Conflicting dates are given as to when Jews first arrived in Muncie. A temple historian writing in the early twentieth century claims to have traced Jewish residents of the city, then called Munseetown, back to 1848. Another historian says that Jews first came to Munseetown in 1828. Neither author cites sources.
The earliest documentary evidence of Jews in this locality dates to 1850. An advertisement in The Muncietonian newspaper in March of that year announces the opening of the L. and H. Marks dry goods and clothing store on the south side of the public square. The proprietors had just arrived in town from Cincinnati.
The first Jewish religious service in Delaware County was held in 1852 at the home of Frank Leon. Like many Jews in America’s small towns and cities at the time, Mr. Leon owned a clothing store. He was active in civic affairs and helped start several local community organizations, including the local Knights of Pythias chapter, the Muncie Choral Society, the Citizen’s Enterprise Company (formed to promote commercial and industrial development in Muncie), and the Home Missionary Society (which offered charitable relief and Christian education).
A congregation was organized in 1885, with an initial membership of 19. Student rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, conducted services in members’ homes at first.
From 1891 until 1896, worship services were held in the Masonic building (Delaware Lodge No. 46) at the corner of High and Main Streets. In September 1896, the congregation relocated two blocks south to a suite of rooms in the Muncie Savings and Loan building at Adams and High Streets. Newspapers and city directories referred to the new location as “the Synagogue of the First Hebrew Congregation” or “the Hebrew Temple.”
Another move took place in 1912, by which time the congregation had adopted the name Temple Beth El. The new place of worship was on the second floor of a business building at 120½ East Main Street. Rabbi Maurice Feuerlicht of Indianapolis conducted the dedicatory services, which were held on December 8, 1912, during Chanukah. The front room of the suite served as the sanctuary, where worship services were held. The middle room had tables for food and card games. The back room held a kitchen. The place was still used as a social club after the current Temple Beth El building was dedicated and being used for religious services.
Our present temple, located at the comer of Jackson and Council Streets, was dedicated on December 3, 1922. Rabbi Feuerlicht again gave the dedicatory sermon while Rabbi Bernard Dorfman gave the invocation.
The Ku Klux Klan was at its height in Indiana at the time the present temple was built. Jews were low on the local Klan’s priority list, however. The local Klan mostly targeted African Americans and Catholics.
In 1929 or 1930 the mortgage on the Jackson Street building was finally paid off, thanks in part to a contribution of $5,000 from George A. Ball, one of the founders of Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company.
In the 1930s Temple Beth El shared a rabbi, Hirsch Freund, with the communities of Marion and Anderson. For the most part, though, the temple relied on (and continues to rely on) student rabbis traveling to Muncie approximately every two weeks from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Due to Muncie’s small Jewish population (even at its height the congregation never exceeded 200 people), Temple Beth El has continually been a place where student rabbis can gain valuable pulpit experience.
Our congregation has been affiliated with the Reform movement at least since 1895. As the only Jewish house of worship in the area, Temple Beth El always has had members from varied backgrounds and traditions. We honor the diversity of our membership and adapt to a broad range of Jewish religious practices, though we continue to identify as a Reform congregation.
In 1985 the congregation celebrated its centennial year, and on December 7, 1997 celebrated the 75th anniversary of the temple’s beautiful and historic building. About 4,000 square feet were added to the building in 1999. The new space includes a new and congenial community room, vestibule, kitchen, elevator and restrooms for the disabled. Stunning stained glass windows were added to the community room in 2000.