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The Jews In Minnesota

W. Gunther Plaut

American Jewish Historical Society,  N.Y. 1959


Chapter 19

Head of the Lakes

Starts on page 132


  Duluth, The third largest city of Minnesota, attracted early attention as a natural port for the distribution of the state’s many resources. The city’s settlement dated back to 1852, and its rapid development came with the railroads and the exploitation of rich ore deposits of the Range. At the close of the Civil War a few thousand people had made their home there along the shore of Lake Superior. Their community reached across the state line into Wisconsin, where the town was called Superior.


 The character of the Jewish communities in Minnesota was always influenced by a number of factors: When did the Jews arrive in relation to the rest of the settlers? What background did the Jewish and non-Jewish residents have? Did the Jews come with capital, ready to make their start in the relatively high strata of the mercantile world, or did they come with little, living in the poorer sections of town, starting in every way from the bottom?


  But there is also the personal factor, and for minority groups it looms especially large in pioneer country. Jewish life in St. Paul took its own characteristic turn I part because of the Jews who first settled there, the Austrians, Noahs and Elfelts, Minneapolis had its Rees, and the Range, its Sax. In this respect Duluth was no different. Julius Austrian had holdings on the site of the township and for a short time loved in that general area in its formative days. The first Jew of whose permanent settlement we know came in 1870.


  His name was Bernard Silberstein, who was then a man in his early twenties. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 4, 1848 and in 1856 had migrated with his family to Detroit. He had married Nettie Weiss in 1870, and since both he and his bride were enterprising as well as young, they decided to make their honeymoon trip to the fabled waters of the Great Lake. In May, the couple arrived in Duluth on the steamer Meter and liked what they saw. The stayed and opened a dry-goods store. Soon the town expanded, for just then the first railroad reached the area-an event which Silberstiein managed to witness:


  Late in June 1870, (he related) we heard of the arrival of the first train at Thompson. A construction train carried sixteen passengers from here (Duluth) to Fond du Lac, from which point we had to follow an Indian trail over the hills on foot to Thompson. Of the sixteen but four reached the village…the day was hot, and the climb was hard, but three besides myself stuck to it, and after some ten hours reached Thompson. Few of the passengers remained at Thompson…The majority returned with the train.


  As the years went by, Silberstein rose to considerable communal prominence. For many years he served on civic and fraternal boards, as Commissioner of Public Safety, as a member of the Library Board and of the Park Board; and Duluth credits him with a large share of the responsibility for the excellence of its boulevard system. He rose high in the Masonic Order and was one of Minnesota’s earliest B’nai B’rith; for in 1871 he had already taken out a membership back in his old home town of Detroit and, in 1921, had the rare joy of having a community fete him on the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary in the Order.


  With a man of such caliber as an early settler, organized Jewish life was likely to develop quickly as soon as there were enough Jews in the community. However for some years only a few Jews arrived. What happened to Jewish settlement in Minneapolis, now happened in Duluth. The Minneapolis Jewish settlement was delayed because the existing Jewish community in St. Paul acted as a natural magnet which attracted the earlier immigrants. Similarly, the increasing Jewish population of the Twin Cities retained many would-be northern settlers, a development which was characteristic of other smaller minorities as well. Full scale Jewish settlement in Duluth did not begin until ten years after Silberstein had first come, and the earliest arrivals were men from St. Paul; Joseph D. Sattler and Adolph Albenberg (relatives of Solomon Bergman) and Myer Whitehead. Silberstein himself often went to the Twin Cities. He joined Mount Zion In the mid-seventies as an out-of-town member-and quite naturally the new Jewish settlers came under his influence.


  The 1880’s witnessed the arrival of Ignatz Freimuth who went into the general store business and who in later years was connected with mining activates. In time, “Freimuth” became a familiar name in the business life of Duluth. A charter member and later President of the Temple, he also helped to found the Duluth Chamber of Commerce.


  The roster of that decade is replete with those typical German family names which characterized the two older cities farther south: Louis Hammel, Philip H. Oswald, Jacob H. Winterfield, Sigmund Levy, Henry and Asa Leopold, Philip Levy, Sam and Louis Loeb, Isaac Bondy, and Ben Heller. There were also families called Van Baalen and Mondschine. In West Superior lived some younger people like the three Abrams brothers who had moved north after their father, Emanuel, had died in Minneapolis.


  By 1891, there were enough Jews in Duluth to found a congregation. They called it “Emanuel” and engaged a functionary named Glueck. The following year, they were prepared to engage Rabbi David K. Eisenberg, who in turn was followed by Rabbi Sigmund Frey. On February 26, 1896, the congregation was incorporated, the same date on which thirty-nine years earlier the first Jewish congregation in the state had received its charter. Bernard Silberstein was the first President. Eight years later, the members dedicated their synagogue and engaged a graduate of Hebrew Union College, Mendel Silber, as their rabbi. From the beginning of the congregation placed itself into the Reform camp. As in the Twin Cities, its spiritual direction was influenced to some degree by the early arrival of East European Jews. In St. Paul, the development from Orthodox tradition to the first stages of liberal Judaism had taken some twenty years. In Minneapolis the span was only two to three years. In Duluth the initial stage was missing: there was no gradual development from Orthodoxy to Reform. In all three communities social diversification played an essential role: Reform developed strongly and change became more rapid as heterogeneous Jewish elements appeared in the population. Where diversification occurred comparatively late (as in St. Paul) a change in ritual and philosophy occurred slowly; where it came before the older Jewish community was fully settled (as in Minneapolis), the change from Orthodoxy to Reform came quickly and almost suddenly. Where, as in Duluth, there was no significant interval between Western and Eastern immigration, the Western Jews turned at once to Reform. For in Duluth, settlers from Eastern Europe came only a few years after the first substantial contingent of German Jews.


