Since 1952, Temple Emanu-El has offered congregants a welcoming, inclusive environment.
Oak Park Reform congregation Temple Emanu-El is an open, welcoming, inclusive congregation that strives to be a spiritual home for all.
Temple Emanu-El was founded in 1952 to meet the growing needs of the Jewish community in Oak Park, Huntington Woods and other northern suburbs of Detroit. Called the Suburban Temple of Greater Detroit, it held its first service for its 100 families on Jan. 18, 1952, at Burton School in Huntington Woods. The first High Holiday services were held later that year at the First Methodist Church of Royal Oak. Within its first year, the congregation grew to almost 300 families under the leadership of Rabbi Frank Rosenthal.
The cornerstone for its building was laid in October 1955 with its final dedication in 1957 under the direction of its new rabbi, Milton Rosenbaum, who was installed the year before and served the temple as rabbi, and then rabbi emeritus, for more than 40 years. In 1981, Rabbi Lane Steinger succeeded Rosenbaum. Joseph Klein became rabbi in 1997 and then rabbi emeritus in 2013. Arturo Kalfus served as rabbi from 2013-2018.
The temple’s first cantor, Norman Rose, joined in 1972 and served more than 40 years. Darcie Sharlein became the second cantor, serving from 2008-2012.
Matthew J. Zerwekh has served as rabbi since 2018, and Kelly Onickel serves as cantorial soloist.
Whether you’re looking for a place for prayer, learning, cultural engagement, volunteer opportunities or to make new friends, Temple Emanu-El strives to offer a broad array of engagement opportunities while remaining intimate enough for individuals to make their own mark, Zerwekh said.
“This congregation has never moved. For all the ebbs and flows of this part of town, Temple Emanu-El has been that place in Oak Park and Southeast Oakland County, and I think that’s really special to be such a significant part of the neighborhood for so long,” Zerwekh said. “I’ve run into folks from all over who grew up at Temple Emanu-El and have a lot of fond connections to it.”
Zerwekh is proud of Temple Emanu-El’s education program. “We have a wonderful preschool that educates the youngest minds,” he said. “It also happens to fill our building with a lot of joy every day.”
Temple Emanu-El, which has 360 family units, also has a combined religious school, Yachad, with Oak Park’s Congregation Beth Shalom.
The foundations of the congregation are steeped in tikkun olam and social justice engagement. The temple has many programs aimed to educate and inform, sometimes from the Jewish realm, sometimes outside of it.
Most recently, the temple hosted a panel discussion on reproductive freedom with a constitutional scholar, the assistant director of the ACLU and Zerwekh, talking about three different aspects of a world post-Roe v. Wade.
“I love being able to help folks make these connections and to understand the world better through all those different lenses,” Zerwekh said. “We also have a climate change group that’s starting to help us understand how the choices we make impact our environment and how we can make different choices depending on the impact of our environment.”
The temple has a gardening group that plants, waters and harvests from the vegetable garden on the west side of the temple. Vegetables are delivered to Yad Ezra for its clients.
The words Zerwekh uses to describe the congregation’s approach to prayer are intimate, accessible, warm, inclusive and spiritual.
“This is a congregation full of people in helping professions or who are really engaged in their world in a caring way,” Zerwekh said. “They’re intellectually curious and always looking to learn more. They’re active in many realms of the world outside the Jewish realm, but they’re committed to their Judaism and the Jewish community.”
Zerwekh says when people step into Temple Emanu-El, they see one another face-to-face, and there isn’t a sense for who gives the most, who has or who hasn’t.
“If you’re interested in being a part of our community, we’re interested in welcoming you in as part of our community,” he said. “However people want to engage with Judaism, we want to welcome that, foster that and help folks feel and know they belong.”