On September 30, 1883, the first Jewish congregation in Salt Lake City dedicated its first permanent home.
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The synagogue was Congregation B’nai Israel, its ritual was Orthodox in style, and within a year, a rift had opened up between traditional members, who wanted to retain the standard rite, and advocates of Reform Judaism, who brought in a new rabbi to liberalize the service.
It is believed that among the first Mormon settlers to arrive in Utah, together with church president Brigham Young, in or just after 1847, were Jews who had converted to the new American religion. But by 1854, the first identifying Jews to settle in the Salt Lake Valley arrived in 1854: were Julius Gerson Brooks and his wife, Isabell Brooks, known as Fanny.
Born in Silesia, then part of Prussia, the couple had been living in Galena, Ohio, when a U.S. Army captain they met told them there were opportunities to be found in Utah. That army officer was Ulysses S. Grant, and the Brookses followed his advice. Ultimately, they opened a number of different stores throughout the Utah territory, and built a shopping arcade named for them in Salt Lake.
Other Jewish merchants, who were generally of German or Hungarian birth, arrived in the Valley directly from San Francisco, after having arrived too late there to take advantage of the 1849 gold rush. Some of them prospered after the U.S. Army opened a camp, in 1857, outside Salt Lake City, to suppress an anticipated insurrection by Mormons who were unwilling to give up the practice of polygamy.
While the so-called “Utah War” went on, most of the “Gentile” residents (as Mormons refer to members of the faiths) of Salt Lake and other settlements, moved out until that conflict was resolved.
Jews flock to the city
By 1864, there were enough Jews living in Salt Lake City for the Telegraph, a local paper, to report on Yom Kippur services, organized by the Hebrew Benevolent Society, being held at the home of an “East Temple Street merchant.” In the years that followed, High Holiday services were held either in private homes or in public buildings, such as the Masonic Hall and, in 1867, at a Mormon structure called the Seventies Hall.
That was a courtesy extended by Brigham Young himself, who also allocated ground to the Jewish community for a cemetery, in 1869. (Young had good personal relations with several Jewish businessmen, and in general Mormon theology has high regard for Jews.)
In 1876, another paper, the Tribune, reported on a gathering of 40 families for a Passover seder. So, it was probably natural that in 1881, a group of 23 Jewish citizens organized into a synagogue, which they called B’nai Israel. The group’s designated president, Henry Siegel, arranged for the purchase of a lot at the intersection of Third South and First West streets. First a brick structure for a school was built, and then a sanctuary building.
That was officially dedicated on September 30, 1883, the day before the start of Rosh Hashanah.
In 1884, the congregation hired Reform Rabbi Leon Strauss, who immediately introduced modern liturgy and customs into the shul. That led to the withdrawal of B’nai Israel’s Orthodox families the following year, and the establishment by them of a new synagogue, Congregation Montefiore.
A year later, a rattled Rabbi Strauss departed. B’nai Israel retained its progressive identity, but in 1889, it sold its home, and began building a new edifice, on Fourth East Street; that opened in 1891.
In 1972, B’nai Israel and Montefiore, which by then was affiliated with the Conservative Movement, merged, taking on the new name Kol Ami. Kol Ami identifies with both the Reform and Conservative streams of American Judaism. Today, Utah has some 6,000 Jewish citizens, most of them living in Salt Lake, with smaller communities in Ogden and Park City as well.