Beth Israel Congregation (Ann Arbor, Mich.) Records

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Beth Israel Congregation (Ann Arbor, Mich.) records

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger Beth Israel Congregation (Ann Arbor, Mich.) record group 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

Founded in 1916 by Osias Zwerdling, Philip Lansky, and other members of the Ann Arbor Jewish Community, Beth Israel was the first formally established conservative Jewish congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As such, this record group comprises of historical data on the Jewish population of Ann Arbor (Mich.), the congregation, its founders and leaders. The latter includes but is not limited to the eulogy, history, and Last Will of Osias Zwerdling; building plans and sites; administrative records; writings and correspondence of the congregation’s leaders such as Rabbi Allan Kensky’s installation and resignation ceremonies and a digitized 1997 video recording of former congregation president, Gerda Seligson, receiving the Jewish Theological Seminary's Second Century award. The collection also includes materials about social and outreach programs including the congregation’s 75th Anniversary celebration and a formal letter of declination (to the celebration) from retired United States Senator Carl Levin. Other records within this collection highlight Beth Israel’s affiliations with national organizations such as the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the B’nai B’rith Hillel and Youth Organizations, and the United Synagogue of America. Additional materials include numerous accolades and recognitions, publications, photographs, slides, audio recordings, and oversized materials.

History / Biography:
Prior to the twentieth century, the city of Ann Arbor had few formal establishments in which Jewish families could worship or study. It was not until 1916 with the leadership and innovation of Philip Lansky, Osias Zwerdling, and other members of the Ann Arbor community that the first formal Jewish congregation in Ann Arbor was formed. Two years later in 1918 the Beth Israel Congregation was officially established with the original leadership consisting of Zwerdling (President), Israel Friedman (Vice-President), William Beutler (or Bittker) (Secretary-Treasurer), Lansky (Trustee), David Friedman (Trustee), and David Mordsky (Trustee).

Being a newly established congregation proved to be a challenge in that there was no official location where services could take place. As a result, services were held in the homes of congregation members or at locations in and around the Ann Arbor area. In 1951 the congregation acquired a new constitution and changed its name to the Beth Israel Community Center. It was not until 1952 that Beth Israel signed a 99-year lease with the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation for the purpose of sharing a space at 1429 Hill street. As the size of the congregation grew, so did the need for more space. In 1962 the center purchased the 2006 Washtenaw Avenue location and remained there until 1965 when they moved to 2010 Washtenaw Avenue. During that period the administrative board re-amended the constitution, thus restoring the original name--Beth Israel Congregation. Throughout the 1970’s as the congregation steadily increased in size and function there was yet a need for more space. As a result, in 1977 the site at 2000 Washtenaw avenue was acquired and on March 25, 1979 this location was officially dedicated as the congregation’s home.

The Beth Israel Congregation is more than just a religious entity. Within its 100 plus year history Beth Israel has remained an advocate for social change particularly on issues relating to religious and cultural freedom, racism, and sexism. This impetus for social change is evidenced throughout the collection where researchers will find select documentation on the congregation’s stance against antisemitism and unfair housing practices towards African Americans. Also found within the collection are select materials reflecting the congregation’s progressive attitude regarding women in leadership positions. The latter is evidenced through the establishment of the Beth Israel Sisterhood and the leadership of Gerda Seligson, the first woman in the United States to be elected president of a conservative Jewish congregation.

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

Access to digitized sound recordings may be limited to the reading room of the Bentley Historical Library, located on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

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