Generation to generation, Temple Israel has stayed true to its ideals
When Shira Ellis of West Bloomfield became a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in January, she joined a four-generation family legacy in the congregation’s 75-year history. She participated in a ceremony that until the 1950s was historically only open to boys in Detroit.
Wearing a tallit knit by an aunt, she prayed from the gender-neutral Shema Yisrael siddur designed by Rabbi Paul Yedwab — all traditions among others that have been thoughtfully renewed over the decades by clergy and lay leaders.
In the background of Ellis’ photos are the memorial plaques bearing the names of relatives who founded Temple Israel. They include her great-great uncles and past presidents Charles L. Goldstein (1944-1947) and Nathaniel H. Goldstick (1956-1959) as well as her great-grandparents Lydia and Archie Grey. As coincidences go, Archie’s plaque was lit to honor his yahrzeit.
Shira’s grandfather, James Grey, 72, recalls going to Hebrew school at age 9 in the congregation’s first building in Palmer Woods. His teacher was the late Rabbi M. Robert Syme and his classmates, some still friends, “were Detroit’s future doctors, lawyers and the future Rabbi Daniel Syme.”
Grey remembers moving into his Farmington Hills home with his wife, Ruth, in 1979, the same year Temple Israel moved into its new building on a still-unpaved Walnut Lake Road. His uncles helped carry the Torah scrolls into the new sanctuary.
“Temple Israel is not only a Jewish religious center but a place where people of all backgrounds can come together. There is something for everyone here,” said Grey, whose leadership positions at Temple include a Brotherhood presidency.
Nicknamed by founding Rabbi Leon Fram “The Miracle Congregation” or by Rabbi Stanley Yedwab, father of Temple Israel Rabbi Paul Yedwab, as “the smallest large synagogue in the world,” the 12,000 members who call the temple their spiritual home — and that’s one out of every 100 Reform Jews in the world — have much to celebrate.
“Seventy-five years of progressive ideas, inclusive policies and innovative thinking created and developed Temple Israel,” wrote President Dr. Edward Royal in an August 2016 program documenting contributions from past presidents at the beginning of a year of anniversary celebrations.
“It now stands proudly as the largest, most forward-thinking and energized Reform congregation in the world. Rabbi Leon Fram founded Temple Israel as his Miracle Congregation. And now, looking back, I think even he would have been incredibly surprised and proud of the true miracle it has become,” Royal wrote.
Temple Israel remains on the cutting edge of liberal Judaism even as it continues to revive and renew Jewish traditions such as a daily minyan, midnight Selichot services prior to the High Holidays and the first Reform congregation in the country to house a mikvah.
From its level playing field absent a hierarchical clergy structure to its engaging services and religious and non-religious activities that bring hundreds of people through its doors each week, the congregation, Paul Yedwab said, is large yet nimble and creative and not stifling for clergy and lay leader alike. It is rare in its history for clergy not to stay for decades and not to feel vital and valued well into their 70s and 80s.
Along with Yedwab’s siddur, Cantors Michael Smolash and Neil Michaels work to incorporate the spiritual joy of music and singing into weekly services. On a summer Friday evening, it is not unusual to find 1,000 worshippers attending Shabbat Under the Stars.
“We understand music is what moves our members, a vision that our cantors actualize so very beautifully,” Yedwab said. “We have strived to transform ‘tefillah’ worship services through song and interaction into truly joyful, spiritually uplifting and enjoyable events. From Shabbat Unplugged to our outdoor services to our Purim Palooza spiel, we are always mindful we have to put forward an experience we ourselves would leave our own homes to attend were we not clergy.”
Highlights of this 75th anniversary year have included a gala celebration in April and Mitzvah 613, a 15-month project inviting all members to participate in writing a new Torah scroll. According to Temple Israel CEO David Tisdale, the project has raised more than $500,000 and more than 700 congregants have inscribed a letter. The scroll will be presented to the congregation at Shabbat Under the Stars at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 8.
The first scroll written and presented for Temple Israel was scribed in pre-state Palestine in a time when the outlook for global Jewry was at its bleakest.
