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Ottumwa's B'nai Jacob Synagogue was built in 1915 to support a congregation that had been established seventeen years earlier. Demonstrating change over time, the building is no longer used for religious purposes but remains an important landmark in Ottumwa and center of meaning for local residents through culture and the arts. The building is now home to the Temple of Creative Arts and the home of the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Now home to the the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival, the former B'nai Jacob Synagogue was built in 1915 and remained active until 2018.

Sky, Building, Window, Urban design

Building, Light, Window, Interior design

The first Jews in Ottumwa arrived from Austria and Germany in the mid-19th century. They were Reformed Jews and many operated successful businesses and became prominent members of the community. One of these was businessman Phillip Emanuel Adler, who, at the time of his death, had amassed a large trust fund. His son, E. P. Adler, became the City Editor of the Ottumwa Courier.

In 1876, the community bought land for a Jewish cemetery. However, they did not have a place to worship in Ottumwa during the first several decades. Services were held in homes and high holy days were celebrated in a rented hall. This situation continued until the synagogue was built in 1915. By then, the next wave of Jewish immigrants—this time mainly from Eastern Europe—had arrived in Ottumwa. They were primarily Orthodox Jews and many of them established businesses as well. They also founded B'nai Jacob. Like the Jews who came before them, they held services in homes and the rented hall.

Finally in 1914 the congregation decided to build the synagogue. They chose a location close to where the members lived since Orthodox Jews could not operate vehicles on the Sabbath. The dedication of the synagogue was attended by members of the community including the pastor of the First M.E. Church, who spoke at the event.

The congregation grew in the coming years, reaching a peak of 250 people who belonged to about 50 families. Several full-time rabbis served the congregation until 1969. In the 1950s, B'nai Jacob became a Conservative synagogue. Interestingly, it appears the change was a practical one. Orthodox services were held in Hebrew but only a few women members knew the language. As a result, instead of paying attention the women talked during services. Additionally, the women also sat in the balcony separate from the men who sat on the main floor. One of the women broke her hip and could not climb up the stairs so she sat with the men. As a result of these factors, the congregation decided to join the Conservative movement, which allows men and women to sit together. Services are also held in English.

In the 1960s the congregation discussed building a new synagogue to accommodate the growing membership. However, many of the children who grew up during those years did not come back to Ottumwa as adults and membership decreased as a result. By the early 2000s there were only ten members. It finally closed in 2018. The American Gothic Performing Arts Festival acquired the synagogue in 2019.

"Dwindling membership challenges Ottumwa synagogue." Ottumwa Courier. May 23, 2018.

Naumann, Molly Myers. "B'nai Jacob Synagogue." National Park Service - National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. August 10, 2004.

"Performing arts festival celebrates new home." Ottumwa Courier. June 17, 2019.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Douglas W. Jones, via Wikimedia Commons: