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Idaho

Boise’s Surprising — and Splendid — Historic Synagogue

By | Idaho, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Idaho’s capital home to the oldest temple west of the Mississippi

Jewish News Service/Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — November 18, 2016

BOISE, Idaho — Sometimes you’ll find the most splendid synagogues in the places you least expect.

Boise synagogue

Boise’s Ahavath Beth Israel, the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi

Such was the case during my recent three-day trip to Boise, Idaho, a popular gateway for skiing, river rafting and hiking that isn’t exactly known for being a hotbed of Jewish life.

Yet, there at 11 N. Latah St., just a five-minute drive from downtown, sits the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi River.

And it’s far more than just a beautiful wood building.  As I learned, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel is the centerpiece of a surprisingly robust Jewish community with a fascinating history.

I was able to meet Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director, who was kind enough to show me around the building on the busy day before Yom Kippur eve.

“People love this building,” she said.  “We can’t believe how blessed we are.  It’s cozy, it’s homey and the acoustics are great.”

Boise, a city of about 200,000 residents at the base of the Rocky-Mountain foothills in southwestern Idaho, is the state’s capital and largest city.  Rooted in the potato industry, the area has recently emerged as a budding high-tech center and growing destination for tourists.  The locals pronounce it Boy-see, not Boy-zee.

Nina Spiro

Nina Spiro, the synagogue’s director

Before my visit, I had read about Ahavath Beth Israel and knew a little about its history.  It was built in 1895, when there were only about 25 Jewish families in Boise.  Many had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany and worked as merchants, farmers and ranchers.

One of the original members of Beth Israel – as it was known at the time — was Moses Alexander, who became the mayor of Boise and later was the first elected practicing Jewish governor in the entire country.  He served two terms, from 1915-1919.  There is a display at a museum inside the Idaho State Capitol in downtown Boise trumpeting that historical distinction.  To this day, Alexander remains the only Jewish governor in Idaho history.

Today, more than 120 years later, Moses’ grandson, Nathan Alexander, is still a member of the congregation.

For several decades, Boise actually had two synagogues.  After World War II, with the arrival of more Jewish families in the area, Congregation Ahavath Israel was built.  The two congregations merged in 1987 to become the present-day Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel.  Both buildings continued to be used; one as an education center, the other for religious services.

Ahavath Beth Israel stained-glass windows

An original stained-glass window inside Ahavath Beth Israel

But by the end of the 20th century, the congregation had grown to more than 200 families and needed to expand.  Because of the lack of land available where the existing buildings were located, the congregation decided that the original synagogue would need to be moved to a different site.

So, in the middle of a cold October night in 2003, members of the congregation were joined by some 500 people from the Boise community to walk alongside the synagogue while it was slowly moved by truck about three miles to its new location on Latah Street.

Today, the synagogue sits on a beautifully landscaped campus that also includes a 100-student religious school that meets weekly, a social hall, library and administrative offices for the synagogue’s full-time rabbi and other staff.

The interior of the synagogue still features the original wood columns and stained-glass windows.  It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Because the community is so diverse in its religious orientation and the ages of its members – from retirees to young families — Spiro describes Ahavath Beth Israel as “reconservadox.”  While it tries to meet the needs of both religious and not-so-religious members, the congregation is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism and emphasizes music in its services and events.

In fact, the synagogue has its own klezmer band called “The Moody Jews,” a popular group that performs monthly at a temple event called “Shabbat Unplugged” and at community interfaith events.

Unfortunately, Idaho has a reputation for being a haven of extremist hate groups.  Indeed, about 10 years ago, the Aryan Nation leafletted some Boise neighborhoods with anti-Semitic and racist literature.  Spiro’s home was among those that received the offensive literature.

Anne Frank Memorial

The Anne Frank Memorial near downtown Boise

“It was pretty shocking,” she recalls.  “Since then, a lot of work has been done.”

