Beth Israel Congregation "Jewish Life in Ann Arbor" Oral History Project Records

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Beth Israel Congregation "Jewish Life in Ann Arbor" Oral History Project records

The materials in this online repository comprise the Beth Israel Congregation "Jewish Life in Ann Arbor" Oral History Project records held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the collection's online finding aid.

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Ann Arbor Congregation founded in 1916. In anticipation of its 100th anniversary in 2016, Beth Israel initiated an oral history project to help tell the story of Jewish life in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Recordings were conducted in April 2013 by StoryCorps, a national non-profit organization dedicated to recording and collecting stories of everyday people. Includes digital recordings of interviews, transcripts, and digital photographs of participants.

History / Biography:
As in many Midwestern towns, the first Jewish residents of Ann Arbor, Michigan were Central European immigrants, usually peddlers, who began to settle down in the 1840s. Solomon Weil, a peddler and native of Bohemia, came to Ann Arbor in 1845. By the mid-1850s, he and his four brothers had established the firm of J. Weil and Brothers, tanners and dealers in wool and furs. The primary remnant of this early Jewish community is a cemetery—the first Jewish burial ground in Michigan—that is located at the corner of Huron and Fletcher streets on the current University of Michigan campus. (The appearance in 1980 of a tombstone dated 1858 led to the discovery of the Jewish cemetery.) By the mid-1880s, the last Jewish family of this early settlement had left town.

The great wave of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe (1870-1914) created a new Jewish community in Ann Arbor. Early Jewish residents included the Brodys and Schultzes, who operated a grocery store in Ypsilanti from the 1890s and the Lanskys, who started a scrap metal business in 1904. In the 1910s, the community began to grow, including several persons who would play critical roles in the emergence of the first communal institutions. In 1913 Osias and Hannah Zwerdling held High Holiday services in their home. This gathering grew to become Beth Israel Congregation, founded in 1916. Zwerdling, a furrier, served as president of the synagogue from 1918 to 1958. The congregation survived in a series of rented rooms before it moved to a new University of Michigan B’nai Brith Hillel building in 1951. The congregation moved to its own building in 1978. It is affiliated with the Conservative movement of Judaism. As the Jewish population grew, with increasing numbers of Jewish faculty and students at the university, the Jewish communal institutions began to diversify. In 1966, a group of Jews sympathetic to Reform Judaism formed the nucleus of what became Temple Beth Emeth. In an unusual arrangement, the temple jointly owns and shares a building with St. Clare’s Episcopal Church, through an umbrella organization known as Genesis. Around the same time, a more secular-oriented group established the Jewish Cultural Society. An Orthodox “minyan” emerged in the early 1970s, initially under the auspices of the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation. The Hebrew Day School, which provides Jewish and secular education for elementary age children, was founded in 1975. Chabad House was organized the same year. In 1984 a group began meeting to organize a Jewish Community Center, which began operation in a building at 2300 E. Stadium Blvd. that year. In 1986 the Jewish Community Center purchased a former public school—Clinton School—to house the center’s expanding programs as well as the Hebrew Day School and the Jewish Cultural Society. The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, which was formally organized in 1994, began as a Havurah, an informal group of families who gathered to celebrate Shabbat and other holidays. In 2015, the congregation, which meets at the Jewish Community Center, had a rabbi and a religious school. Jewish Family Services, which grew from efforts to resettle Jews from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, was founded in 1993.

What is today known as the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor began in 1961 as the United Jewish Appeal of Washtenaw County. Its primary purpose was to raise funds for Israel and other overseas needs. In the 1960s, the United Jewish Appeal raised about $30,000, all of which went overseas. In 1982, the annual campaign raised $303,000, of which 77 percent went overseas. In keeping with national trends, as the Ann Arbor Jewish community grew, the percentage of funds allocated locally began to grow. In the 2014 annual campaign, 78.6 percent ($1,105,433) of the $1,405,000 collected went to strengthen local Jewish organizations, while the remaining $334,567 was allocated to “Global Giving.”

The increasing size of annual campaigns and the dramatic shift in funding allocations reflected the increased size and vitality of the Ann Arbor Jewish community. In postwar America, Jews began to enter the academy and the professions. American higher education, including the University of Michigan, entered a period of explosive growth. Jews became a greater presence in the faculty, as anti-Semitic attitudes declined, and the student body, which had always attracted a certain number of East Coast Jews, drew increasing numbers of Jewish students. All of this led to a dramatic increase in the Jewish population of Washtenaw County, which is estimated at 8,000 in 2015. The Jewish student population at the University of Michigan is estimated at an additional 6,000.

Celebrating Our Stories: Jewish Life in Ann Arbor As part of a celebration of the congregation’s 100th year anniversary, Beth Israel received a grant to fund “Celebrating Our Stories: Jewish Life in Ann Arbor,” from the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor’s Community Impact Award Fund in December of 2011. The grant allowed Beth Israel to bring StoryCorps to the congregation to record oral histories with members of the Jewish community in April 2013. In December of 2012, the project received additional funding from the Community Impact Fund to enable web access of these recordings and other historical material relevant to Beth Israel and the greater Jewish community.

StoryCorps is a non-profit organization dedicated to recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of Americans of all backgrounds. The organization is modeled after the efforts of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration to collect oral histories across the country. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind and launched the first National Day of Listening in 2008 with the goal of encouraging all Americans to record an interview with a loved one.

The format of StoryCorps interviews centers around two or three individuals who are familiar with each other such as friends or family and have a conversation on a predetermined topic. A trained StoryCorps representative records and facilitates the conversation, takes pictures, and organizes the accompanying documents. Each conversation typically lasts about 40 minutes. The storytellers are then given a CD of their conversation and, with the participant’s permission, the interview is archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and various community archives across the United States.

Please note:

Copyright is held by StoryCorps, Inc., 80 Hanson Place, Brooklyn, NY 11217

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