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Long out of use, synagogue comes back as museum

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Stained glass windows
Afternoon sunlight illuminates stained glass windows and benches inside B'nai Abraham Synagogue in Virginia on June 10, 2013.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

In the early 1900s, it is said, you could hear 42 languages in downtown Virginia. One of them was Yiddish, and the B'Nai Abraham Synagogue, built in 1909, was one of four serving a vibrant Jewish population on the Iron Range.

But by the 1980s, the congregation had dwindled to less than 10, and eventually the building was abandoned, its roof leaking, mold growing on the walls and sewage backing up under the basement floor.

It's a common story, and many iconic old buildings across Minnesota share similar stories. Expensive to repair, they often are subsequently demolished because finding a new purpose is difficult. 

But  14 Twin Cities residents with family ties to the building formed a group to try to save the synagogue in 2004. The result was the B'Nai Abraham Museum and Cultural center, a red brick building hosting museum displays and cultural events. The interior is cleaned up and light streams in through gorgeous painstakingly restored stained glass windows. It looks almost exactly like it did 100 years ago.

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B'nai Abraham Synagogue
The B'nai Abraham Synagogue in Virginia was constructed in 1909 and was the last active synagogue on the Iron Range before it closed more than a decade ago. The building is being restored and now serves as a cultural and arts center. It's located in a residential neighborhood not far from the downtown area. Maggie the dog is pictured in the foreground.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

One of the people instrumental in returning the light to the synagogue was Charlie Ostrov, whose grandparents ran a grocery store in Virginia and were among the synagogue's first members. When it opened a local paper described it as the finest "church" on the Iron Range.

It served as much more than a place of worship. It was an important meeting place for the Iron Range's Jewish population.

"So they kidnapped me, and I had to go and participate in the service."

But by the time Ostrov, now 75 and a Golden Valley ophthalmologist, was a teenager most Jewish families had left the Range. That made it tough sometimes to have a service. 

"One time I went to empty the garbage around 5:30 in the evening, and I was coming back to the store, because I had to go back and run the cash register," Ostrov remembered. "And a car drove up, and the Schwartz brothers, one of them unrolled the window, and said, get it the car, we need a minyan at the synagogue."

At that time, ten men were needed - a minyan - for an Orthodox service. 

"So they kidnapped me, and I had to go and participate in the service."

"They locked the door and didn't come back."

Ostrov's wife, Marjorie, said, "Finally, around 1992, '93, there just were not enough left, and they pretty much just locked the door and walked away and left the building as it was.

"There was a half bottle of wine downstairs.   A box of cookies half opened. The wine glass had mold in it. They locked the door and didn't come back."

That's often the prelude to demolition. But in this case, after the building sat empty for years and there was some legal wrangling over ownership, the Ostrovs and others formed the Friends of B'Nai Abraham.   

"The Jews were instrumental in the development of the Range," Charlie Ostrov, who serves as treasurer, said. "And we felt that that history needed to be remembered."

But the Ostrovs and the rest of the group all lived in the Twin Cities. So first, they asked the people of Virgina if they even wanted the building restored. 

That's a crucial first step. Many historic buildings are destroyed because it's difficult to find an appropriate re-use for them, said

Marilyn Chiat, a member of the Friends group and a former University of Minnesota art history professor and expert on religious architecture. 

"There are certain things you don't want it to become, a bar or a restaurant," she said. "You want it to maintain its dignity as what it was designed to be used for, in this case a house of worship."  

Tour guide Harry Lamppa
Tour guide Harry Lamppa is active with the Virginia Area Historical Society, which partners with the Friends of B'nai Abraham to promote the B'nai Abraham Synagogue. Lamppa is one of two locals regularly on volunteer duty to provide tours of the building and rotating exhibits.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News

Chiat said the people trying to revive the synagogue were impressed with the community interest in it. They've raised over a half million dollars in private donations and grants to completely renovate a building that cost about $15,000 to build.

As Harry Lamppa with the Virginia Area Historical Society provides a tour of the synagogue, he points out the nameplates beneath each window bearing the names of Jewish families who founded the synagogue. 

"You see Milavetz, it was a common Virginia name, you see Roman, a very common name,  they had a theater over here and some buildings, and then Ostrov was a family here, and they are active in the restoration process now. "

Margie Ostrov, president of the friends group, estimates the building is now about 85 percent complete. 

"Our big goal besides completing the building and continuing with programming is to build an endowment fund, because in another fifty years none of us are going to be here to maintain this building."

"This is sort of our way of giving back to the Range for how they helped us," said Charlie Ostrov.