Classical musical festival will now lead Iron Range Jewish cultural center

The restored sanctuary at the B’nai Abraham Cultural Center in Virginia, Minnesota. (PHOTO: B’nai Abraham Cultural Center)

A happy Passover to all who celebrate. This high holiday of the Jewish faith often passes unacknowledged in northern Minnesota, but this was not always so.

A vibrant Jewish population joined the pioneer communities of the Mesabi Iron Range. In fact, Jews were among the first people to arrive in many Range towns. These families were mainstays of the community for decades until the economic downturn after World War II. That’s when most synagogues closed for regular worship services.

This was also when a young man named Robert Zimmerman left for Minneapolis and New York. Soon Bob Dylan changed his name and American culture. Dylan’s personal biography intermeshes with the story of Iron Range Jews and the economic upheaval of the post-war era.

In recent years, however, one synagogue — the B’nai Abraham in Virginia, Minn. — found a revitalized purpose. Beginning in 2004, an organization of people with ties to the old synagogue restored the building into the B’nai Abraham Cultural Center.

This facility contains a performance space in the old sanctuary and the Iron Range Jewish History Museum. In recent years, B’nai Abraham hosted folk and traditional musicians of all kinds for summer performances.

Lost amid the tumult of the past several weeks was the news that the Friends of B’nai Abraham would be turning the building over to a new organization. The Northern Lights Music Festival will now oversee the B’nai Abraham Cultural Center. Not much changes, but organizers hope it will provide stability for the long run.

This was from the press statement:

The “Friends” goal has always been to restore the building and insure that it survives for the long term as a performance space for the people of Virginia to enjoy and to be able to learn about the Jewish community who used this space. Northern Lights is a “not for profit corporation” that has agreed, as a term of its ownership of the building, to retain the exterior of the building and the interior artifacts, windows and museum as they are today to be enjoyed by future generations. Northern Lights Music Festival has a premier venue going forward for its musical events.

The Northern Lights Music Festival plans to open its series on July 1, though obviously that will be dependent on the public health situation.

Meantime, we should be thankful that some of these small gems of Iron Range history find new life in our present collective of culture and the arts.



  1. Scott C Sueker says

    I am a cab driver in Hibbing and after a Bob Dylan fan club bought his teenage home on 7th and 25thto turn into a museum to him I asked customers how Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, and why. The answer from many riders was that because he was very intelligent and Jewish he was bullied mercilessly by Catholics in Hibbing High School throughout his high school years, not just that night that he was booed off the stage because people didn’t understand his lyrics or his music. I was told stories by the people who did the bullying or siblings, relatives or unrelated people who observed the regular incidents. At that time Catholics believed the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. Robert Zimmerman had to pay for the crime of his people so the logic went. Or at least this was the justification by a bunch of teenage rowdies who were having a good time picking on somebody.

    Dylan’s music was born in part from that bullying. His ability to transcend those experiences and teach the world how to be compassionate and caring is a testament to his spirit. And a significant portion of the Hibbing, especially in the non Jewish business community has been furious with him ever since because he would not come back to town and make them money. Given his experience in this town it is understandable that as his fame rose he denied in interviews that he had ever even lived in this town.

    • This comment neither matches Bob’s music and lyrics, nor anything relevant to Catholicism at any point in history. Yes, he was booed once or something.

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