In 1864, when Jewish settlers in Utah celebrated the high holy day of Yom Kippur, they did so in a private home. The territory’s Jewish community was still in its infancy, and grew slowly as westward-bound Jews made their way to the Great Basin. Many of the early Jewish migrants to Utah were merchants intent on taking advantage of new opportunities in the American West.
By 1881, Jewish pioneers had established Congregation B’nai Israel and had bought a plot of land for a synagogue and school at the intersection of Third South and First West in Salt Lake City. Two years later, due in no small part to the sacrifices of the congregation, the school and temple were finished. When the congregation decided to move to a new synagogue on Fourth South a few years later, the commission for the new building went to Philip Meyer, the nephew of Frederick Auerbach, one of Salt Lake’s leading businessmen. Meyer, who lived and studied in Germany, came to Utah at his uncle’s expense intent on building a structure that would please Utah’s Jewish community. What he designed was a scaled-down version of Berlin’s Great Synagogue, a magnificent structure that unfortunately was destroyed by Allied bombers in World War II.
After the synagogue was built, Meyer returned to Germany (where he later died at the hands of the Nazis), and Congregation B’nai Israel struggled on. The rise of a new congregation, this one made up of mostly Eastern European Jews, eventually challenged the dominance of the original group of worshippers, causing the Jewish community to split into factions. Through it all, the B’nai Israel temple remained a potent reminder of the pioneering spirit of Utah’s first Jewish settlers.
See Eileen Hallet Stone. A Homeland in the West: Utah Jews Remember (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2001), 1-20; Jack Goodman, “Jews in Zion,” in The Peoples of Utah, ed. Helen Z, Papanikolas (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1981), 187-220; and Ralph M. Tannenbaum’s entry on the Jewish Community in the online Utah History Encyclopedia at www.media.utah.edu/UHE.
Text © 2007 Utah Humanities Council
Images courtesy of Utah State History