Museum in ex-synagogue documents once-thriving Stevens Point Jewry

One of Wisconsin’s newest tourist attractions is one of the state’s oldest synagogues. The Beth Israel Synagogue Museum opened here June 15 with a ceremony that drew dozens of expatriate Stevens Point Jews, Mayor Andrew Halverson and other locals.

The museum, at 1475 Water St., preserves the congregation’s religious items, including a fully appointed bimah, and displays artifacts, documents and photos of local Jewish commercial, civic and religious life.

Yes, the Portage County Historical Society has created a central-Wisconsin counterpart, albeit low-tech, to Jewish Museum Milwaukee.

Stevens Point Jews commissioned the plain, white wooden synagogue with its sloped metal roof in 1905. Typical of small-town traditional synagogues, the sanctuary fills 90 percent of the ground floor, with a small classroom adjacent to the entry hall. Atypical was the lack of a balcony in back for women.

Two remaining wooden pews and two pairs of the theater chairs that supplemented the seating face the raised bimah. A congregant bought the pews second-hand from a Baptist church in 1906, according to Mark Seiler, volunteer curator and author of the new book, “The Jewish Community of Stevens Point” (see sidebar).

The small bimah is dominated by a Torah reader’s table topped by a purple velvet cloth. The reader would have faced the now glass-enclosed ark with its two Torahs.

On either side of the Torahs, shelves hold Torah adornments, menorahs and a silver plate, engraved with, “Donated to BI Temple by the Jewish Club, 1934.”

The purple ark curtain is embroidered with the Ten Commandments and a golden lion. The eternal light is mounted behind a Star of David-shaped window in the wall above the ark.

Memorial plaques hang on the eastern wall on either side of the bimah.

Rabbi Isaac Lerer of Milwaukee’s Temple Menorah said that he found the synagogue so intact that he was able to “walk in there and … daven mincha [recite the afternoon prayers].” He participated in the museum’s opening in his capacity as a former Beth Israel rabbi (1949-51).

A homemade chuppah cover — actually two large prayer shawls sewn together, with corner pockets added for the poles — is mounted on the southern wall. Hanging nearby are a hand-painted wooden Ten Commandments tablet, a World War II-era banner and photos of Stevens Point Jews who served in that war.

A glass case displays a gold-painted wooden box topped with two angels facing one another — reminiscent of the original ark in the desert tabernacle. “It was full of faded kippahs,” said Seiler.

Another case features five small dolls dressed as nurses, presumably part of a Hadassah effort, and a Hadassah chapter charter written in Hebrew in 1950, probably by Lerer. Charter signatories included two Christian women who married Jews, Seiler added.

Prayer books and children’s books, including one about a live tractor that tills the soil of the new State of Israel, also are displayed. A photo shows a 1940 congregational Passover seder held in the Beth Israel basement.

Seiler estimates that 140 Jewish-owned businesses operated at various times in town from 1871-2000.

They are represented by reproductions of advertisements and artifacts, including a 1945 calendar from Weltman’s on the Square, a produce crate from AL Shafton & Co. and a bottle of Shafton’s Highest Quality White Soda. A photo shows the Baum family’s Milwaukee Cheap Store in nearby Pittsville.

Another display features 80 playbills of entertainers (the Ink Spots, an Elvis impersonator, et. al.) who played the Holiday Inn in Stevens Point. The collection belonged to Jewish businessman Bill Zenoff and his wife, who built the hotel in 1967 and attended performances there every weekend.

“One can argue,” said Seiler, “that there were two big events in the history of Stevens Point: placing the University [of Wisconsin] here [in 1964] — there was a big fight between Stevens Point and Wausau for it — and putting the Holiday Inn here, transforming Stevens Point into a convention town.”

Zenoff’s brother and fellow Stevens Point native, David, served as a Nevada Supreme Court justice and officiated at Elvis Presley’s wedding, noted Seiler.

The front room features two pump organs, an angel statue and a massive, ornately carved piano, all of which came from Stevens Point churches.

For a Jewish touch, the piano holds sheet music of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” bearing the handwritten inscription, “Played on the radio by Betty Shafton [on] March 5, 1942.”

Area Jews used the synagogue until 1985, when the shrinking congregation closed the doors and deeded the building and its lot to the Portage County Historical Society.

Approximately 10 Jews remain in Stevens Point. The post-World War II peak was approximately 40 families.

The nonsectarian historical society has maintained the building and grounds, earned placement for the synagogue on national Register of Historic Places in 2007 and, until last month, used the synagogue for a general museum of Portage County religious life.

Seiler convinced the society to change the emphasis of the museum after conducting the research necessary to apply for the Register of Historic Places. He had discovered evidence of a Jewish community more vibrant than anyone remembered.

The museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from early June through early September from 1-5 p.m. To arrange a tour, call 715-344-4423.

Andrew Muchin is director of the Wisconsin Small Jewish Communities History Project, a program of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.