The historic 1891 B’nai Israel Temple (Hebrew for “children of Israel”) is a testament to the “Gentile” Jewish community in Utah. It is the oldest synagogue in the state, and while it is no longer used for religious purposes, it symbolizes over 150 years of flourishing Jewish life.
The first Jews to migrate to Utah arrived in small numbers due to confict with the United States government which lasted until 1857. This precipitated more movement, and many Jewish pioneers came to Salt Lake City as entrepreneurs and craftsmen. Many of these migrants were from Germany. Until the 1880s, the Jewish population practiced their faith in rented Masonic halls or Mormon Churches. They incorporated the B’nai Israel congregation and built a small synagogue in 1883; however, infighting over religious doctrine split the group in two, a fairly commonplace occurence for American Jews at the time. Meanwhile, the social status of Utah’s Jews increased overall, and Congregation B’nai Israel looked to create a more distinguished synagogue. In 1889, they purchased land formerly belonging to Brigham Young for B’Nai Israel Temple.
Utah magnate, Frederick Auerbach, brought his nephew Philip Meyer from Germany to design the synagogue and work with local architect Henry Monheim. They modeled it after a famous synagogue in Berlin, called Fasanenstrasse. Its architectural style reflects Romanesque and Moorish Revival, both popular in the mid to late nineteenth century and is most notablie in the temple's arched windows, intricate stonework, and hallmark dome. Workers constructed the building with local Kyune stone, and its design includes a brick dome and two stained-glass windows in front. The architects built it to seat 500 people, including two stories and a choir gallery. It was dedicated in 1891; the Salt Lake Tribune remarked that it had “an air of quiet elegance.” Later, in 1929, a concrete block addition added classrooms, a social area, and a kitchen to the temple.
The ornate synagogue represents the active and successful community. Early settlers Julius and Fanny Brooks were merchants in early years of white settlement. The Auerbach brothers became prominent businessmen and dominated mercantile industries before Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution was formed. Simon Bamberger, who was involved in silver mining and railroads in Salt Lake, became the first non-Mormon, and the only Jewish, governor in state history in 1916. The Jewish community also developed a unique relationship to Utah’s Mormon population, occupying a position of “favored Gentiles." The Mormon settlers were largely supportive of Jewish migrants as they also claimed spiritual ties to Israel. Relations grew tense at times due to economic competition, but mostly remained amicable. The Jewish community grew as refugees increased after World War II. Tragically, architect Philip Meyer, who had designed the synagogue, died in a Nazi death camp in 1943.
In 1972, the divided Jewish congregations of Salt Lake moved to reunite, but the historic B’Nai Israel Temple could not accommodate its new group, now known as Kol Ami. They soon constructed their present synagogue and sold B’Nai Israel, which is now used commercially. In 1978, the community successfully nominated the temple to the National Register of Historic Places. Even though it is no longer used for religious practice, the historic building stands as a monument to the Jewish community of Utah.