Celebrating Hanukkah by visiting Madison’s Gates of Heaven

One of the oldest synagogue buildings in the country resides in Madison.

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Gates of Heaven is one of the oldest synagogue buildings in the country. | Photo by 608today

Hanukkah begins on Thursday, Dec. 7, and continues through Friday, Dec. 15.

In Hebrew, Hanukkah means “dedication.” It is a holiday that marks the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in the 2nd century BC.

There is a small building located at James Madison Park, passed by thousands of drivers along East Gorham Street every day.

Many may not realize that the building has been dedicated to the Jewish faith for a long while. It’s called Gates of Heaven and is the fourth oldest surviving synagogue building in the nation.

Now owned by the City of Madison, let’s go back in time and learn about the history of our local Jewish community with eight tidbits for each of a menorah’s eight candles.

  • His name was Jacob Franks, the first known Jew in Wisconsin. He came to Green Bay around 1794.
  • Soon after Madison became the capital, Jews began arriving. The first known Jew in Madison was merchant Aaron Boskowitz, around 1850.
  • When Madison was still a village of around 2,300 people, in the year 1856, 17 Jewish families formed the city’s first synagogue, known as Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven).
  • By 1863, there were about 40 Jewish households in Madison. They formed a burial society, a women’s auxiliary, and hoped to build a new synagogue.
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The Gates of Heaven Synagogue was dedicated in 1863 and was on West Washington Avenue | Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-36491

  • On West Washington Avenue, in the fall of 1863, they did just that with a dedication service for a synagogue.
  • The building was designed by August Kutzbock, a German immigrant who also built Madison’s first city hall and its second capital building.
  • The congregation, however, struggled financially. In subsequent years it’s been used by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, various churches, a funeral home, and as a US government warehouse.
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In 1971, the Gates of Heaven Synagogue building was moved to its current location at James Madison Park | Wisconsin Historical Society, WHI-1821

  • The building, threatened by demolition, was saved in 1971 by the work of the Gates of Heaven Preservation Fund. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it was moved from West Washington Avenue to its current location.

Gates of Heaven is now a popular space for special events and weddings.

To those that celebrate, chag sameach.

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