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The Nation

As Small Towns Fade, So Do Houses of Worship

Religion: Dwindling populations reduce congregations' viability. Some of the churches date back to late 1800s.


Young men with strong backs and big dreams came from Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Finland to claw out the ore that helped transform America with railroads and cars.

With mines and mills also came merchants, many of them Jewish, setting up shop in town.

There were the Milavetzes and the Shanedlings, whose names are etched on the purple, blue and gold synagogue windows. And there were the Schibels, Jewish brothers from Helsinki who owned a clothing store catering to miners. Their advertisements, in Finnish, always began with the words, "Fellow countrymen."

The synagogue, built for $12,000, opened in 1909. Two of the founders traveled to New York and Washington to solicit donations. For most of its life, the temple was Orthodox -- and, in keeping with tradition, women sat apart from men. It became a center for the town's 175 to 200 Jews. "It was like a home away from home for everybody," said Phyllis Gordon, Siegel's daughter, who lives in Houston. "It's where all the gossip started -- right here."

Demand for places at worship was so great that seats in the wooden pews had to be numbered -- all 155 of them.

But over time, the younger folks left. The small town that held promise for one generation became a dead-end for the next.

It has been decades since there was a regular rabbi and about a dozen years since there were weekly services. Ten men, a minyan, are needed for prayers. High Holy Day services ended about five years ago.

Now the synagogue is empty, its walls adorned with plaques commemorating the dead.

When Karon's father carried her as an infant to the bema -- or stage -- it was to receive her Hebrew name, Sprinsa Leah. "All the things that parents hope their children will accomplish and become were taught to me here," she said.

Karon, who never married, attended college in California, but returned to run her father's oil business. She lives in her childhood home, just down the block from the synagogue.

She has almost 80 years of memories, from the joy of being a little girl wearing a white beaded dress at a holiday party to the sorrow of saying goodbye to her sister, Dolores, two years ago -- the last funeral at the synagogue.

Siegel, a doctor for 44 years who delivered more than 3,000 babies, has his own recollections. Walking through a dusty basement where Wednesday night poker games were once played, he remembers the banquet held after the bar mitzvah for his son, Elliot, now 61.

"There's a feeling of loneliness, I suppose," he said, looking around the empty room.

Over the years, there have been a few offers to buy the synagogue.

Recently, the grandson of an original member expressed interest in using it as a retreat for youths from Minneapolis-area synagogues.

Saving this building, Chiat says, is too big a job for Karon and Siegel, who have pitched in to pay for utilities and insurance. "What these two people are doing is heroic, but they alone aren't going to be able to preserve it," she said.

This summer, Benjamin Yokel, a doctor from a nearby town, traveled to Virginia to conduct Friday night services and offer Hebrew lessons for about 15 people. "The best way to honor the synagogue is to use it as a synagogue," he said.

There were wine, food, a lesson, and children laughing and running.

It wasn't the crowd of years past but, Yokel says, the old place had new life, even if only for a few hours. "If a building can be happy," he said, "it was happy that night."

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