To demonstrate its tolerance, Boiseans have erected the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, which occupies a prominent place adjacent to the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt, a tree-lined paved pathway that follows the Boise River through the heart of the city.

The memorial first came to Boise in 1995 as a traveling exhibit but the response was so overwhelming by Idahoans, community leaders decided to build a more permanent tribute.  In 2002, the Anne Frank Memorial opened to the public.  Featuring a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank, it’s an inspirational and contemplative site in a beautiful setting.

Despite the small pockets of anti-Semitism in Idaho, Spiro describes Boiseans as “welcoming” and interested in learning more about their Jewish neighbors.

“We’re constantly hosting tour groups and church groups,” she said.  “They want to visit the synagogue.  They want to know about Jewish history.  They want to learn about Judaism.”

Spiro says visitors to Boise are welcome to attend Shabbat services, which are held Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, and other temple events as well.  For information, visit the congregation’s website:  cabi-boise.org.

Even if you’re not able to attend services, just driving by and marveling at this magnificent, historic structure would undoubtedly mark a highlight of any Jewish traveler’s visit to Boise.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

72 Hours in Boise!

By | Idaho | No Comments

Idaho’s capital city offers visitors much more than potatoes

The Arizona Republic — October 23, 2016

BOISE, Idaho – Idahoans take their spuds seriously.

Boise Fry Company

Lunch at the famous Boise Fry Company; Idahoans take their potatoes seriously

It was our first meal in Boise and we walked two blocks from the Grove Hotel in the heart of downtown to the Boise Fry Company, perhaps the city’s most famous restaurant and a popular tourist attraction.

“Would you like burgers on the side?” our server Brad Walker jokingly asked as we browsed the menu board showing fries made from six different types of locally grown potatoes — russet, purple, gold, sweet, laura and yam.  They come in five different cuts and are offered with a choice of nine types of house-made sauces and 10 varieties of salt.

We opted for heaping bowls of home-style purple and laura fries topped with garlic salt and accompanied with raspberry ketchup.  And we got grass-fed bison burgers on the side, but more as an afterthought.  We had come for the potatoes.

“Our fries are really the showcase main course,” said Walker, who doubles as the restaurant’s interim CEO.  “That’s how we like to play it, since we’re in Idaho.”

As we learned during a recent 72-hour visit to Boise, Idaho’s capital and largest city offers visitors a menu of activities, sightseeing and food much more diverse than its large variety of potatoes.

Downtown Boise

Boise is home to about 200,000 people

We found a city with a vibrant nightlife, arts community, plenty of trendy, farm-to-table restaurants serving locally made craft beers and wines, and enough outdoor venues to please any hiker, skier or biker.

It wasn’t the boring, northern plains dullsville I had been anticipating.

“We hear that all the time — ‘I had no idea,’” said Carrie Westergard, executive director of the Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau.  “People are surprised, and in a positive way.”

Westergard said tourism is growing in Boise: 400 more hotel rooms will open downtown by the end of 2017, a 35 percent jump from the current total of 1,100.

The city, nestled at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills in southwestern Idaho, is home to about 200,000 people.  If you want to sound like a local, pronounce the city Boy-see, not Boy-zee.  In case you forget, shirts and hats are for sale in the souvenir shops to remind you.

I decided to spend three days in Boise during Arizona State University’s fall break in early October.  It was a wonderful time to visit as temperatures were still mild with highs in the upper 70s and the leaves were just starting to change.

Why Boise and not a more conventional fall-break choice like Rocky Point or San Diego?  Like a lot of travel addicts, I’ve got an atlas-based bucket list, including visiting all 50 U.S. states.  Idaho was the only state missing from my collection.

Boise River Greenbelt

The Boise River Greenbelt is popular for bikers

But a 72-hour trip to Boise turned out to be much more enriching than perfunctorily completing a checklist.  Here are the top five highlights of my trip to a place that rightfully calls itself “the city of trees.”

