Dedicated in 1909, the red brick synagogue of Virginia’s B’nai Abraham congregation was called the most beautiful religious building on the Iron Range. In the early twentieth century, the synagogue was the heart of Virginia’s Jewish community. A declining congregation forced the synagogue to close its doors in the mid-1990s. However, community support and renovations have made B’nai Abraham a center of Virginia’s cultural life once again.
Virginia became a hub of lumber and mining industries in the 1890s. Jewish merchants and clerks soon settled in the newly established town. In 1894, Jews from Virginia and nearby communities began to hold religious services in Virginia’s old North Pole Hall. Most of Virginia’s Jewish population were immigrants from the Russian Empire (an area that is now Lithuania).
As the town boomed, so too did its Jewish population. Members of Virginia’s growing Jewish community founded the congregation of B’nai Abraham in 1905. They held their first meeting in Virginia’s Socialist Opera House on November 20. Their first goal was the construction of a synagogue. Other Iron Range synagogues in Hibbing and Eveleth were converted churches. B’nai Abraham was the first synagogue to be built on the Range.
The women of the congregation formed the B’nai Abraham Ladies’ Aid Society in 1908. They began to raise funds for the construction of a synagogue and were very successful. Among their contributions to the building effort was the donation of $700 to purchase one of B’nai Abraham’s thirteen stained glass windows. The Ladies’ Aid Society continued long after the synagogue’s construction was complete. The group of women called themselves the Sunshine Club. They visited sick members of the congregation, hosted community events, and assisted new Jewish immigrants in the area.
The synagogue served as the heart of Virginia’s tightly interwoven Jewish community. Visiting rabbis conducted services. Holidays and Bar Mitzvahs were celebrated in the synagogue. B’nai Abraham was also used as a gathering place for weddings, birthdays, and retirements. The synagogue served as a meeting place for the Virginia chapters of several Jewish organizations including B’nai Brith and Hadassah.
The synagogue’s distinctive stone foundation, beautiful windows, Romanesque style, and red brick exterior make B’nai Abraham one of Virginia’s most recognizable landmarks. In 1980 B’nai Abraham was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the first Minnesota synagogue to be listed.
During the second half of the twentieth century, the Jewish population on the Iron Range declined. Falling membership had the forced the closure of synagogues in Hibbing, Chisholm and Eveleth. By 1990 B’nai Abraham was the last synagogue on the Iron Range. In the mid-1990s B’nai Abraham also closed its doors. By 2002 the congregation had declined to two members. That year the building was listed as one of the most threatened historic structures in Minnesota.
In 2004 a non-profit group, the Friends of B’nai Abraham, formed to save the building. They acquired it from its previous owners and began to restore the historic building with the help of state and local grants as well as donations. Through their efforts, the B’nai Abraham synagogue in Virginia has been transformed into a museum and cultural center.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.