Temple Jacob in Hancock has been around for 110 years.
Temple Jacob is a small Reform synagogue in the city of Hancock in the Keweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The area, like the temple, has a rich history.
The Keweenaw Peninsula was the site of the first copper boom in the United States, leading to its moniker, “Copper Country.”
The boom led to tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in the area that was rich with copper ore. Along with the population boom in the middle of the 19th century were merchants who came to the area to support the mines. Many of those merchants were immigrants, and many of them were Jews.
Over the course of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, those Jews formed a few different congregations in the area; the one that remains is Temple Jacob.
Temple Jacob started off meeting in private spaces around the city of Hancock. Eventually one of the merchants, Jacob Gartner, bought a piece of land and had a synagogue built on the property.
The building was completed in 1912. Just one year later, in 1913, was the big mining strike which became symbolic of the beginning of the end of the copper boom in Copper Country.
“Almost immediately as the synagogue was built, there’s the big strike in 1913,” said David Holden, Temple Jacob’s current president. “And the copper industry starts to die off pretty rapidly thereafter in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Now there’s really no copper mining here at all.”
But the synagogue remains, and Temple Jacob has been in the same building for as long as the synagogue’s existed — 110 years. “I believe it’s the second oldest continuously-run synagogue in Michigan,” Holden said.
The synagogue, created for the much larger Jewish population during the boom, was made to seat almost 250 people.
Temple Jacob does not have a rabbi — everything is lay-led. For the High Holidays, they bring in a service leader, Debbie Massarano.
Temple Jacob serves a four-county area — Keweenaw, Houghton, Baraga and Ontonagon. That area, Holden says, is larger than the state of Maryland.
“Even in an area that large, we’re so sparsely populated that we only have 20 or so families regularly attending services,” Holden said. “We’re a small but mighty group of folks who participate in the community. I think we have an outsized influence in the community, given our number.”
Holden, president of the congregation for five years and originally from Detroit, describes the congregants as wide-ranging, including many of them affiliated with Michigan Technological University — the largest employer in the area.
“We just had our annual meeting … We have parents with kids who are in elementary school. We have retirees; we have snowbirds. There’s a lot more kids in the congregation than there have been since I’ve been here,” Holden said.
During the academic year for Michigan Tech, the High Holidays, Chanukah, Purim and Pesach are the main festivals and services the temple observes and provides. Shabbat services are held every month, but not weekly. B’nai mitzvah classes are also offered.
Michigan Tech established a Hillel last year, and Temple Jacob is working with them to provide services for their students.
It was three years ago this month that Temple Jacob was the victim of antisemitic vandalism. After that, the local community came out to support the temple en masse.
Locals passing by and several other groups rallied together to help remove the graffiti and repaint. Leaders from the area spoke out about the issue and took action.
“It speaks wonderful things about the community as a whole up here, tremendous support from Michigan Tech, Finlandia University and the cities of Hancock and Houghton,” Holden said.
Other religious organizations in the area banded together and formed Keweenaw Faiths United, an interfaith group seeking to provide support for inclusiveness and diversity in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
“That group is still going strong. It’s continuing to pay dividends, the amity and camaraderie we experienced in the aftermath. It’s been a net positive for the synagogue that we establish deep ties with other members of the community.”
Holden says the doors to Temple Jacob are open. “If anyone is interested in touring the synagogue when they come up to vacation to Keweenaw, they can. That’s honestly one of the largest sources of donations and contributions we have — people who come up, tour our beautiful building and stay with us for a Shabbat.”