is what the architects designate as modernized Moorish." The cornerstone for Temple Beth Israel was laid at the corner of 11th and State streets on Oct. 4, 1895, "without formal ceremonies," according to the Statesman. "In the crypt were placed, among other things, various coins and copies of the city newspapers.

Rabbi Isaac Kaiser of Salt Lake City officiated at the dedication of the synagogue on Sunday, Aug. 30, 1896. A special choir sang a hymn "written especially for the occasion by Prof. E.J. Pasmore" entitled "Guide Us Oh Thou Great Jehovah."

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and moved to its present location at 11th and Latah streets in October 2003. Its stained glass windows have been completely restored to their original abstract beauty.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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