VIRGINIA, Minn. -- She first came to the red-brick temple in her father's arms, carried past stained-glass windows, up to the stage for a special day. She was just 1 week old.
Now she's 83.
He came as a young, newly married doctor to this rugged Iron Range mining town, joining his father in the crowded pews where they attended services almost every Friday and Saturday.
Now he's 90.
Dorothy Karon and John Siegel are the last two active members of B'nai Abraham synagogue, survivors of a once thriving Jewish community, mostly eastern European immigrants and their descendants, who prayed and played poker, married and mourned under one roof for much of the last century.
They came when the walls rang with the rapid-fire Yiddish banter of newcomers eager to learn English and find their place in a new world.
They stayed when the halls fell silent as people died or moved away. The pews emptied, services stopped, the six Torahs -- handwritten scrolls of the first five books of the Old Testament -- were donated, stolen, or sent elsewhere to be preserved.
But the synagogue still stands. And Karon and Siegel, as stubborn and proud as the building itself, are determined that it be preserved.
"As long as we're alive, this building is going to stay alive," vows Karon, who still drives to the synagogue in her '92 Cadillac though she only lives at the other end of the block. "I feel connected to this building."
"It's part of family," echoes Siegel. "I can't see letting it go."
The struggle to save religious sanctuaries -- along with their history and heritage -- is a story that is repeating itself in small, shrinking towns around the country.
"As rural America empties, so do the houses of worship," says Marilyn Chiat, an art historian in Minnesota who specializes in religious art and architecture.
Many of these places date back to settlers who tilled the soil in the late 19th century and founded these now fading communities.
"They were built by people who came to this country and couldn't make a statement individually, but they could do it collectively," Chiat says.
In the town of Virginia, she says, building an elegant temple was a public pronouncement -- an attitude not shared by some Jews in big cities who feared anti-Semitism and didn't want to attraction attention.
"They felt comfortable enough to be visible," Chiat explains.
B'nai Abraham is the only one of four synagogues remaining on the Iron Range, a melting pot of European immigrants that once included about 1,000 Jews, including the Zimmerman family and their son, Bob Dylan, who grew up in nearby Hibbing.
The 93-year-old temple, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has managed to defy the fate of other houses of worship that have auctioned off their contents -- chairs, organs, stained glass windows -- then shut their doors in recent years.
Delafield Evangelical Lutheran Church, for one. The western Minnesota congregation held a final potluck dinner, then closed, ending its 125-year-history. Mark Brodin, who was baptized and confirmed there, chronicled the demise in a documentary.
"Watching your past and your family's past deteriorate -- that's a hard thing to do," says Brodin, whose father marked the day in his calendar in 1998 when the church finally turned off its outdoor light.
Dorothy Karon, 83, and Dr. John Siegel, 90, posed in the B'nai Abraham temple in Virginia, Minn. The two are the only active members remaining in the synagogue's congregation.
The white clapboard church was hauled away on a flatbed truck -- its steeple had been removed -- and it now lives again as part of a historical and tourist site 22 miles away.
But many sit idle.
In North Dakota, about 400 of 2,000 churches are vacant, according to a recent study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. More than three-fourths are in towns of 2,500 or less.
In the Dakotas, there once were more than 40 Disciples of Christ churches; now there are two.
In rural Iowa, 10 Methodist churches have closed in the past five years.
This trend reaches far beyond the desolate plains and vast open prairies of the Midwest.
In Rolling Fork and Greenwood, Miss., and in Wharton, Texas, synagogues have closed. In Lexington, Miss., and Helena, Ark., others are in jeopardy. In southern New Jersey, a campaign is under way to save nine temples, some dating to the 1880s.
Some congregations hope to stay open by bringing back a familiar figure from America's past: the circuit-riding preacher who kept his sermons in his saddle bags.
In South Dakota, a retired minister has returned to the pulpit -- he's actually in three pulpits, serving three denominations.
And there's a "helped wanted" posting on the Web site of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life for a circuit-riding rabbi to travel four states: Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama.
A church or synagogue in a small town is for more than prayer, says Gary Goreham, chairman of the department of sociology and anthropology at North Dakota State University.
