The shul resembles a house on the corner.
The shul resembles a house on the corner.

Although no one from Iron Mountain was surprised to see the synagogue wind down, former congregants expressed sadness about the conclusion of a significant piece of Jewish history in the Upper Peninsula. 

For more than a century, the Jews of Iron Mountain gathered and worshiped at a small but previously vibrant congregation in the western portion of the Upper Peninsula. The remarkable history of this shul, called Anshe Knesseth Israel, came to an end earlier this year when board members made the difficult decision to close the synagogue and sell the property.

With less than a half-dozen known practicing Jews in the area, and no real income to pay the utility bills, it was no longer viable to have a congregation in this former mining town.

The shul’s interior.
The shul’s interior.

The synagogue’s closure leaves two remaining congregations in the Upper Peninsula, one in Marquette, and the other in Houghton. A third congregation in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, attracts members from across the river in and around Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. 

Although no one from Iron Mountain was surprised to see the synagogue wind down, former congregants expressed sadness about the conclusion of a significant piece of Jewish history in the Upper Peninsula. 

The original building was a church.
The original building was a church.

“It’s sad to see your childhood synagogue close, but we knew it was going to happen. There’s no longer a Jewish community in Iron Mountain,” said Wendy Russman-Halperin. Her family moved there in 1961 from Miami when her father, a physician, accepted a job there with the local V.A. hospital. She was in third grade at the time. 

Following her graduation in 1971, Russman-Halperin left Iron Mountain to attended Brandeis University. One of the reasons she chose the Massachusetts school was to further explore her religion. There, she wrote a paper on the history of the Jews of Iron Mountain, based on interviews conducted with five generations of Jewish residents. In 2009, it was published by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. At the time of publication, the Jewish community had dwindled to 10 residents.

“We were raised to leave Iron Mountain. There’s no way it could survive,” said Jeffrey Kushner, 65, a cardiologist now living in Madison, Wis. “Any sadness I’ve experienced is more about the people than the actual building. It was a tight Jewish community with approximately 15 to 20 families. When I think about the synagogue, I remember all the families and the specific places where everyone sat for services.”

Kushner was born in Iron Mountain in 1955 and graduated high school with former NFL coach Steve Mariucci and current Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo. He left his hometown to attend college at the University of Michigan. Like so many Iron Mountain teens, he did not move back. His mother was the last family member there, and she left in 1990 following Kushner’s father’s death. 

The last time Kushner saw the inside of his former synagogue was seven years ago when he attended a family reunion with about 40 relatives. Many of those in attendance were descendants of Sam Rusky, a peddler and one of the first Jewish settlers in Iron Mountain. He was also Kushner’s great-grandfather.

A close-up view of the bimah.
A close-up view of the bimah.

At one point during the family gathering, Kushner and his relatives gathered inside their former synagogue, a simple white rectangular building that sits unassumingly on a neighborhood street corner. They spent the time reminiscing and rediscovering familial dedication plaques and other artifacts which flooded their conversations with an abundance of memories.

Aside from the Star of David located above the front door, it would be easy to ignore the 100-plus-year-old congregation. The simple white rectangular building, which looks more like a house than a place of worship, had a history of members pondering its long-term viability. As far back as the late 1930s, the Jewish population began to decline and congregants wondered what the future would bring.  

In the 1940s, membership consisted of approximately 20 devoted families. At that time, services only occurred during the High Holidays, if there was a yahrtzeit or on the rare occasion of a bar mitzvah. A full-time rabbi was no longer necessary. Men and women were now sitting together, and the balcony, once reserved for women, converted into a storage room. Esahe mikvah had been removed. 

In the 1950s, while there were still enough men for a minyan, it was sometimes an effort to assemble one. Although Anshe Knesseth Israel was never affiliated with a movement, services became Reform in the 1970s so women could be counted in the requisite prayer quorum. 

High Holiday services were almost entirely in Hebrew, and “incomprehensible,” according to Jim Zacks, a retired professor, now living in Okemos. They occurred under the leadership of a visiting rabbi or someone knowledgeable enough to lead the congregation in prayer. 

Zacks lived in Iron Mountain for 18 years, from the time he was born in 1941 until 1959 when he left to attend Harvard University. Despite going to services he didn’t understand, Zacks has fond memories of Sunday school plays, holiday celebrations and his bar mitzvah. He recalls with particular fondness being in Sunday school and learning about the creation of the State of Israel. 

