“Great place to be Jewish!” isn’t the first thing most people think when they hear the phrase “Northern Wisconsin.” Unless, of course, they’ve been to Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau.
The synagogue, founded in 1914 by seven families, serves an area described by current president Peter Rotter as “very similar to the State of Israel,” he said. “I mapped it out using a map of Israel with some push pins and poster putty.”
Core membership clusters are Wausau, Stevens Point and Marshfield (Jerusalem to Tel Aviv), but members live in Minocqua (Jerusalem to Haifa), Friendship (Jerusalem to Be’er Sheeva) and Rhinelander.
“The community is very close-knit, even though there’s only a certain core of people who live in Wausau,” said Rabbi Sarah Newmark, who is serving the congregation on a part-time interim basis. “They live in Marshfield, Stevens Point, Minocqua and all over the place. They’re far flung from each other, yet they’re very dedicated to the community and to one another.”
Mount Sinai’s membership roster has held steady at about 85 families for as long as anyone can remember, according to Rotter, who moved to Wausau in 1988 after graduating from Marquette Law School.
“I don’t know that I would have moved to Wausau at all if there hadn’t been a synagogue,” he said. “Jewish life was an essential part of who I was and still am.”
That’s the case for all of Mount Sinai’s members, even those who might not have been Jewishly involved when living elsewhere. Living Jewish in North Central Wisconsin is an affirmative choice in a region heavily populated by church-going Christians. Jewish families connecting to the synagogue on arrival are immediately welcomed into a supportive community, something I experienced first-hand when I moved to Marshfield and joined the synagogue in 1993.
The entire congregation is invited to – and largely attends — every bar and bat mitzvah. Pitching in is a way of life. Everyone contributes what they can; every contribution, whether time, talent or money, is valued equally.
When members decided to move from the former funeral home they’d converted to a synagogue and build something of their own in 1989, one member donated the land. Another, an architect, designed the building. And a third, Ralph Mirman (z”l) raised enough money not just to cover the $500,000 building cost, but to fund a six-figure congregational endowment. The building was completed in 1992.
The religious school has always been volunteer-run and staffed. (For the three years I was in Marshfield, I taught music, making the 90-mile round trip most Sundays with another teacher and his three middle-sized sons. At the end of each year, we received $15 gift certificates.)
Marsha Stella, a now-retired elementary school teacher, began teaching at Mount Sinai 44 years ago. She took over the program four years ago, after long-time principal Jeannie Waldman retired and moved south – to Madison.
“I moved to Wausau when I was 23-years-old and first married. My mother said, ‘Teach Sunday School and you’ll meet all the new families.’” Currently, there are 22 students in the religious school, ranging in age from kindergarten through confirmation.
“I write all the curriculum and give it to the teachers, and they team teach.”
Confirmation, she said, is her main challenge, as the congregation is currently searching for a rabbi. In addition to her position at the religious school, she’s also serving on the search committee.
She also works closely with Rabbi Newmark, whose relationship with the congregation is the result of a particularly typical brand of Central Wisconsin Jewish Serendipity.
“One of our congregants lives in Rhinelander,” she said. “She’s an audiologist and was meeting with a substitute doctor from Seattle.”
The doctor noticed her Star of David necklace and asked if she knew what it was. When he found out she was Jewish, he asked her where she went to synagogue. When she told him she belonged to “a thriving congregation 50 miles from here,” he told her that his wife was a rabbi who didn’t currently have a congregation.
“They took a leap of faith with me and hired me to do this one little girl’s bat mitzvah,” Newmark said. She then led High Holy Day services and was subsequently hired to work with the congregation’s two other bat mitzvah students and to lead services and study sessions one weekend a month. She has been flying in from Seattle to do it, though in the coronavirus era, it’s not clear what comes next. In theory, she has four more visits to come.
Newmark praised the congregation’s lay leadership, citing cantorial soloist Melanie Kuolt and Stella, the religious school principal.
“Marsha is just a gift to Jewish education, and so dedicated. She has created this wonderful curriculum and Melanie is fantastic, such a gift to them, and it helps to have lay people leading the service each week.”
She also noted another way in which the congregation is exceptional. “They’re very thinking people,” she said. “Some small congregations in out-of-the-way places get stuck in a mold, and they’re not like that.”
With the end of her tenure in sight, Newmark is already thinking about what she’ll be leaving behind.
“It’s been a very happy serendipitous meeting that has led to a relationship I can’t imagine not having,” she said. “I’m going to miss them so much.”