Temple B’nai Israel has called downtown Petoskey home since the 1930s.

Founded in 1896, Petoskey’s Temple B’nai Israel (TBI) began with local Jewish merchants who served the many tourists that flocked to the area in the summer months. TBI has maintained a small-town, tight-knit family feel ever since.

The Reform congregation has been in its current location in downtown Petoskey since the 1930s and has worked to expand its northern Michigan campus, which includes two buildings. The first building includes the sanctuary and social hall, expanded and renovated in 2003; and the second building is a newly built parsonage, opened for rabbinic stays in 2021.

Stained glass at TBI.
Stained glass at TBI.

TBI is one of the founding congregations that began the student-rabbi partnership with the Hebrew Union College. For many years, the student rabbis just visited in the summer, until it was expanded to the school year on a monthly basis as well.

TBI “hit the jackpot” a decade ago, when it began to host Rabbi Maya Leibovich — the first female Reform rabbi from Israel, in the summers.

Rabbi Maya Leibovich
Rabbi Maya Leibovich

Leibovich was retiring and looking for a part-time gig in the U.S. when a TBI congregant knew somebody who knew her. TBI connected with her and her husband, Menachem, who also helps with cantorial duties, and they just completed their 10th summer with TBI this year. The Leiboviches spend those months providing all different kinds of services and Torah study for the congregation.

Never having an ordained rabbi leading them before, TBI President Valerie Meyerson says Rabbi Leibovich has changed the face of the congregation.

Valerie Meyerson
Valerie Meyerson

“Petoskey’s a resort community, so while our congregation has about 85-90 family unit memberships, only 35 of those are year-round units,” Meyerson said. “We really expand during the summer with who’s here and who’s participating, and Maya has really helped us make connections with some of the wonderful summer Jewish contingent that comes up here. She’s made us a lot more cohesive than we were and given us a great foundation to move forward.”

Meyerson says that without the summer residents, the synagogue couldn’t function as it does.

“Having this resort community where we get these folks who come up and want to support the Jewish community, we’ve expanded our membership base plus our donor base with that. These folks are very generous, and they really help.”

With fewer rabbinical students coming from the HUC these days, TBI is in a transition period of figuring out the long-term plan for leadership during the school year. For now, TBI has contracted cantorial soloist Gabrielle Pescador.

During the school year, TBI offers monthly Shabbat services and Torah study. TBI always has community events throughout the year, including a community breaking of the fast, community seder and many events around the holidays.

Tree of Life artwork at TBI.
Tree of Life artwork at TBI.

The Temple B’nai Israel Religious School meets on alternate Sundays during the regular school year. Classes are taught by parent volunteers. While Friday night services are open to the entire community, Jewish and otherwise, TBI does have a membership program.
TBI members are wide-ranging with many families being “year-rounders” and most of the “summer-only” folks being retirees.

The temple is currently expanding and trying to reach out to the many unaffiliated Jews who have homes in northern Michigan.

TBI is a Kulano (all of us) synagogue, with the Anti-Defamation League providing its programming. TBI participates in community outreach, including visiting seventh graders in the local middle school every year — talking about Judaism and the culture of Judaism to let kids and families know there are Jews in that part of the state.

“I think, in this day and age, it’s really important for the Jewish community to be at the forefront of the whole community,” Meyerson said.

TBI had been an all-volunteer congregation up until this summer, when they hired their first part-time administrator.

“The reason we’ve been around for so long is because of the strength of the volunteers and the commitment of everybody who’s willing to help out,” Meyerson said. “That’s the nature of these small, rural congregations. The ties and relationships that have been built here are really special.”

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