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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Former temple in Leavenworth found to be state’s oldest

  • It’s a structure in the city of Leavenworth that many may pass each day without much notice. But to Jerry Klinger of Rockville, Md., one building at the corner of Sixth and Osage streets has a special significance.

     


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  • It’s a structure in the city of Leavenworth that many may pass each day without much notice. But to Jerry Klinger of Rockville, Md., one building at the corner of Sixth and Osage streets has a special significance.
    It’s been known as the Temple Apartments since the 1970s. But before that, it was the Temple B’Nai Jeshurun. That’s what drew Klinger to the city last week — Temple B’Nai Jeshurun, according to his research, is the oldest Jewish place of worship in the state of Kansas.
    Klinger is the President of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, a group that he founded about 10 years ago after a trip to Las Vegas, N.M., in which was the site of that state’s oldest Jewish place of worship, Temple Montefiore. Following some difficulty finding the actual site, he said he learned it had been converted into a Catholic cathedral some years earlier.
    What Klinger said struck him at the time was precisely that transformation from a Jewish place of worship to a Catholic one — he said it was a phenomenon that seemed uniquely American.
    “What I learned over the years is that synagogues became churches, churches became synagogues,” he said. “In other words, the commonality of faith in America. Whatever your approach to God was is fine, provided you had an approach.”
    Following that visit, Klinger said he decided to talk to city and church officials about installing a marker at the site. One thing led to another — it was the beginning of a decade-long journey finding other sites of significance to Jewish history and place markers at those sites. Klinger said he has since been to 22 states in the U.S. and four different countries.
    Klinger last week spoke with the Leavenworth County Historical Society the day before a presentation of a new paver commemorating Jewish involvement in World War I on Veterans Day at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo. He had previously been in contact with the LCHS about erecting a “vertical interpretive” historical marker at the Leavenworth site. He said to do that would require no public funds nor any from the LCHS. Klinger said he would arrange for the marker to be made and delivered, with text written by the LCHS.
    He had two requests for that text — that it mention the earliest presence of Jewish people in Kansas and that the presence of the building affirms what he called “the American principles of freedom of religion and assembly.”
    The LCHS will have to attain permission for the marker from the property owner and informal approval from the city.
    The point of the project, he said, is to try to tell a story, a story that, having been educated in a strict yeshiva environment, was not always known to him.
    Page 2 of 2 - “History begins of course, with the giving of the Torah and then of course being taken to Israel where everybody’s established and the temples are built. And history ends with the destruction of the Second Temple — this is when you’re in a very limiting yeshiva world — it ends at that point until the establishment of the state in 1948,” he said of his experience at the time. “There’s nothing in the middle.”
    Turns out, there is a lot in the middle, Klinger said, and the Temple B’Nai Jeshurun in Leavenworth appears to be a special example.
    “It’s a very, very unusual structure when you consider the time, the location, the size,” he said. “The impact it probably had was a statement.”
    In the Jewish faith, he said there is no requirement for a building of worship — services can take place in a residence or even outside. So having a physical house of worship speaks to the significance and relative permanence of the Jewish community at that time in Leavenworth.
    Even today, decades after the Temple was last used as a place of worship and more than a century after the first Jewish settlers arrived here, some of the names of major Jewish families in the city are likely familiar — Abeles and Wollman among them.
    The B’Nai Jeshurun Congregation was established in 1859, according to the Kansas State Historical Society. The land at Sixth and Osage was purchased by the congregation 1864 and the building built in 1866. It served as a place of worship until the 1970s when the congregation is said to have dissolved, after which the Greenamyre family purchased and renovated it into apartments.
    Klinger said the location of Leavenworth at the time of the congregation’s formation — part of what was then the American West — also points to the importance of the site. Though he said the view of many of those in large metropolitan areas on the East Coast seems to be that prejudice was predominantly a problem of the Midwest, Klinger said he believes that freedom and tolerance actually increased with westward expansion and that the Leavenworth site helps tell that story.
    Klinger said the site could serve as an educational site for the future generations — he encouraged the members of the LCHS to try to express some of the uniqueness of the building in the marker.
    “This is a tool, it’s a mechanism to tell the Leavenworth experience,” he said.

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