Jewish people settled in Missouri and Jefferson City after the Louisiana purchase, and while there were Jewish settlers in Jefferson City as early as 1865, evidenced by epitaphs on tombstones, there are no authentic records until 1879, when nine Jewish men organized the Jefferson City Hebrew Cemetery Association to perpetuate the custom of burying their dead with the ceremonies and usages of the Jewish religion. At the time of the organization, a burial ground was purchased in the 1300 block of East McCarty Street, and the ground was dedicated as a burial place. This was named “Maple Grove Cemetery.” At that time they also organized a congregation, later (1882) naming it “Congregation Beth El,” which means “House of God” and which was to promote and perpetuate the course of religion of the Reform Jewish faith.
On April 3, 1882, six ladies (members of the Hebrew Ladies’ Sewing Society, an auxiliary of the congregation), purchased a plot of land in the 300 block of Monroe Street for the construction of a synagogue. The group was composed of the following membership: Mesdames Carrie Bodenheimer, Emily Hochstadter, Matilda Wolferman, Hannah Straus, Carrie Vetsburg and Minnie Goldman.
One year later their house of worship was erected. The first trustees were Jonas Hochstadter, President; Louis Wolferman, Vice President; William Fishell, Secretary and Treasurer; Joseph Straus, Joseph Obermayer, Jacob Goldman, Abe Heim, Max Rauh, Isaac Bodenheimer, Jacob D. Straus.
They held services regularly every Friday evening for there years, and on holidays, in their synagogue at 318 Monroe Street, which was built the year of organization. The congregation never had the regular spiritual advice of a Rabbi, but services were conducted by laymen at various time.
Temple Beth El is one of the city’s Historical Landmarks. It is one of the oldest Temples west of the Mississippi that is in its original structure. Although minutes covering the period from 1883 to October 1937 have been lost, Mr. Jerome R. Wollman of St. Louis transcribed the Text of the By-Laws of the Congregation from the minutes of September 13, 1888, which had been copied into a book of later minutes.
Out of these beginnings the Jewish community of Jefferson City continued to exist and as the years passed, other Jewish people moved into the community and were active in the city’s development. Among the early group can be recalled the names of Joe Goldman who owned and operated the Cole County Democrat, Mendell Goldman, Max Wasserkrug, Max Meyerhardt, Charles Czarlinsky, Dave Peltason, Caesar Wollman and Max Baer.
Temple Beth El, a Jefferson City landmark, celebrated its 100th anniversary in May 1983. Governor Bond proclaimed a special Temple Beth El Day and resolutions honoring the Temple were sponsored in the Missouri Legislature.
During the tenure of Mr. Max Meyerhardt, President of the Congregation from 1912 to 1937, and through the efforts of his son, Julius M. Meyerhardt, who later served as President, the bodies and graves of deceased persons interred in the Jefferson City Hebrew Cemetery were removed to a plot with perpetual care located within Riverview Cemetery. In November 1932, Congregation Beth El entered into an agreement with the Jefferson City Cemetery Association, whereby Section 10, in Riverview Cemetery, would be dedicated and reserved exclusively for the use and benefit of Beth El Congregation and members of the Jewish faith.
Congregation Beth El is composed of members of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform groups of Judaism, but the religious programs and services are in accordance with the Reform customs. The congregation is affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
For several years, beginning in January 1926, the congregation of Temple Beth El shared its place of worship with the First Church of Christ Scientist, until the latter had completed construction of its own church.
In 1968 the Temple underwent a full renovation of the interior. Under the direction of Clifford Schell, some of the walls were paneled with walnut paneling and the remainder of the walls and ceiling were given a fresh white plaster treatment. Red carpeting was installed over the entire Temple floor. The old square ceilings were arched and new electrical fixtures installed. A new heating system was added. The Spirit of the Temple was maintained and the altar retains the historic and rich treasures of the Jewish faith. The eternal light, located on the wall behind the altar, casts light below on the Hebrew inscription which says: “Know before Whom you stand.”