Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The varied career of a tiny synagogue

The death Tuesday in Iowa City of Himie Voxman (left) at age 99 reminded me of a couple of things. Student days, of course, because Voxman was in his prime as director of the School of Music when I was a University of Iowa student during the 1960s (he served in that capacity from 1954-1980) and I had friends who studied under him.

But also of this little building in Centerville, our neighbor to the southeast, which originally was the home of Congregation B'nai Israel and the synagogue Voxman attended as a child.  I took these unremarkable photos several years ago, then lost them among the thousands of digital impages floating around here. Yesterday, I finally managed to find them again.

Voxman is one of at least two remarkable musicians Centerville has produced. Simon Estes, operatic bass-baritone, is better known generally. He, along with Leontyne Price and others, shattered the race barrier at New York's Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere and continues to perform and teach widely in Iowa and beyond.

But Voxman, in his field as internationally-renowned music educator and authority in the field of woodwind instruments, was a star, too. Both Estes and Voxman are products of the University of Iowa. The Voxman Music Building, destroyed in 2008 fooding along with Hancher Auditorium and Clapp Recital Hall, was named in the Centerville native's honor.

Anyhow, this little building in Centerville has had quite a varied career, too --- and remains very much alive.

Congregation B'nai Israel was organized in Centerville during 1892 by a Jewish community composed largely of families that had emigrated from Russia. The building was constructed during 1894 --- obviously without the cross. The primary reminders of its origin are the stained glass windows, which then as now, are centered upon the Star, or Shield, of David.

The Voxman family, Morris, Mollie and their older children, arrived from Russia during 1910 and Himie was born there during 1912, three months before the death of his father, who is buried in Centerville's tiny Hebrew Cemetery. He learned to play the clarinet in high school, but set off to the University of Iowa to study science (his 1933 bachelor's degree was in chemical engineering). Voxman helped pay his way through college by giving clarinet lessons, however, was eventually channeled into music and joined the University's music faculty during 1939.

Back in Centerville, Congregation B'nai Israel remained active until well after the mid-20th century, but declined as older members died and their children moved away. It eventually closed and those who remained for the most part transferred their affiliation to Congregation B'nai Jacob in Ottumwa.

The building then was sold to the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, which added the cross, remodeled the interior to suit its liturgical needs and dug the basement. During the first decade of the 21st century, however, that parish experienced the same difficulties B'nai Israel had --- and closed. When I last drove by the little building it was occupied by a small congregation of a protestant variety I didn't recognize.

My guess would be, however, that this little frame building has served a broader range of religious communities than perhaps any other in southern Iowa.


Anonymous said...

BillSmithhere:Interesting and some-
what touching Frank. You are the
Mark Twain of the real lives and real deaths of Lucus County.

Unknown said...

I was just forwarded this article.

My grandfather of blessed memory, Rabbi Chaim Menachem Kramer, was a rabbi in the 1930s in both Council Bluffs and Centerville, Iowa.

He even published two books of Jewish scholarship while in Centerville in 1939.
A major supporter of the Jewish community then was Mr. Sam Rosenbaum, who also generously subsidized the printing of my grandfather's books.

My father, Meyer Kramer, graduated from Centerville High School in 1936. While in High School, he was a sports reporter for either the High School or community newspaper.
He then went to New York City where he attended Yeshiva College. After his College graduation, he earned his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva and then went to the Univ. of Pennsylvania Law School for his law degree.

By that time, I believe that his father may have moved to a rabbinic position in a different city. Rabbi Chaim Menachem Kramer died in Batavia, NY, where he was then the rabbi, in 1955.

Doniel Z. Kramer
Brooklyn, NY
Feb. 7, 2020