Temple Israel was conceived in the summer of 1941, during one of the darkest times in Jewish history. The earliest articles covering its formation in the now-defunct Jewish Chronicle are juxtaposed with articles detailing the increasingly grim plight of European Jewry. For example, an article covering the dedication of Temple Israel’s first Torah scroll ran beside an article about Nazis burning Jewish books in Vilna, Lithuania.
Temple Israel started with 600 members, many who broke from Temple Beth El, Detroit’s only Reform temple, after it did not offer a senior rabbinical post to Fram, who had served the congregation since the 1920s. It was said that Fram, with his strong Zionistic leanings as well as his desire to see a return to more tradition in Reform Judaism, was ahead of his time and a bit controversial for his views.
Rabbi Harold Loss further explained how Fram chose the temple’s name and how it represented his commitment and vision for establishing the Jewish State of Israel.
“Many congregations chose the name Temple Israel as a statement of support for Zionism,” Loss said. “Rabbi Fram was one of the early Zionists in the Reform movement.”
At a solemn dedication ceremony in July 1941, Fram vowed the new congregation that he called Temple Israel would be a place to nurture Jewish youth.
“I am very much gratified that there is such a large proportion of young people in the membership of our new Temple,” he said. “We hope that our Temple will embody the spirit of youth. We shall avail ourselves of the new trends and the new insights which are giving American Judaism a new direction.”
Loss added, “In each generation, Temple Israel has maintained an enduring commitment to this foundational idea. When I arrived in the community, with 18 teenagers on our first mission, we began a summer program. Many years later, we were asked to be the founding partner and merged our Temple Israel mission with the present Federation teen mission.”
In Fram’s time, a challenge for the new temple was finding a home. With wartime building material shortages and restrictions, the fledgling congregation held services in the auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts and religious school at Hampton Public School for nine years. It moved into its own building on Manderson Avenue in Palmer Woods in 1950, with nearly 1,000 members. At the end of the 1970s, the congregation purchased land in West Bloomfield and moved into its current space.
From its inception, the congregation and its founding clergy, including Rabbi M. Robert Syme, who was raised Orthodox, worked at reviving many of the symbols and traditions in Judaism that were for decades rejected by classical Reform Judaism, according to Yedwab.
Temple Israel was the first Reform congregation in this area to introduce a cantor to services, to revive the tradition of bar mitzvah and to give girls a bat mitzvah starting in the 1950s. Ritually, over the decades, it reintroduced a daily minyan.
Perhaps the most contentious of rituals it incorporated was in 1996, when it became the first Reform congregation in the nation to have a mikvah. At the time, Temple Israel was putting in an expansion and leadership proposed adding the ritual bath. After studying Jewish texts, members came to understand the mikvah could be used to mark times of transition and healing in a person’s life, such as entering a stage of cancer remission, according to Yedwab.
The more things change, the more they remain the same, even in the span of seven decades.
Temple Israel has always placed its highest priority on youth and Jewish educational opportunities from the earliest childhood years through confirmation in high school as well as on adult classes.
In recent years, Temple Israel strengthened its dedication to early childhood education when, in 2014, pharmaceutical industry veteran the late William Farber and his wife, Audrey, made a $10 million gift to establish an endowment for the Susan and Rabbi Harold Loss Early Childhood Center. The endowment supports the center’s preschool program and provides yearly scholarships to members’ preschool to kindergarten-aged children.
Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny was one of the first preschoolers to play and learn in the new building. Now, her children are preschoolers there.
Through her bat mitzvah and marriage, Kaluzny’s life is bound up in the story of Temple Israel. Her life experiences there set her on the path to become a rabbi, and she strives to fulfill her work in the spirit of Rabbi Fram.
“For 75 years, the clergy, teachers and staff have built a strong connection to the land of Israel and Reform Jewish values,” she said. “There is a passion for Temple that began with Rabbi Fram, and he instilled that passion in each rabbi and cantor that came after him, and I am just so proud and blessed to be part of it.”
Social Justice Ideals
Another pillar of Reform Judaism is social justice. Tisdale said this emphasis is evident upon entering the building to the Tyner Religious School.
