Ahavath Beth Israel (Hebrew for "Love of the House of Israel") is the oldest synagogue in continuous use west of the Mississippi River. Founded in part by the first Jewish governor in United States history, it represents over 125 years of Jewish life in Idaho.
Among the first immigrants to Idaho were Jews who came from Germany and Central Europe beginning in the 1860s. They arrived soon after Congress declared Idaho a territory and primarily worked in mercantile or farming operations. They worshipped in private homes and rented halls until they amassed the resources for a synagogue. In 1895, five years after statehood, community leaders organized an official congregation and elected successful Boise merchants Moses Alexander and David Falk as leaders. They led the congregation to purchase three lots a few blocks from the state capitol and hired an architectural firm to begin construction on the Temple Beth Israel. Records later surfaced that nationally known companies such as Marshall Field and Levi Strauss contributed to its construction.
Local architects Chestney and Schroeder completed the synagogue in 1896, and its architecture reflects Rundbogenstil and Moorish Revival styles. Rundbogenstil was popular in Germany and its diaspora, reflecting the recent waves of German immigration. It incorporates Byzantine, Romanesque, and Renaissance styles commonly used in synagogue architecture of this period. It can be seen in the tall, arched window framing the synagogue, and the arched windows along the sides. Such windows, intricate detailing, and interior vaulted arches also reflect Moorish Revival style, a mainstay of nineteenth-century synagogues due to its association with Judaism’s Middle Eastern origins. The architects designed Temple Beth Israel with a white and reddish pink Boise sandstone base and cedar-shingled exterior that imitates stonework. They used Cathedral glass to make stained glass windows and adorned the building with a handmade Star of David. Its crowning feature is a large, circular rose window. Ornate yet small, the Boise congregation constructed it to hold only 150 people.
The synagogue founders were major figures in Boise life. David Falk, the congregation president, owned dry goods stores and assisted in establishing the Boise-Winnemucca Railroad. Moses Alexander, vice president, became a prominent statesman. His fellow citizens elected him mayor of Boise in 1897 and 1901, and then governor of Idaho in 1914, becoming the first practicing Jewish governor in the United States. The community remained small throughout the twentieth century. In 1972, the Jewish citizenry successfully petitioned to have the synagogue placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A federal grant and other raised monies then facilitated a building renovation in 1981, which restored the windows, siding, and handmade Star of David—which they delayed placement of until an Aryan Nations Conference had left the area. Soon after, a new congregation of Jews who had moved from Poland after World War II merged with Temple Beth Israel, formally becoming Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel in 1986.
The new congregation continued to grow, and, in 1994, added Daniel Fink as Idaho’s first full-time rabbi. They also needed more space, so they hired Cole & Associates to relocate the building in October of 2003. Of the additions, they added an education building. Today, the synagogue continues to support Boise’s Jewish population from its location on Latah Street.