For the first half of the twentieth century, the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis had two functions. First, it was a religious school for Jewish youth. Second, it was a community hub. When Minneapolis Jews moved to the suburbs after World War II, the Talmud Torah returned to its original educational purpose.
The Minneapolis Talmud Torah evolved from the Hebrew Free School, founded in 1894 with twelve students. It first met in a vacant butcher shop at 613 Fifth Street North. A few years later, the school moved into the vestry rooms at Kenesseth Israel synagogue.
The Free School was a cheder, an Old-World-style school for boys. In 1911, it moved to its own building at 808 Basset Place. George Gordon, a twenty-year-old immigrant teacher who later became a physician, instigated the move. He could see that the chaotic cheder system, with its ungraded classes and untrained teachers, was not meeting the needs of American Jewish youth.
With community support, Gordon transformed the school. He created a modern, coeducational curriculum using trained teachers. Yiddish was abandoned as the teaching language in favor of Hebrew. Students learned about Jewish heritage and customs as well as religious foundations.
The school was renamed Talmud Torah of Minneapolis in 1913, and a fund drive for a new building began the following year. The new site on the corner of Eighth Street and Fremont Avenue North was dedicated in 1915. In 1920, the Talmud Torah of Minneapolis took over the South Side Talmud Torah.
The Fremont Avenue Talmud Torah was located between the older Sumner Field neighborhood and the newer (and more prosperous) Homewood neighborhood. Like the public schools in the area, the Talmud Torah served as a meeting ground for children from all strata of the North Side's Jewish community. Besides classrooms and a library, the building eventually included a swimming pool, an auditorium, and meeting rooms.
Two important Jewish institutions grew out of the Talmud Torah in the 1920s. The first was the Emmanuel Cohen Center, successor to the Talmud Torah Social Service department. The second was Beth El Synagogue, an outgrowth of the Talmud Torah’s Young People’s Congregation. Children’s services continued to be held at Talmud Torah even after the founding of Beth El in 1921.
Talmud Torah enrollment averaged between seven and eight hundred in the 1930s. By this time there was a small Orthodox alternative to the Talmud Torah located on Twelfth Street and Logan Avenue North. In the 1940s, this school evolved into the Torah Academy, an Orthodox parochial school. It was still in existence as of 2015.
In 1948, 60 percent of Minneapolis’s roughly twenty-three thousand Jews lived on the North Side. The percentage soon began to decline. Still, in 1951, the Talmud Torah built a new building in the Homewood neighborhood to replace the Fremont Avenue branch. It was named in memory of George Gordon, who had died in 1949. Gordon had given up his medical practice to serve full time as Talmud Torah director from 1928 until 1939. The South Side branch continued its operations in Adath Jeshurun Congregation’s education wing.
In 1959, only 38 percent of the Minneapolis Jewish population remained on the North Side. About 28 percent lived in South Minneapolis with an equal number in St. Louis Park. That year, the Talmud Torah opened a St. Louis Park branch at 8200 West Thirty-Third Street. A fleet of buses was purchased in 1961 to transport children of the dispersed community among the three branches.
In 1967, the Talmud Torah sold 1616 Queen to the Minneapolis School Board. The building retained the name of George J. Gordon, who had also been a champion of public school education. In 1969, the Talmud Torah combined all its operations at the St. Louis Park location. By 1971, only 2 percent (424 persons) of Minneapolis’s 21,600 Jews lived in North Minneapolis.
Talmud Torah enrollment during the baby boom era peaked at 1,200. Between 1993 and 1995, 831 students were enrolled. Coming full circle, in 2003 the school moved into a new addition of the Sabes Jewish Community Center, which had originated as a department of the Talmud Torah. In 2014, most of its students come from families affiliated the three Minneapolis-area Conservative synagogues, Adath Jeshurun, Beth El, and Sharei Chesed.
Written by: Laura Weber
Source: MNopedia and MNHS