"It's the glue that holds much of a community together," he says. "It's a place that provides meaning, identity and belonging."
It was all that -- and more -- to Dorothy Karon and John Siegel.
The story of B'nai Abraham mirrors the life of small-town America at the turn of the 20th century: a flood of immigrants staking their claim in a strange land.
Virginia, about an hour north of Duluth, was a boom town, blessed with iron ore mines and lumber. In the 1890s, there were 15 mines among the towering curtains of evergreens and poplars. A decade later, it was home to the world's biggest white pine sawmill.
Young men with strong backs and big dreams came from Norway, Sweden, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Finland to claw out the ore that helped transform America with railroads and cars.
With mines and mills also came merchants. There were grocers, jewelers, clothing store and theater owners, many of them Jewish, many setting up shop on Chestnut Street in the heart of town.
There were the Milavetzes and the Shanedlings. Their names are now etched on the purple, blue and gold synagogue windows. And there were the Schibels, Jewish brothers from Helsinki who owned the Palace Clothing store that catered to miners; their advertisements, in Finnish, always began with the words, "Fellow countrymen."
The synagogue, built at a costly $12,000, opened in 1909. Two of the founders traveled to New York and Washington to solicit donations. They ended up meeting with Teddy Roosevelt.
"These people were very worldly," says Chiat, the historian.
Julius Rosenwald, a Jewish philanthropist who became president of Sears, Roebuck and Co., provided some seed money, according to historical records.
For most of its life, the temple was Orthodox -- and in keeping with tradition, women sat separate from men. It became a center for the 175 to 200 Jewish people in the community.
"It was like a home away from home for everybody," says Phyllis Gordon, Siegel's daughter, who now lives in Houston. "It's where all the gossip started -- right here."
Demand for places at worship was so great that seats in the wooden pews had to be numbered -- all 155 of them.
But over time, the younger folks left. The small town that held promise for one generation became a dead-end for the next.
It has been decades since there was a regular rabbi and about a dozen years since weekly services ended because there were no longer 10 men for a minyan, a quorum needed for prayers.
High Holiday services ended about five years ago.
Now the synagogue is empty, its walls adorned with plaques commemorating the dead: the owner of the Rex Theater, three soldiers lost in World War II, the doctors, the merchants -- and members of Karon and Siegel's families, including their parents.
When Dorothy Karon's father carried her as an infant to the bema -- or stage -- it was to receive her Hebrew name, Sprinsa Leah.
"All the things that parents hope their children will accomplish and become were taught to me here," she says.
Karon, who never married, attended college in California, but returned to run her father's oil business and has lived all her life in the same house, on the same block as the synagogue.
She has almost 80 years of memories, from the joy of being a little girl wearing a white beaded dress at a holiday party, to the sorrow of saying goodbye to her sister, Dolores, two years ago -- the last funeral at the synagogue.
Siegel, a doctor for 44 years who delivered more than 3,000 babies, has his own recollections. Walking through a dusty basement where Wednesday night poker games once were played, he remembers the banquet held after the bar mitzvah for his son, Elliot, now 61.
"There's a feeling of loneliness, I suppose," he says, looking around the empty room.
Over the years, there have been a few offers to buy the synagogue.
Recently, the grandson of an original member expressed interest in using it as a retreat for youths from Minneapolis area synagogues.
Saving this building, Chiat says, is too big a job for Karon and Siegel, who have pitched in to pay for utilities and insurance.
"What these two people are doing is heroic, but they alone aren't going to be able to preserve it," she says, noting they will need outside help.
This summer, Benjamin Yokel, a doctor from a nearby town, traveled to Virginia to conduct Friday night services and offer Hebrew lessons for about 15 people.
"The best way to honor the synagogue is to use it as a synagogue," he says.
There were wine, food, a lesson, and children laughing and running.
It wasn't the crowd of years past, but Yokel says, the old place had new life, even if only for a few hours.
"If a building can be happy," he says, "it was happy that night."
On the Net:
National Trust for Historic Preservation: www.nationaltrust.org/
Institute of Southern Jewish Life: www.msje.org/
Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest: www.jhsum.org/
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