Biking the Boise River Greenbelt

Boise’s name originates from the French word boisé, which means “wooded.” Take a bike ride along the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt, and it’s easy to see why the French came up with that moniker.

The tree-lined paved pathway follows the Boise River through the heart of the city and provides scenic views and access to many of the area’s riverside parks.  The Greenbelt also serves as an alternative transportation route for commuters.   Bike kiosks offering rentals are located throughout downtown.

For those wanting more strenuous exercise, there are 130 miles of roads and trails in the foothills just northeast of the city.

Basque culture

Boise's Basque Block

The Basque flag is displayed on Boise’s Basque Block

Idaho has long been a popular location for immigrants from the Basque region, which straddles northern Spain and southern France.  In fact, Boise is home to the largest per-capita population in the world of Basque people (about 10,000) outside of the Basque region, including Boise’s current mayor.  Basque people first began arriving in Idaho in the late 1800s; many worked as sheepherders.

A “Basque Block” in downtown Boise showcases the Basque culture.  There is a museum, including a historic Basque boarding house, several Basque restaurants, a Basque market that hosts cooking classes and wine tastings, and a Basque community center.

I tried my hand at a Basque sport called pala, played with a wooden racket and hard rubber ball on an indoor court known as a fronton.  I found it to be somewhat similar – but much more difficult – than American racquetball.

Idaho State Capitol

While it’s not the most breathtaking capitol you’ll see, Idaho’s center of government offers an interesting glimpse into the state’s history.

Idaho State Capitol

The Idaho State Capitol

Built from 1905-1912, the architect designed the capitol with skylights and reflective marble surfaces to capture natural sunlight.  The intent was to create a building that was a metaphor for an enlightened and moral state government.

Entrance to the building is free; there are self-guided tours and a museum chronicling Idaho’s history on the bottom floor.

Outside, at the base of the stairs, there’s a replica of the Liberty Bell.  Visitors are welcome to ring it, although the bell is so heavy, it took two of us – using all of our strength – to push it hard enough to earn a couple of chimes.

Dining and arts

This was perhaps Boise’s biggest surprise.  There is a dynamic and bustling downtown full of chic and diverse restaurants.  A chef at the popular Wild Root Café on 8th Street – otherwise known as Boise’s “restaurant row” – aptly described her cuisine as “craft, comfort food.”  We never had a meal we didn’t enjoy.

Boise's Freak Alley

A street mural in Freak Alley

Before or after dinner, there are plenty of places to gaze at art without ever setting foot in a museum.  Freak Alley, in the heart of downtown adjacent to a service alley, is the largest mural gallery in the Northwest.  Each year, murals are painted over and replaced by new ones.  The city also has commissioned local artists to paint street art on electrical boxes, transforming eyesores into eye-catching metal canvasses.

Boise State’s blue turf

The locals simply call it “The Blue.”  It’s the famous turf at Albertsons Stadium, home to Boise State University’s football team, and the first non-green artificial football field in the country.  Originally considered a gimmick when it was installed in 1986, the turf has come to symbolize the football program’s blue-collar work ethic.

Boise State blue turf

The famed blue turf at Boise State University’s football stadium

Visitors can see the blue field by entering the Allen Noble Hall of Fame, at the southwest corner of the stadium.  One of the museum’s displays features the football used in perhaps the most famous play in Fiesta Bowl history – the 2007 game in which Boise State’s Ian Johnson scored a two-point conversion on a statue-of-liberty play to beat Oklahoma in overtime, 43-42.
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Boise is a safe and affordable city for visitors.  Restaurant prices are about half of what you’ll typically pay in Scottsdale.  There are non-stop flights every day from Phoenix to Boise on American and Southwest.  Roundtrip fares are about $250.

While many tourists fly into Boise as a gateway to Idaho ski resorts, hiking trails or national parks in neighboring states, it’s well worth spending a few days in the city before heading to points beyond.

Boise offers more than enough options to keep you active, engaged and sated — even if you opt to skip the fries.

© 2016 Dan Fellner