Filed Under Religion

B'Nai Israel Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah

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.

Images

B'Nai Israel Temple
B'Nai Israel Temple This 1976 photo of B’nai Israel Temple, taken from the northwest, shows off the intricate stone work in front and its central dome, reflections of the Moorish Revival style. Also well-displayed are the parapets; the one on the dome was removed after it became a commercial property. Source: "B'Nai Israel Temple." 1967. P. 1, Box 9. Mss C 239; Peoples of Utah Photograph Collection. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6df6q2k
B'Nai Temple in 2016
B'Nai Temple in 2016 This present-day photo of B’Nai Israel Temple shows the exterior of the building in good condition, but it is also evident in this photo that the stone used in the back position is different from the front. It is now a commercial property. Source: Beneathtimp. B'nai Israel Temple, September 2016. September 25, 2016. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:B%27nai_Israel_Temple,_September_2016.jpg
The B'Nai Temple in Salt Lake City
The B'Nai Temple in Salt Lake City This 1986 photo shows Temple B’nai Israel sandwiched between larger, more modern city structures. Its architecture stands out in the city. Source: Varley, Charles Raymond. "Salt Lake City Scape, Old and New." 1986. Box 1, Folder 4, No. 5; MSS C 412 The Charles Raymoond Varley Slide Collection, 1868-1986. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s612805s
The Auerbach Family.
The Auerbach Family. This photo features Frederick Auerbach, an early Jewish immigrant to Utah who came from California and Prussia before that. After gaining approval from Brigham Young, he was able to set up a general store. His business success later helped him orchestrate the building of B’nai Israel. Source: "Auerbach Family." n.d. 19646; Utah State Historical Society Classified Photo Collection. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s62n58kh

Location

Metadata

Katie Scholler, Northern Arizona University , “B'Nai Israel Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah,” Intermountain Histories, accessed April 15, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/720.