The roots of the local Jewish resort community in South Haven run deep.
This past Jan. 3, our intrepid reporter Danny Schwartz swung his “Synagogue Spotlight” onto First Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in South Haven, Michigan. First Hebrew has served the small local Jewish community since 1928. Moreover, it has served annual contingents of religiously diverse Jewish tourists.
As Danny reported, “Jewish life in South Haven started with the arrival of farmers from Eastern Europe,” who soon began making a few dollars on the side by providing rooms for vacationers. This was the origin of South Haven’s extensive system of resorts. In the early 20th century, when many hotels and rooming houses would turn away Jewish travelers, South Haven gave them a warm welcome. At its peak, there were about 80 resorts in the area that catered to Jewish tourists.
The roots of the local Jewish resort community in South Haven run deep. For just one example, the family of Barry Fidelman, current board member and past president of First Hebrew Congregation, operated “Fidelman’s Resort” for many years.
I was inspired by Danny’s article. I knew about Charlevoix’s reputation as a summer resort area for Jews, the seasonal synagogue on Mackinac Island, and other synagogues that have served northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. I must admit, however, I did not know about South Haven. So, naturally, I decided to see what I could find in the William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit history.
I was a bit surprised at what I found. Using combination search term “South Haven” and “Resorts,” raised only a mere 1,464 pages!
Many early mentions of South Haven resorts are in the society news columns of the Detroit Jewish Chronicle. The social media of its day, these listings often cite where local Jewish families were spending their holidays in the 1920s. Advertisements for particular resorts also began to appear in this decade. One of the first was: “For a Delightful Vacation, Come to Hotel Wayland” (June 8, 1928, Chronicle).
The heyday of South Haven Jewish resorts was the 1930s to 1950s. Hundreds of ads are in the Davidson Archive for such resorts as “Fidelman’s,” the “Hotel Biltmore,” “Levin’s,” and “Baron’s,” along with “Steuben’s,” which billed itself as “The Host to the Most.” I also liked the small article in the June 16, 1939, Chronicle: “Vacation Dreams Come True at Fidelman’s Resort in South Haven.”
Eventually, there were so many Jewish resorts in South Haven that the area was billed as the “Catskills of the Midwest.” Proof of its impact upon Jewish tourists can be found in several retrospectives in the JN. See “South Haven Sunset” in the July 3, 1987, issue, or the review of “A Time to Remember: A History of the Jewish Community in South Haven” by Bea Kraus (Oct. 29, 1999). “Happy Memories” is about an exhibit at the South Haven Center for the Arts that was on display for the 350th anniversary of Jews in America (June 16, 2005, JN).
South Haven is still a resort area. You can book hotels, motels and B&Bs in South Haven and visit the First Hebrew on Shabbat. As nice as they might be, however, the names of the chain lodgings just don’t have the same ring to them as “Fidelman’s Resort” or “Stueben’s — the Host to the Most.”
Want to learn more? Go to the DJN Foundation archives, available for free at www.djnfoundation.org.