The mystery in the basement of the Red River Women's Clinic and why it's coming back 60 years later
FARGO — The Kopelman building at 512 1st Ave. N., Fargo, is certainly no stranger to the front page. Home to the Red River Women’s Clinic — the only clinic in North Dakota providing abortion services — the old, brick building is front and center in photographs every time anti-abortion protesters gather outside its doors.
But this much-photographed building also has a mysterious side — an unexpected, interesting spiritual and ritualistic history that is making a comeback this summer at a different location.
“I think it’s a really interesting part of Fargo’s history,” said Clinic director Tammi Kromenaker. “I think people will actually be quite surprised about it.”
In the basement of the building right next to a dehumidifier and an outdated electronics graveyard is a huge concrete slab covering what was at one time an Orthodox Jewish ritual bath.
The ritual bath is called a “mikvah,” meaning “collection of water." Today and in the past, Orthodox Jewish women submerge themselves in the bath ending a two-week period called “niddah,” the week of menstruation and the seven days following it. The Torah, the Jewish holy book, dictates that during niddah, a woman is in a state of spiritual impurity. Only when she immerses herself in the water does she become pure again. The Torah also dictates the water must be derived from a natural source, so it is filled with rainwater. (If you’re a fan of “Sex and the City,” you might remember Charlotte York Goldenblatt using one when she converted to Judaism.)
Mikvahs are still in use today by Orthodox Jewish women around the world who see the time spent there as a way to be closer to God. Some observant men will also use the mikvah before the Jewish Sabbath and holidays. Historical documents suggest the mikvah was an important and necessary part of life for North Dakota's earliest Jewish residents.
In the book "Dakota Diaspora: Memoirs of a Jewish Homesteader," Sophie Turpin describes going back to her ancestors' homestead on the prairie and seeing all of the buildings destroyed, but the mikvah on the property was still there.
"It gives me chills every time I hear that," said Rabbi Yonah Grossman of the Chabad Jewish Center of North Dakota, an organization whose mission is to serve all Jewish people in the state. "It's symbolic. It just shows the permanence of the mikvah."
While women living on any of the estimated 250 Jewish homesteads in the state from 1880 to 1930 might have been able to build a mikvah on their own land, Jewish women living in burgeoning cities like Fargo had to find other options.
Under Jewish law, mikvahs can be just about any naturally occurring source of water; however, the harsh climate here would make outdoor ritual bathing in lakes and rivers off-limits much of the year. The Fargo Hebrew Congregation, formed in 1896, came up with a solution with the help of a popular Jewish businesswoman.
In 1902, Lena and Jacob Kopelman moved to Fargo from Park River, N.D., to run a store on Front Street (now Main Avenue), which sold wigs, switches and other theatrical equipment. By 1906, they built the Kopelman building on First Avenue (now home to the Red River Women's Clinic) and moved their wig-making business there. Lena also started a hairdressing shop next door, which people speculate helped supply the hair for the wigs. However, Jacob died just two years later, leaving the widowed Lena to raise their six children and run the business by herself. (One of their sons went on to become a popular radio host).
In 1912, Lena signed a contract with the congregation to build a mikvah in the basement of her building, just a few yards away from the tiny apartment she occupied underneath the retail floors above.
The contract stated Lena would provide towels, soap and water and receive one dollar every time a woman used the mikvah.
It’s unclear how many years the mikvah was used or when the concrete slab was placed on top of the tub, sealing it up and rendering it useless. Kromenaker said she knows for sure the mikvah was not operational when the Red River Women’s Clinic moved to the Kopelman building in 1998. It was probably sealed up when demand for it lessened in the mid-20th century following a split within the congregation. After WWII, 49 families, about half the members of the Fargo Hebrew Congregation, broke away to form Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation which doesn’t require women to use a mikvah. By 1954, only 45 members remained in the Orthodox synagogue.
"A lot of Jews moved away from orthodoxy toward the middle of the century," said Linda Mack Schloff, director the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest in Minneapolis. "It was part of the whole Americanization process. They saw other ways of being Jewish."
By 2002, the Fargo Hebrew Congregation closed its doors for good. It was the last Orthodox Jewish synagogue in the Dakotas.
Grossman said there were other mikvahs scattered throughout the state over the years, including one in the basement of an optometrist's office in Grand Forks in the 1970s. But he said the closest mikvah in recent years was in Winnipeg or Minneapolis.
Rediscovering the past
While the Kopelman building's mikvah was a distant memory by the 21st century, it definitely wasn't forgotten. Kromenaker said she knew there was a mikvah in the basement of her building because of stories passed down by previous owners and occupants of the building.
Previous director of the women's clinic Jane Bovard shared a packet of research her husband Richard had done on the building in the early 2000s. In 2017, Kromenaker got more information when Grossman was assisting Bonanzaville with its yearlong Jewish history exhibit, "The North Dakota Jewish Experience: Shvitzing It Out on the Prairie."
“He looked all over the basement and figured out that it was here,” Kromenaker said, pointing to the concrete slab in the back of the basement. “He found the place where the pipe led into it and fed the fresh water.”
The mikvah returns
While the pipes of Lena's mikvah have long since run dry, the mikvah is about to return to Fargo for the first time in more than half a century.
Grossman said his organization recently moved into the old Ronald McDonald House at 1234 Broadway and plans are underway to construct a mikvah as early as this summer.
"We've had an architect and a mikvah consultant come in already," he said. "So we're in the planning stages right now and hope to start fundraising soon.
Grossman said a basic mikvah would cost about $20,000. More elaborate ones could cost as much as $150,000.
"Mikvahs are definitely becoming more popularb again," Grossman said. "Some of the modern ones are gorgeous."
And they seem to be striking a nerve with Jewish women today who are looking to reconnect to their spiritual roots.
As Grossman looks to the future, Kromenaker said it's also nice to look back. She said the entire basement of her building — from the closed-off mikvah to the shelving still up in Lena’s small apartment to the 19th century tile on the floor — provides a peek into the past about a Fargo that once was.
“We always think about our region being very Lutheran, Catholic, Norwegian, but to know there was this large enough Jewish group here in the early 1900s that needed a space and a place for their women to do this ritual bath ... these are just the kinds of stories you don’t hear about often,” she said.