There are collection bins for donating old eyeglasses, recycling toner cartidges and cell phones as well as places to donate clothing and food. Twice each month, Forgotten Harvest runs a food pantry that distributes food to the community’s neediest families.
“Just as it was when it was founded, Temple Israel continues to be at the cutting edge of liberal, Reform Judaism,” Tisdale said. “We are a place of social justice, religion, learning and, most of all, a place for families to feel good about Judaism and feel part of a community. Our clergy and staff are dedicated to what they do and are a cornerstone of our success.”
As far as outreach, Temple Israel continues to forge new directions. In the last several years, it created The Well, an outreach initiative headed by Rabbi Daniel Horwitz that has engaged unaffiliated and under-affiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s in Jewish life. There are also many social service and support groups, from helping families with transgender teens to families dealing with death and dying.
It is in one of these subsets of Temple Israel life — the daily library morning minyan — where longtime member Kenny Lipson has found his place.
Lipson of West Bloomfield, a member with his wife, Nancy, for several decades, found his place at Temple within the supportive atmosphere of the daily morning minyan for the last 15 years. After enduring two painful losses in his life and experiencing health issues of his own, Lipson said the daily minyan was a place to give and receive comfort. Because of this support, he created the Lipson Family Minyan Fund. This fund, along with the Samson Family Minyan Fund, provides finances to buy breakfast for the library morning minyan that meets at 7:30 a.m. Monday-Thursday and 9 a.m. on Sundays.
“The more I give to Temple, the more it gives back to me,” he said. “In the minyan, I have found spirituality and community. When I had to undergo heart surgery, nothing gave me more strength than hearing the minyan sing the Mi Shebeirach prayer to me.”
Lifelong member and longtime religious school teacher Judy Pearlman of Bloomfield Hills recalls her family’s friendship with the family of Cantor Harold Orbach.
“Every year for 33 years, our families had seder together,” she said. “I can still remember Cantor Orbach singing the Passover melodies. I didn’t know it then, but [Temple and the Orbachs] made a big impact on my life and sent me on my journey of lifelong Jewish learning and teaching.”
Now, with 65 years of memories at Temple Israel, she continues to pass down the Jewish traditions to her grandchildren and future generations. Pearlman, with her husband, Sheldon, 67, participated in Mitzvah 613, dedicating sentences in the Torah that focus on feeding the poor and overcoming adversity.
“Temple Israel is as big or as small as you want it to be, and you can be involved as little or as much as you wish,” Pearlman said.
Another founding family celebrating their children becoming Jewish adults are Carolyn and Steve Cohen of West Bloomfield. This year, their twin children, Drew and Carly, 14, became b’nai mitzvah and are also the next link in a long family chain of involvement.
Cohen’s grandparents, the late Samuel and late Sylvia Ruskin, followed Fram from Beth El to become a founding family of Temple. She can point to photos hanging in the building of her late uncle, Herbert Ruskin, who was part of the temple’s first confirmation class.
Though Carolyn spent her childhood in Cincinnati, Steve grew up at Temple Israel. When Carolyn moved back to Michigan for law school and met Steve, she says, “There was no question in our minds that Temple Israel was the place where we wanted our wedding.”
Since then, they have raised their three children, including Alec, 18, from preschool through their b’nai mitzvah. Alec just graduated from Hebrew high school and last year went on the congregation’s Teen Mission to Israel. Their children are also active in BBYO as well as Temple’s NFTY chapter.
“With our families as charter members, we feel such a connection here, and I hope that as the years pass, our children will also keep that connection going.”
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer
TEMPLE ISRAEL CLERGY
Congregants Celebrate In Style
Libations flowed and guests pulled out all the stops on the dance floor. Along with the Simone Vitale Band, revelers enjoyed several selections performed by Cantors Michael Smolash and Neil Michaels. Throughout the evening, video played of the 50th anniversary as well as a photo montage covering all the decades in Temple Israel’s history.
Rabbi Harold Loss and Temple President Dr. Edward Royal spoke briefly, reflecting on the past, celebrating the present and enlightening congregants to the exciting plans for the future.