Temple B’nai Israel in Kalamazoo
Temple B’nai Israel in Kalamazoo

In July 2018, the congregation welcomed its first full-time woman rabbi, Rabbi Simone Schicker.

Reform synagogue Temple B’nai Israel (TBI) has been a fixture in the Kalamazoo community for over 150 years.

TBI was officially organized in Kalamazoo by a group of 20 Jewish families who emigrated from Germany. The bylaws were signed on Jan. 7, 1866, and Temple B’nai Israel officially came into being. Temple B’nai Israel was one of the 34 founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Rabbi Samuel Thurman was elected as the fifth spiritual leader in 1908. With Rabbi Thurman’s encouragement, a new building site was purchased on South Park Street. 

The congregation thrived under the leadership of Rabbi Thurman. However, following his departure, membership declined. Unable to secure a permanent rabbi, the congregation’s needs were met by using the services of rabbinic students.

Temple Temple B’nai Israel Sign in Kalamazoo

Without a full-time resident spiritual leader, the congregation declined in membership. The decline continued through the 1930s and 1940s, and the congregation struggled to survive. When membership declined to 20 families, the congregation decided that maintaining the building was no longer practical and, in 1946, the Park Street building was sold.

In the summer of 1992, the congregation was a beneficiary of the estate of David Lowe, a former member of Temple B’nai Israel. The financial security this gift granted the congregation stimulated a great deal of interest in pursuing a permanent home for TBI.

After a lengthy search, TBI purchased the Judson Baptist Church on Grand Prairie Road in August 1994. Temple B’nai Israel had a permanent place to call home for the first time in 48 years.

During this time, the decision was made to seek an ordained rabbi, instead of student rabbis, to serve the congregation on a part-time basis. Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana was the first rabbi to assume this position. 

Eventually, following his ordination in May 2014, Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh (who now serves at Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park) was the first full-time spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel since 1969. 

Rabbi Simone Schicker
Rabbi Simone Schicker

In July 2018, the congregation welcomed its first full-time woman rabbi, Rabbi Simone Schicker. 

“The congregation as a whole is very proud of its history and the presence of the community in Kalamazoo,” Schicker said. “A big piece of that is our welcoming nature. We’re a small place, about 100 household units, and we span the age range from babies to people in their 80s and 90s.” 

TBI offers a number of programs and outreach opportunities, especially as the weather’s changed and things can be done outside.

“We’ve got a new play group starting up, an Israeli dancing group starting up … We have a fire pit and we’re very big into Havdalah and s’mores. We’ve got a dinner and discussion group that’s aimed at our young professionals,” Schicker said. “Our hope is that everyone who walks through our doors can find something they’re interested in, and we can match them up with the appropriate group.” 

Temple members at a community event
Temple members at a community event

In September 2016, the religious schools of TBI and nearby Congregation of Moses merged to form the Marvin and Rosalie Okun Kalamazoo Community Jewish School. TBI and Conservative CoM do many holiday celebrations together, as well as events throughout the year as one larger Kalamazoo Jewish community.

Inclusivity is a major focus for TBI. The congregation and Schicker herself are active in organizations including ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community), the Trevor Project and OutFront Kalamazoo. TBI also had a big service for Pride Month at the start of June. 

Schicker takes pride in the congregation providing a place for everyone, and says the TBI and larger Kalamazoo Jewish community are tight knit.  

“They’re very devoted and committed. They choose to participate and choose to show up,” Schicker said. “And they especially show up for one another, in good times and in not good times, and that’s what community should be about.” 

Watch “Ask the Rabbi” with Rabbi Simone Schicker:

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