Beth Israel Center: Meeting the Community’s Needs Then & Now
In 1904, Nechama Sinaiko was incredulous. Her sons and nephews had left Kapule in the Russian province of Minsk for new lives in Madison, Wisconsin, an entire decade previously and had not yet built a synagogue. Out of respect for this matriarch and concern for future generations, Madison’s forty-household Jewish community banded together in 1904 to build a synagogue, which they called Agudas Achim. Peddlers, scrap dealers, grocers, and the occasional optician and university professor laid the building blocks of a congregation that became a magnet, bringing new Jewish settlers to Madison.
Two decades later, a group of mostly American-born congregants desired a more modern approach to Judaism, and created Beth Jacob, Madison’s first attempt at building a Conservative synagogue. Eleven years later, a splinter group from Agudas Achim created a new Orthodox congregation, Adas Jeshurun. These two congregations would eventually meld into Beth Israel Center.
By 1944 it was clear that Madison needed a center for Jewish worship. Beth Jacob had folded, and Adas Jeshurun’s membership remained small. Four years of work led to the creation of Beth Israel Center, located six blocks west of the original Agudas Achim synagogue. The candlelit Torah procession in 1950 from Agudas Achim to the new building at 1406 Mound Street was a sight to behold. In the early 1960s, the remaining members of Adas Jeshurun paraded their Torahs along Mound Street and joined Beth Israel Center.
Aligning with the Conservative movement in 1967 and moving to egalitarian services during the early 1980s, Beth Israel Center has become Madison’s primary address for traditional Jewish observance. Our contributions to the community include a daily minyan, adult learning opportunities that are open to all, and a school program for grades K-7 that teaches Jewish history, culture, Hebrew and synagogue skills. In the 1970s, Beth Israel Center began the Midrasha Hebrew High School that today serves the broader community regardless of affiliation. And in 2001, Beth Israel members launched Chug Ivrit, the after-school Hebrew language program for children in Kindergarten through 5th grade, which, like Midrasha, is run by the Jewish Federation of Madison and is open to any child who wants to learn the language of our people.
We also have a long history of social action, addressing issues in Madison by, among other things, volunteering at men’s shelters and continually collecting clothing and supplies to donate, sponsoring a family through the Second Chance housing program, maintaining the Hebrew Free Loan Society, and driving for Meals on Wheels. We also have established ties with a sister congregation in Cuba. Our building continues to serve as the “Center” its founders wanted it to be -- opening its doors to Israeli dance groups, Madison’s Yiddish Choir, the Lechayim lunch program for Jewish seniors, Midrasha, Chug Ivrit, and other programs over the years.
More than a century after our parent congregation opened its doors in 1906, Beth Israel Center continues to be a spiritual, intellectual and familial home for 260 member families, as well as visitors from near and far.