B'nai Jacob Synagogue

B'Nai Jacob Synagogue will no longer hold regular services. 

OTTUMWA — A very active part of Ottumwa’s history has become nearly silent.

“Ottumwa had a sizable Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century,” said Molly Myers Naumann, an architectural historian.

Naumann helped get the B'Nai Jacob Synagogue building placed on the National Register of Historic places. The congregation was founded in 1898; the building was constructed in the heart of the business district in 1915.

“One of the things that was fascinating to me is its location in the 500 block,” she said.

That was important: Orthodox Jews, extremely devout, considered the Sabbath day holy, a day of rest. Not only could they not operate machinery — like automobiles — they couldn’t make anyone else work on their behalf. So no driving (or being driven) meant they would walk to services.

The late Bessie Ullman said there were all sorts of Jewish-owned businesses ranging from junk buyers to jewelry stores.

“Like Bessie’s father’s store,” said Naumann. “It was where Appanoose Rapids is now. They lived above the store.”

The historian was asked to write up the multi-page application by Ullman, considered the temple historian, and the late Irene Weinberg, who went to B’nai Jacob as a child, became the unofficial greeter and lived to age 97.

“They were both bound and determined to [honor] that synagogue,” said Naumann, “and they recognized its importance within the community.”

By the early 2000s, when Naumann was asked to consult on the synagogue project, they were down to fewer than a dozen local members. Certain publicly performed prayers required a quorum of the membership, called a minyan. In some traditions, seven people made up a minyan, in others, it was a bare minimum of 10.

The lay rabbi wouldn’t insist that a city with, perhaps, six or 12 Jewish families, supply a full minyan every Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Five or six of the faithful could pray together — at least in Ottumwa, where the temple had become a bit more lenient Reform Judaism house of worship in the 1950s.

Lately though, there have been Saturdays with two people showing up — one at the altar and one in the pews.

“It’s a shame, really,” said John Cobler, a former B'nai Jacob board member. “It’s a beautiful place, and it wasn't so long ago we restored the whole interior.”

The world became more modern; area Jews, especially young ones, left as school, jobs and family needs changed. Some of the older members stayed — enough to keep B’nai Jacob Synagogue up and running.

“We had a very good run, a long run,” said Cobler.

It’s not over yet, cautioned the president of the congregation, Harvey Disenhouse, though the subject will be discussed.

“No decisions have been finalized yet,” said Disenhouse, who regularly takes on the responsibility during services and holy days of reading the Torah — in Hebrew, as the lay rabbi.

So while things are quieter in that part of East Main Street, it would not be accurate to state B’Nai Jacob has closed?

“It would be premature to say that,” said Disenhouse.

Staff writer Mark Newman can be contacted at MNewman@ottumwacourier.com.


Born in New England, reporter Mark Newman has lived in Iowa and Nebraska over 20 years, with 12 years as a Courier staff writer. He covered education news, but is now focusing on social issues as well as feature stories of local interest.