By DORIS RUBENSTEIN
It started back in the mists of time — at least by Minnesota history standards.
At some time in the early 20th century, the St. Paul Jewish community recognized that a new kind of non-synagogue-based gathering place was needed to bring the growing tribe together. When the Temple of Aaron and the precursor to the St. Paul Talmud Torah were built at Holly and Grotto, it was designed with space for community-wide activities: a proto-Jewish Community Center.
The two institutions grew and moved in response to demographic changes. By 1930, the St. Paul Jewish Community Center became a separate entity with its own building. It moved again, this this time to its current location on St. Paul Avenue. Just like the mythical Wandering Jew, the St. Paul JCC had been a wanderer; a wanderer it is no more, but it will not forget its roots.
A new exhibit, created and curated by the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest (JHSUM), has found a permanent home in the welcoming atrium of the St. Paul JCC’s recently-renovated and expanded building.
According to SPJCC Executive Director Michael Waldman, “The exhibit was planned for this space: it’s the entryway to the most visible and transited part of the building. The exhibit shares the rich history of this organization. It tells how it has been impacting the St. Paul community since 1849.”
Waldman knows his subject. A St. Paul native, Waldman virtually grew up at the JCC, participating in nearly all of its activities from sports to theater and Camp Butwin. “We started discussions about this exhibit with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest (JHSUM) back around 2014. Our building renovation motivated JHSUM President Jamie Heilicher to want to integrate its presence into our St. Paul building,” he says.
It was beshert, then, that Sharron Gordon Steinfeldt was able to step up to fund the project through the Oren and Sharron Steinfeldt Family Foundation.
The St. Paul native explains that “I am a founding member of the JHSUM and continue to serve actively on its Board. l find the work of the St. Paul JCC and the Sabes JCC important to preserving the history and continuity of the Jews in these communities. It was well within the mission of Oren & Sharron Steinfeldt Family Foundation to support this project.”
Creating such an exhibit takes more than an idea and money. The JHSUM archives at the University of Minnesota’s Andersen Library provided much of the historical material. According to Archivist Kate Dietrick, “One of the challenges of the project was just the sheer amount of materials we have — the St. Paul Jewish Community Center collection clocks in at 71 boxes!
“My role in helping with the exhibit was to help identify which had materials related to a particular topic or time period. Then, the curators could go into those boxes to dig deeper. The challenge wasn’t that there wasn’t documentation related to something, just that there’s so much and we had to locate it.”
Organizing these materials into a cohesive visual form and statement requires special skills.
Enter Graphic Designer and Beth Jacob Synagogue member Jennifer Kaplan. Her firm, Red Lime Graphics, while highly successful with contracts with companies like Angie’s Boom Chickapop popcorn, had never undertaken a commission like this. But she had the confidence of JHSUM Executive Director Robin Doroshow, and came up with a design that was both responsive to the subject, yet “… we wanted to make it flexible. We can switch out photos or add to the grid. We can do the same for artifacts in the vitrines as needed for different exhibits.”
The result of the efforts of this varied set of participants is an exhibit that deserves a serious visit whether you are a serious student of Minnesota Jewish history, someone who has a connection to the St. Paul JCC, or are just visiting the building for an event.
For some, it will revive an almost-lost memory of an experience or a person. Others will appreciate its design and cozy atmosphere that welcomes the visitor into a special and welcoming space. What all of them will experience is an immersion into the on-going history of one of the foundational institutions of Jewish Twin Cities.
A Kehillah Comes Together is on permanent display at the Steinfeldt Family History Center the St. Paul JCC, 1375 St. Paul Ave, St. Paul.
Thank you Doris & AJW for this wonderful article.