Jackson’s Temple Beth Israel serves multiple counties as sole synagogue.
Jackson’s Temple Beth Israel (TBI) is a Reform synagogue formed in 1862 by Jews of German background. The temple developed out of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, which had been organized in 1858. The congregation includes fifth-generation members.
“This is either the oldest or second-oldest Reform congregation in the state of Michigan that is still active,” said president Cathy Glick. “And we have a Jewish cemetery that we own, and it’s the oldest still-active Jewish cemetery in the state of Michigan.”
Dedicated in 1859, Temple Beth Israel Cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are at least 200 people buried there, representing four and five generations of Jackson families.
“There were some Jews from Detroit who moved out here. Some of them were trappers from Northern Michigan and came down. And the first thing they did was to build the cemetery,” Glick said.
Like many small congregations, TBI started in people’s homes and smaller buildings. It’s been in its current building since 1952.
“There are a lot of families that have been in this congregation for decades and decades,” Glick said. “A lot of them grew up in this town and congregation so they’re all friends with each other because they went to Hebrew school and confirmation class together.”
The first female rabbi ordained in the United States, Sally Priesand, did her student rabbinate in the congregation.
TBI has had many short-term and student rabbis, but one of the most recent long-term rabbis for 12 years was Rabbi Jonathan Plaut, son of Rabbi Gunther Plaut.
TBI has had part-time rabbis that live in the Michigan area and come in every other Shabbat for many decades. TBI’s current rabbi is Nate DeGroot, formerly the religious leader for Hazon. DeGroot comes one Saturday morning and one Friday night a month and leads all High Holidays services. Services are lay-led on weekends the rabbi isn’t present.
Besides Shabbat services, TBI does events for Sukkot, a latke party for Chanukah and a big second-night Passover seder, which usually draws about 120 people. For Purim, the youth group does a play and members dress in costumes.
Once or twice a year, TBI will hold some kind of mystery night or game night, which are usually fundraisers for the cemetery endowment fund.
TBI is famous for its massive Election Day bake sale starting back in the 1930s or 1940s. Members start cooking and baking in August for the November event.
“We have seven deep freezers in various places in the synagogue, and we make matzah ball soup, chicken, brisket, stuffed cabbage, noodle kugel, all kinds of soups and desserts,” Glick said. “And we have big community outreach for that, and people wait all year to get really good Jewish food.
“We don’t have a deli in Jackson. This is really not deli food, but this is traditional stuff you would have at home. And we make large amounts, 150 quarts of matzah ball soup. Everybody kind of knows about the election day bake sale at the temple in Jackson.”
TBI doesn’t require tickets for High Holidays — and the overall membership fee is pay-what-you-can.
The temple has a book club and schmooze group — both being held virtually, which allow members who have moved out of state to stay connected to the congregation. Services are currently held both in-person and virtually for similar reasons.
TBI has about 50 member units, including fewer than 10 families with kids still at home. Being such a small congregation and Jewish community, Glick says it feels like an extended family.
“We really care for each other,” she said. “Our services are sometimes small, maybe only 15 or 20 people on Shabbat, but we really enjoy being together because it’s such a non-Jewish area — we have members coming from three or four counties around here because we’re the only synagogue. People really enjoy having a Jewish community to go to because where they live and work, they don’t have other Jewish people around them.”