Looking Back At Osias Zwerdling
From the DJN Foundation Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History
Next week will mark the 140th birthday of a very important Michigan Jew: Osias Zwerdling. This is not a household name in Detroit, so don’t feel bad if you don’t know his name, but he is someone to consider and remember.
For many years, Zwerdling was the foremost Jewish leader in Ann Arbor. At Congregation Beth Israel, he is indeed a household name.
I ran across an article in the Nov. 5, 1948, issue of the JN that reported that Zwerdling’s friends, citizens of Ann Arbor, and University of Michigan faculty and students were celebrating his 70th birthday. This was a big deal. Zwerdling was a remarkable fellow.
Zwerdling was born in Brody, Austria, now part of the Ukraine, on Oct. 27, 1878. At age 13, he apprenticed to become a tailor. Zwerdling always dreamed of coming to America and, after a long journey that began when he was 22 with stops in Paris, France and Buffalo, N.Y., he arrived in Ann Arbor in 1903 to accept a job at Mack and Company, Ann Arbor’s flagship department store. Along the way, Zwerdling also married Hannah Kaufman from Manchester, England, in 1907, the same year he opened his own store in the city, selling women’s clothing and, later, furs.
Zwerdling really made his mark as a civic leader. He was a founder of Congregation Beth Israel in Ann Arbor after spending his first decade in Michigan traveling to Detroit for services. There were only three Jewish families in Ann Arbor when he moved there, so he decided to do something about the lack of a minyan or synagogue. With five other men, he organized Beth Israel in 1916. Zwerdling was its first president and held that office for the next 32 years. He was also the “go-to” guy for Jewish students and faculty at U-M, worked with the Boy Scouts, Jewish Family Services of Ann Arbor and many other worthy causes.
As I said, Zwerdling was remarkable. He died in 1977 at age 98.
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.