“My childhood experiences in the congregation; it was a warm feeling. It felt like something special was going on. Even when I was too young to understand what it was all about,” said Zacks.

Common Ancestor

When describing her memories, Susan Cohodes expressed similar sentiments about the synagogue and its recent sale. Cohodes, 59, is the third generation of her family who lived in Iron Mountain, starting with her grandfather, a Lithuanian peddler who settled there around the late 1890s. At the time she lived there, her family comprised the majority of Jewish residents. Only three families in the congregation were not related to the Cohodes.

“At first, I was saddened by the news, but then I thought I’m not moving back there, and there’s no longer a Jewish community,” said Cohodes. She was glad to learn the building would be put to good use by a nonprofit organization that runs 12-step programs and that synagogue artifacts, including the Torah, are being used in other congregations.

Susan Cohodes’ father Ben Cohodes and her Uncle Morris Cohodes.
Susan Cohodes’ father Ben Cohodes and her Uncle Morris Cohodes.

One of the Torahs was sold to a scribe who then sold it to a small synagogue in Joliet, Ill. The money from the sale was used to repay a debt owed to a former congregant.

The scribe estimated the Torah age to be approximately 150 years old, from Eastern Europe. There is no evidence in the shul’s records how the Torah got to Iron Mountain.

Anshe Knesseth Israel board members later asked the Joliet congregation if it wanted anything else from the Iron Mountain synagogue. So on a sunny but cold day in early January of this year, Zacks loaded two large, ornate bimah chairs, two floor menorah lamps, the congregation’s eternal light, and various other synagogue relics into his minivan and made the five-plus-hour drive to Joliet.

The Torah that went to Illinois was quite possibly the same one Zacks read from during his bar mitzvah. Bar mitzvahs were special occasions in Iron Mountain. With a few exceptions, the services almost always occurred in June because it was the only time they could get a rabbi to make the 100-mile drive from Green Bay, Wis., to Iron Mountain to officiate the service.

Jim Zacks, congregation president Rachel Solom and Rose Zacks as they prepared to transport the Torahs to a scribe in Illinois.
Jim Zacks, congregation president Rachel Solom and Rose Zacks as they prepared to transport the Torahs to a scribe in Illinois.

While studying for their bar mitzvahs, the boys had to be driven to Green Bay twice a month to learn their Torah portions. The two-hour drive each way was especially grueling during the winter. And, tutoring sessions needed to be scheduled around the Green Bay Packers football schedule to avoid game-day traffic.

Except for Russman-Halpern, who lobbied to participate in the rite of passage, there were no bat mitzvahs in the synagogue. Cohodes, an attorney now living in Seattle, said that she participated in an adult b’nai mitzvah 14 years ago because she missed the opportunity as a teen.

Small-Town Jewish Life

In September, during an online event hosted by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, Zacks, Russman-Halpern, and two others shared their memories of Anshe Knesseth Israel and discussed Jewish life in Iron Mountain.

Participants said they are frequently asked what it was like to be Jewish and live in a rural area, under the assumption it could be a more antisemitic environment.

One of the artifacts the shul sold to a congregation in Illinois.
One of the artifacts the shul sold to a congregation in Illinois.

“As far as I could tell, Jews were viewed as positive contributors to the community. So, it was never something to be hidden. It just wasn’t a salient part of life,” said Zacks. “Early on, I realized I was Jewish, but I didn’t view it as part of my primary public identity. I think my parents were assimilationists. Their goal was to blend in. You couldn’t live primarily within the Jewish community because the community wasn’t large enough.”

These Iron Mountain residents reported mild antisemitism incidents or, in some situations, what they would consider simple ignorance. For example, when Russman-Halpern brought matzah to school for lunch during Passover, classmates thought it was “made from blood.”

Being Jewish wasn’t something Kushner thought much about until high school. He always felt there wasn’t much of a difference between him and his peers, except he didn’t celebrate Christmas. “In high school, there were times when it got a little rougher. People sometimes called each other kikes. It was uncomfortable, and I got in a few fights over it,” recalled Kushner, stating that the boys had it a little rougher than the girls.

