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B’nai Abraham gets new life as venue for Northern Lights Music Festival

Jodi Summit
Posted 3/25/20

VIRGINIA- A synagogue built in 1909, which was lovingly restored over the last decade, has been donated to the Northern Lights Music Festival (NLMF) with the hope it will serve as a permanent …

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B’nai Abraham gets new life as venue for Northern Lights Music Festival

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VIRGINIA- A synagogue built in 1909, which was lovingly restored over the last decade, has been donated to the Northern Lights Music Festival (NLMF) with the hope it will serve as a permanent performance and community space.
On March 18, representatives from the Friends of B’nai Abraham handed over ownership of the historic building to festival officials, including Veda Zuponcic, artistic director, and Barb Baldrica, board chair.
The synagogue, located at 328 5th Street S in Virginia, closed its doors in the mid-1990s when its congregation dwindled to only a few members. The synagogue hired its first rabbi in 1910, when Virginia’s Jewish population numbered 121. The Jewish community in Virginia peaked around 1920, with 332, then steadily fell throughout the years.
The building was acquired in 2004 by a new non-profit, Friends of B’nai Abraham, a group based in the Twin Cities which included family members of former congregation members and founders. At that time, engineers were concerned that the deteriorating roof would cause the building to collapse.
“We are proud of our accomplishment to restore the B’nai Abraham building,” said Marjorie Ostrov, who along with her husband Charles was part of the push to restore the building. Charles’s family ran Ostrov’s Supermarket, which was located two blocks from B’nai Abraham.
Ostrov said the group, which has lost a number of key board members over the last 15 years, could no longer continue to manage the building.
“It had become much more difficult to manage from 200 miles away,” she said, noting that their board members are all based in the Twin Cities, and many of the more active members were in the 80s.
“Our purpose was to restore the building for the community,” she said, “and now that we have accomplished that goal, Northern Lights is the right organization to use the building for programs and activities for those in the Virginia-area community.”
Over the last few years, Friends of B’nai Abraham struggled to find a local organization to take over the building. Both the Virginia Area Historical Society and the city of Virginia decided they were unable to take on the commitment. Harry Lamppa, from the Virginia Area Historical Society, had also been instrumental in the restoration project, said Ostrov, and had been helping to manage the building.
“It’s been his project as well,” she said. “We are hoping he will continue to be involved.”
Giving up the building has been an emotional process for the group.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said, “but it had to happen.”
Northern Lights Music Festival
“We have been presenting smaller concerts at B’nai Abraham for at least 10 years,” said Zuponcic. “They knew of our affection for the place.”
Zuponcic said she received an email from Marjorie Ostrov, asking if the organization was interested in the building. The answer was a resounding yes.
“The building is a perfect facility for many of the things we do,” said Zuponcic. “We can fill it with our own events, as well as events put on by other community groups.”
Ostrov said that Zuponcic is uniquely suited to take charge of the restored synagogue building.
“It feels like it is in good hands,” she said. “She understands the importance of preserving the Jewish heritage of the building.”
Zuponcic, who was born and raised in Aurora, but now teaches music at Rowan University in New Jersey, said her group has always had an interest in historic preservation, and has previously worked on building awareness of the uniqueness of the Range’s existing school auditoriums, and working to preserve them.
She noted that the size, construction, and acoustics of the older auditoriums in Aurora, Chisholm, Hibbing and Ely make them exceptional venues for musical performance. Now they can add B’nai Abraham to the list as a perfect venue for smaller concerts with audiences of up to 100. Zuponicic is herself Jewish, so is excited to be able to highlight that part of Iron Range history as preserved in the B’nai building.
“These old music halls have all wood construction,” she said. “You can’t do that nowadays.”
“We are trying to keep these places alive and functioning as they were originally intended,” she said. “When we were offered this building, I thought of all the marvelous things we can do in there.”
Ostrov said their group has some funding remaining and will use that to complete some smaller projects still needed in the building. They will also be working with the new building team to answer any questions that may arise.
“We want to share all our knowledge about the building and the renovation project,” Ostrov said.
The building had been listed as one of the 10 most endangered historic buildings in Minnesota, back in 2002. Renovations, costing almost half a million dollars from both grants and privately-raised funds, have turned the building into a venue for both cultural and educational programming. Zuponcic said the building will not be expensive for her group to maintain, and they hope to keep it open from April to October. The building is now listed on the National Historic Register.
Friends of B’nai Abraham has also hosted a Sabbath service in the building, usually once each summer, and these types of events can continue under the new ownership.
Zuponcic said they plan to continue to highlight the history of the building and of the Jewish heritage on the Range.
Summer plans
Northern Lights Music Festival has an expanded schedule of events planned this July. “God willing, we will have a season this year,” said Zuponcic. The festival includes a music camp for as many as 26 students, who sleep in the renovated old Aurora Hospital, which is now owned by NLMF, as well as weeks of concerts and performances, including events aimed at younger listeners.
Two full-scale operas are planned. A modern-day version of Puccini’s “Tosca,” set in Venezuela, will be performed in both Ely and Chisholm. This performance will include a children’s choir of students from the North Woods and Nett Lake schools, directed by North Woods teacher and NLMF board member Ryan Bajan. The production will feature opera artists from the Metropolitan Opera and a full orchestra. The production is too large to perform in Aurora, so a second opera, a more modern piece by Menotti, “The Medium,” will be performed in Aurora, and then again in Ely.
“The Ely market has grown in many ways,” Zuponcic said. “We have a lot of fans up there.”

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