Jefferson City congregation celebrates major milestone

Our state capital, Jefferson City, sits on the banks of the Missouri River midway between St. Louis and Kansas City. Named for President Thomas Jefferson in 1821, the site was selected for its near geographic center of the state. Today Jeff. City’s population numbers approximately 40,000 including a very small Jewish community — small but mighty and mighty proud of its distinguished past.

Jews began settling in Jefferson City around 1865, many of them merchants who opened shops on High Street, a main thoroughfare. In 1879 nine of the Jewish settlers formed the Jefferson City Hebrew Cemetery Association to properly provide Jewish burials.

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At the same time they also organized a congregation to promote the Reform Jewish faith, naming it Congregation Beth El which means “House of God.” On April 3, 1882 six members of the Hebrew Ladies Sewing Society provided the funds to purchase a plot of land and construct the synagogue in what is now downtown Jeff. City.

One year later their house of worship was completed. Never underestimate the power of a woman, even a 19th century Jewish woman.

The building itself has gone through several renovations to add electricity, running water and heating and air conditioning. Over the course of time stained glass windows were also added. St. Louisan Shirley Mosinger, whose daughter Gail Severance is a member of Beth El and was very active in the 125th celebration, told me that in the 1950s, a Chicagoan donated the funds for the small Oneg Shabbat room and a bathroom for the building. “Until then the congregants walked to the corner filling station to use the facilities.” Shirley said.

Recently Temple Beth El, in the self same building completed in 1883, celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding making it the oldest temple west of the Mississippi that is still in continuous use and the 14th oldest in the country. The congregation consists of 30 families and is lay-led, a tradition followed since its founding. On Friday nights, instead of a rabbi leading services, members of the congregation take turns reading at the services. It was the good fortune of Temple Beth El that eight years ago Joe Benson of St. Louis moved to Jefferson City to become the Archivist for the Missouri Supreme Court (He told me that he is also Curator of the Court’s art collection, its Legal historian and an attorney performing other duties).

Benson, an educated and devout Jew whose local congregation was Shaare Zedek, became a member and involved with Temple Beth El. He offered his services, eventually being ordained. So now Rabbi Benson, who calls himself the rabbi-in-residence, donates his services for all life cycle events from birth, baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals, monument dedications and marriage ceremonies.

On Oct. 25, 2008, as a part of their celebration, Temple Beth El invited the cantorial staff of Central Reform Congregation to participate in their special Shabbat service. Armed with guitar, drum, tambourine and sundry other small percussion instruments Rabbi Ed Harris, sopranos Leslie Caplan and Marty Miller drove to Jefferson City where they provided a musical and spiritual experience for the congregation.

According to Gail Severance, “It was thrilling to hear them, especially the soaring voice of Leslie, which filled our small sanctuary. They also taught us some of the wonderful prayers that are sung at CRC.”

Leslie, who happens to be my daughter, told me of their love affair with the congregation, whose appreciation and applause was as boundless as was the CRC trio’s for Beth El.

The names of the founding members of Temple Beth El are listed on a plaque which hangs in the sanctuary. In preparation for the celebration, Gail Severance and her sister Peggy researched the names of the founders to find out what has become of these families. To help in their research I am listing the names in case any of you know about them.

They are E. Jonah and Emily Hochstadter, Louis and Matilda Wolferman, Josef and Hannah Straus, S. Straus, Sigmund and Carrie Vetsburg, Isaac and Carrie Bodenheimer, Joseph Obermayer, Jacob and Minnie Goldman, Max Rauh, Abraham Heim and William Fishel.

Should any of these names ring a bell, contact Gail through www.templebethel.org.

One descendent of a founding member was there — St. Louisan Rita Freed. Freed was seeing the synagogue for the first time. She brought with her and gave to the congregation a silver Kiddush cup engraved with the name of founder Sigmund Vetsburg. It was used in the temple’s rededication ceremony.

The world has changed considerably since Temple Beth El was founded 125 years ago, but the worship and dedication inside its four walls seems to remain the same.