A Brief History Lesson 

In the 1890s, at least 30 Jewish families found their way to Iron Mountain. Most were Eastern European immigrants who came to the United States to escape antisemitism. They initially settled in Chicago and Milwaukee where they worked as peddlers and frequently made trips north to sell their goods to the miners and lumberjacks in the Upper Peninsula. Ultimately, they would bring their families to live in Iron Mountain, a town located in the western part of the U.P., 200 miles from the Mackinac Bridge.

All of these families were Orthodox. They kept kosher and held regular minyans in a room they rented above one of the downtown stores. One of the more observant men in town served as the shochet, allowing Iron Mountain residents to obtain kosher meat without traveling long distances.

More of the shul’s artifacts.
More of the shul’s artifacts.

At one point, a second minyan was formed with the idea of holding less-religious services. However, within a few years, the two minyans reunited, leaving the community with one congregation and two Torahs.

By 1908, the decision was made to establish a formal congregation. No one alive today knows why they called it Anshe Knesseth Israel. At first, they gathered in a bank building but purchased a Swedish Methodist church and established what would become the shul’s permanent home.

Having only bought the building and not the land, congregants found a desirable piece of property and moved the congregation to a building where they added a balcony to allow for separate woman’s seating. They moved the bimah to the center of the congregation, as was customary in many Eastern European synagogues. A large mikvah was built in the basement. Some of the construction workers referred to it as the swimming pool at the Jewish Church. 

One of the Last Residents

Rachel Solom is 66 years old. She left Iron Mountain to attend the University of Michigan in 1972 but returned in 2004 to help care for her ailing mother.

Family and property management responsibilities kept her there. Although her relatives have since passed away or moved, Solom said she’s reconnected to her hometown and maintains a strong connection to the area.

She’s one of a handful of Jewish residents left in the area and does what she can to maintain a Jewish life. In Iron Mountain, she served as the most recent president of Anshe Knesseth Israel.

She participates in a Sabbath potluck with Seventh Day Adventist friends who also observe Saturday as the Sabbath. Another Jewish resident typically builds a sukkah. Solom also participates in events organized by L’Dor v’Dor Northern Michigan Jewish Women Rural Leadership Consortium. She’s also starting to get involved in the Holocaust education program offered in the local school system.

When Solom attends services, she travels 80 miles to Marquette, the closest functioning synagogue location.

“There is a sense of isolation, and it is more difficult here because there is not the community to celebrate the holidays and Shabbat. There aren’t opportunities to talk about Jewish topics and philosophy or participate in Jewish learning,” she said.

The Shul vs. The City

In early September, those serving as synagogue board members filed a lawsuit against the City of Iron Mountain and a handful of city officials. The previous year, the city assessor had concluded the synagogue building was no longer being used as a house of public worship, and therefore revoked its tax-exempt status. The suit, filed in federal district court, alleges that the assessor had entered the synagogue illegally.

Zacks said the assessor got a key from the real estate company that was listing the property.

The synagogue argues that despite the infrequency of religious services, the building was used exclusively as a house of public worship. Even when there were so few congregants that services all but ceased, board meetings continued to occur in the synagogue, and the congregation’s Torahs and other ritual items remained onsite. The building, they said, was never used for non-religious purposes.

A Torah scribe in Illinois examines the Torah.
A Torah scribe in Illinois examines the Torah.

The complaint further alleges that the city didn’t give proper notice of the revocation of the congregation’s tax-exempt status.

Jim Zacks said they eventually learned that notice was sent to a former board member who died 23 years ago. He maintains that the city could have easily given proper notice by contacting one of the named property sellers or by informing the board president who always appears at city hall to pay the congregation’s water bill.

In January, Board President Rachel Solom went to pay the water bill and was informed of the change in tax status, but it was too late to appeal the decision.

Zacks said they tried to resolve the matter but were not successful. City Manager Jordan Stanchina declined to comment on the lawsuit, except to say, “We will work through the process and see how it settles out.”

Solom was philosophical about the fate of her century-old congregation.

“I’m getting a sense of closure and the passage of time and realizing that the life of a Jewish community in a small town can have a beginning, middle and an end,” she said.

“I think it’s possible there could be a Jewish community here again, but it’s something I don’t foresee in the near future.”