At the 2007 opening of the exhibit, Mike Weiner (an M.D. at what was then St. Luke’s hospital) asked me if there was a temple in Agincourt, the presence of a measurable Jewish community. My enthusiastic “yes!” put me on the path to understanding cultural and ethnic minorities in the Midwest. Technically, as a Scotsman I’m part of one myself. You know: clans (the good kind), kilts, bagpipes and all that are part of tribal behavior. Paradoxically, both Presbyterianism and whiskey set the Scots apart from the rest of y’all.
The Tribe in Iowa
I began simply enough with the U.S. census for 1900. Census information differs considerably from one decade to the next; but religion has not been one of its questions. [Not until recent political rhetoric has religion mattered to anyone—but don’t hold your breath; the Supreme Court hasn’t spoken.] But there are other ways into the subject, like country of origin for emigrants, or language; speaking Hebrew would be a good sign of Jewishness.
Of course, google also helps quite a bit, providing short narratives of the Jewish community in Des Moines and Sioux City. The distribution suggested by these two sources told me a temple in Agincourt was justified.
For a Modernist temple circa 1953, I limited my palette to three or four architects, designers who produced some of the finest religious buildings of the inter-war years: Pietro Belluschi and Erich Mendelssohn came immediately to mind, but I also added Paul Schweikher and Burnham Hoyt, two mid-century modern favorites. Coincidentally, both Schweikher and Hoyt practiced in Denver and ought to be on the radar of any MCM aficionados out there. Though I’m associating Temple Emanu-El primarily with Mendelssohn, these others have surely had a hand in shaping my thought.
I must admit to be more facile in design frames of reference between the Civil and First World wars. So expanding my comfort zone to the inter-war years is no bad thing. Since the project was situated in 1953, Erich Mendelssohn was the obvious choice, considering the creation of Israel just five years previous in 1948.
Temples for Jewish worship present their own particular issues, exaggerations of problems also present in Christian churches. Chief among them is the matter of High Holy Days: For Christians, Christmas and Easter will have higher than average attendance and might require additional services. But the fluctuation in attendance between a normal sabbath and a day like Yom Kippur can be daunting. The question becomes one of 1) allowing those present on a normal service to feel comfortable, not swimming in an overly large fish tank, and 2) allowing those on a High Holy Day to feel that they’re not sitting in the lobby or vestibule. Oddly, some of my research on the Protestant Christian “Akron-Auditorium Plan” has been helpful in this non-Christian situation.
The importance of liturgical orientation (or what Islam calls qibla) varies with the species of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Agincourt’s community was likely to be somewhat liberal and open to non-liturgical placement of the sanctuary. The site itself was obvious: it would be adjacent to Church Block A-5, near Asbury United Methodist, sharing their parking and also connecting the temple—to be called Emmanu-El, from the Hebrew name עִמָּנוּאֵל (‘Immanu’el) meaning “God is with us”—with the religious denominations that had formed the core of Agincourt’s civic origins.
The demographics of Iowa are working against the idea that Agincourt had a sufficiently large Jewish population to warrant a center for their community, let alone a resident rabbi. So the program would necessarily be simple and the budget limited: 1) a sanctuary; 2) a social hall; 3) space for religious and cultural education in the language and traditions of Judaism; 4) administrative and other support spaces. All of this had to be accommodated on two 50 by 140 foot residential lots. It was unlikely that the congregation could afford the luxury of a full-time resident rabbi.
I’m anxious (in several meanings of the word) to show you what has evolved, particularly from my study of Mendelssohn’s three major American synagogues: St Louis (1946-1950), Cleveland (1947-1951) and Saint Paul (1950-1954). St Louis and St Paul are tantalizingly close to Agincourt, which gave me a wonderful opportunity to imagine him “in the neighborhood”. He died, by the way, in San Francisco, California in 1953.