  During the eighties the Russian pogroms had brought the first Eastern settlers to Duluth. There were Mose Polinsky and Samuel Oreckovsky, whose large families soon became an important factor in the community. There were the Karons and the Kaners, both with large families; the William Goldsteins and Isaac Abrahamson; there were Max Zalk, Israel Oreckovsky and Joseph Polinsky. From these early settlers and their children came much of the philanthropic and religious leadership of Duluth’s next seventy years.


  In the middle eighties, another Russian family arrived whose contribution to Jewish life became outstanding. This was the family of Isaac Cook and his wife, Ida. They had come from Litvinovka, Lithuania, and were related to the Mark family in St. Paul. Shortly after their arrival they became the spark plugs in the organization of the tradition-oriented section of the community.


"Father was a Rabbi (wrote their daughter). He knew nothing about business. Mother was the business woman in Europe, as were many mothers whose husbands were students. Father immediately looked around for a few Orthodox Jewish families-where services could be held in our home on Fridays and Saturday mornings-our living room not only became a synagogue, but a meeting place for immigrants during the first few years...Father had been asked from the New York Immigration office to take charge of all new-comers to Duluth. He held that office until he died, in February, 1901.


  The Cooks' great interest was the establishment of a sound Hebrew school. After some difficult early years the Moses Montefiore Hebrew School began to flourish. A half century later, a grateful community gave expression to its gratitude for one of the founders and changed the school's name to Ida Cook Hebrew School-to remember an unusual woman whose one hundredth birthday it had celebrated in 1943, on one of Duluth's most memorable occasions.


  The oldest Orthodox synagogue in Duluth was Tifereth Israel (Splendor of Israel) which was founded between 1892 and 1893. It's lay founders were Russian Jews, led by Jacob (Yankel) L. Levine and Louis Cohen, and its first rabbi was Odessa-born Joseph Shapiro.


  The Orthodox Moses Montefiore Congregation (part of which later developed into the Talmud torah, and another part of which became Adas Israel Congregation) was the home of the Lithuanian Jews and came into existence before the nineties were over, with Isaac Cook and Joseph Polinsky in the chief positions of leadership. A third traditional synagogue, B'nai Israel, was founded soon thereafter.


  Socially and religiously, East and West stood apart in Duluth as they did in the Twin Cities. Occasionally, an Eastern Jew like Jacob Zien would bridge the gap and join the German Reformers. In any case the gap was narrower in Duluth than father south in the older communities, and the organization of a B’nai Brith lodge in 1897 became dramatic proof of it. Bernard Silberstein,  personifying the German-speaking element, became President, and Isaac Cook, representing the Eastern Jews, Vice President. Neither St. Paul’s nor Minneapolis’ lodges had at that time lost their Western character. In fact, probably neither of them had any East European members before the turn of the century.


  To be sure, the Duluth experiment was short-lived. Perhaps it was as yet too early for type of communal unification. The lodge did not survive. Not until 1904 was it reorganized as Covenant Lodge No. 569. Meanwhile, the Russian Jews had found another outlet for their fraternal needs and had by 1900 founded Duluth City Lodge (No. 133) of the Order of Brith Abraham (=OBA). But while similar lodges in comparable communities were Yiddish-speaking, the Duluth chapter spoke English, thereby making the ultimate transition from OBA to B’nai Brith much easier.


  At the new century got under way, Duluth’s Jewish population grew to between 1,300 and 1,500 souls. There were now four congregations: Adas (Adat) Israel (with hebrah kaddishah, or burial society), B’nai Israel, Tifereth Israel and Emanuel; and three of them had spiritual leaders: Israel Teplitz at Adas, Maurice Lefkovits at Emanuel, and Jacob Halpern at Tifereth. There were two cemeteries; there were charitable organizations, an educational group, three social clubs and four lodges. The Zion Society spearheaded the jewish nationalist movement in the city.


  By this time, Duluth was farther along the path of communal unification than Minneapolis and St. Paul. There were only a few German Jewish settlers who held social and economic pre-eminence. Jews in both camps soon reached comparable economic positions, and while social leadership remained with the German group for some years, its number grew smaller and marriage between the groups became more and more frequent. Furthermore, since Emanuel’s Rabbi Maurice Lefkovits was a Zionist, the emotional responses of most Jews to the insistent voice of nationalism were undivided. Of the three major Minnesota communities which saw the development from a unitary to a dual Jewish community structure, Duluth was the first to foreshadow the ultimate third step: the reunification into one single Jewish community. In Duluth, this happened within ten years after its complete social diversification had been achieved. Minneapolis would follow suit, while St. Paul, whose split into two parts had been the longest in coming, was also the last to overcome it.



Submitted by Karen Alpert Entous, February 20, 2009


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