Temple B’nai Israel, Kalamazoo’s Reform congregation, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding by 20 Jewish pioneer families in 1866.
The congregation, whose history includes at least 10 physical locations and eras of both prosperity and challenge, has much to celebrate these days. Under the leadership of Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh since 2014, TBI has experienced significant membership and engagement growth.
In the 1860s, Kalamazoo was a frontier town of about 6,000, including a small number of Jewish immigrants from Germany who started successful retail businesses, prospered and contributed to the growth of the wider community. These early Jews — among them the Israel, Rosenberg, Desenberg, Lilienfeld, Rosenbaum and Folz families — valued their religious heritage, and they officially organized Congregation B’nai Israel in 1865.
The group’s first action was to acquire land for a burial ground on property adjoining Mountain Home Cemetery on West Main Street. This land is still in use by Temple B’nai Israel. The cemetery features a historical marker in honor of Edward Israel, son of founding TBI member Mannus Israel. A 22-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan, Edward was serving in 1884 as expedition scientist on the nation’s first polar expedition, led by Lt. Adolphus W. Greeley, when he died while waiting to be rescued after the supply ship carrying food and supplies to the encampment sank.
In 1873, the congregation purchased property at 152 E. South St., and a synagogue — recognized as the first dedicated synagogue building constructed in Michigan — and school were erected on the downtown lot. The temple dedication on Jan. 29, 1875, was conducted by Rabbi Isaac Epstein, accompanied by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a founder of Hebrew Union College (1875) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism). TBI was one of 34 founding members, and the congregation has valued its membership in the Reform movement throughout its history.
Temple B’nai Israel kicked off its series of anniversary events with “Celebrating 150 Years in Kalamazoo: A Community Concert” on Dec. 3, 2015, at First Baptist Church in downtown Kalamazoo.
The concert featured three virtuoso musicians: Diana Cohen, violinist and former concertmaster of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, is now concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra; her father, Franklin Cohen, is the former principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra (1976-2015); and Roman Rabinovich, who won the 2008 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, and in the spring of 2014 toured the United States with the Haifa Orchestra. He debuted at age 10 with the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta.
On Friday, June 10, Rabbi Matt led an erev Shabbat service reflecting the history of Reform liturgy, featuring selections from the four Reform prayer books that have been used by TBI and the Reform Movement over the years. Western Michigan University music professor Carl Ratner served as cantorial soloist, and an ensemble of TBI members offered additional special music.
Temple Beth El of Battle Creek (Reform) and Congregation of Moses of Kalamazoo (Conservative) joined TBI for the service, as did representatives of the Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community (ISAAC), a local social justice coalition of which TBI is a founding member.
On Saturday evening, June 11, the congregation celebrated its anniversary family-style with an outdoor picnic.
Unveiled during the weekend, a newly updated congregational history booklet was available to all TBI members. Edited by longtime member Raye Ziring with help from a team of TBI historians, the booklet contains details of the congregation’s founding in 1866 through the present day.
To help TBI celebrate, a local craft brewery, Arcadia Ales, worked with TBI member Steve Bertman to brew a limited edition commemorative beer. Golden Promise Sesquicentenni-ALE is a lightly hopped golden ale with rye. The bottle label features TBI’s 150th anniversary logo as well as the congregation’s rainbow Tree of Life logo. Not available for sale, the special brew was available at the picnic and in six-packs and cases as a thank-you for those who donated to TBI.
The congregation’s milestone anniversary did not go unnoticed in the Kalamazoo community. Through a collaboration with the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, TBI member Henry Winter served as guest curator of a wonderful collection of historical artifacts representing TBI’s 150 years in Kalamazoo. Items on public display beginning in mid-May included a Holy Bible presented to the congregation by the confirmation class of 1893, an antique prayer book, a Torah cover and wrap, and a Ner Tamid (eternal light) salvaged from the original South Street Temple.
Winter offered a presentation at the museum on TBI’s early history, including additional photos of the congregation’s original buildings and historic maps showing their locations in downtown Kalamazoo. The collection of TBI artifacts was on display through July.
In recent history, Temple B’nai Israel has counted on the religious leadership of student rabbis and part-time clergy shared with another congregation in the region. After a successful “Leap of Faith” fundraising campaign, Rabbi Matt Zerwekh, a teacher in TBI’s religious school while an undergraduate at WMU before heading to rabbinic school, was hired in 2014 as the congregation’s first full-time rabbi since 1969.
Under his leadership, the congregation’s membership has grown by 20 percent, and 60 percent of TBI’s members have found ways to be meaningfully involved. Attendance at services has grown. The congregation has added Shabbat morning learning services (Minyan Milamed), and religious school enrollment has grown substantially.
The congregation’s current building, while owned debt-free thanks to a generous bequest received in 1992, is lacking physical space to accommodate the increasingly vibrant TBI community. Challenges include insufficient classroom space and kitchen facilities; and infrastructure (bathrooms, heating and cooling, etc.) at the building is overdue for upgrades.
TBI is also challenged because, as a whole, the Reform Jewish community in Kalamazoo is economically diverse, and an endowment has never been developed. There are few local large donors to rely on to help the congregation fund the future.
As it has been before and will no doubt be again in the future, Temple B’nai Israel is at a crossroads this anniversary year. The congregation has opportunities to ensure its long-term sustainability and to enliven the region’s Jewish community by working more closely with its Jewish neighbors.
TBI will start its second 150 years by bringing together the congregation’s religious school with that of the local Conservative synagogue, the Congregation of Moses, to create a unified Jewish educational program for all Jewish children in Kalamazoo. The congregation is exploring the possibility of creating a single campus for Kalamazoo’s Jewish institutions and is looking for ways to connect with and support other smaller congregations across West Michigan.
For 150 years, Temple B’nai Israel has been part of the fabric of Kalamazoo, and the congregation prides itself on its welcoming, open atmosphere and its commitment to acceptance, equality, sharing and community. TBI members looks forward to continuing to contribute to the vibrancy of the region’s Jewish community far into the future. *
By JOAN HAWXHURST | Special to the Jewish News
For more about Temple B’nai Israel, go to templebnaiisrael.com or call (269) 342-9170. For more about supporting the congregation’s efforts, contact TBI President Joan Hawxhurst at (269) 352-1759 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.