Like many other nineteenth-century immigrants, the first Jewish Ann Arborites came from southern Germany. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “The five Weil brothers and their parents arrived in 1845; they conducted Sabbath and holiday services in their home” (one brother, Jacob, had been a rabbi in Germany). They built a large tannery, and Jacob Weil was elected alderman, but in 1865 they moved to Chicago. Even their small cemetery was forgotten until 1980, when construction of the Power Center turned up a tombstone engraved with Hebrew script.

Today six local Jewish congregations, from the Hasidic Orthodox Chabad House to the secular Jewish Cultural Society, count more than 1,500 members among them. While most are comparatively young, taking independent form only in the 1960s and 1970s, Hillel has been serving U-M students since 1924. And the city’s first Jewish congregation, Beth Israel, turns 100 this year. Founded in response to a human tragedy, it encompasses much of the history of Jewish Ann Arbor.

The impetus was a car accident in 1916: a Rabbi Sloman, who was traveling around the country raising money for Jews immigrating to Palestine, was severely injured in a crash that killed his son. The rabbi landed in an Ann Arbor hospital, speaking only Yiddish and too badly hurt to travel to the nearest Jewish congregation, in Detroit, to worship on the fast-approaching High Holy Days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

The hospital reached out to Osias Zwerdling, a Polish-born furrier who spoke Yiddish and kept a kosher home. One of more than two million Jews who fled persecution in Russia and Eastern Europe for the U.S. around the turn of the twentieth century, he’d arrived in 1904 to join a small but growing community. According to the Encyclopaedia, the Lansky family arrived in 1895, and “as extended family members joined the early pioneers, more Jewish families were attracted to the area: Abraham Levy, shoemaker; Thomas Cook, who made his mark by establishing a foundry business with an African American partner; Israel Friedman, scrap iron business; Jacob Ingber, auto parts; Mark Ross, furniture store; and Joseph Lampe, retired carpenter.”

By 1916, Zwerdling had already been hosting informal religious gatherings in his home for several years. When the hospital called, he realized that it was possible to gather a minyan, the quorum of ten Jewish men (at that time, they had to be men) required to hold formal services.

A Torah was delivered from Detroit in time for the High Holy Days. The gatherings with Rabbi Sloman at the Zwerdling home that September marked the birth of Beth Israel.

The congregation will celebrate the milestone at a gala in June. But getting to its own building at 2000 Washtenaw, a place where women now have just as much power and voice in the congregation, was a long and winding and sometimes bumpy road.

“If you have two Jews in a room,” jokes Beth Israel member Helen Aminoff, “there are usually three opinions!” But in its early years, Beth Israel embraced the whole Jewish community. Though their numbers were growing, there weren’t enough Jews in town to support separate Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform congregations.

Zwerdling became the congregation’s first president in 1918 and held the title for forty years. Aminoff, an expert on local Jewish history–she wrote the Encyclopaedia Judaica entries quoted above–says that other early members were also small businesspeople, among them “Jack Fagan, of Ann Arbor Clothing … [and] Ken and Tilly Gerber, who owned a jewelry store.”

The young congregation moved frequently in its first decade, from Osias and Hannah Zwerdling’s home to the Schwaben Halle downtown, to a small house on N. Main. In 1927, it purchased a large house at 538 N. Division, where it would remain for two decades.

The university was slowly hiring Jewish professors, but there were still only a handful in the 1920s. The great immigration of educated Jews from Europe came after 1930, as fascist parties began the anti-Semitic campaigns that would end in the horrors of the Holocaust.

According to Beth Israel’s website, its “first ordained Rabbi was Rabbi Joshua Sperka who served from 1932-1934. Afterwards, the congregation occasionally had a Rabbi, and at times the congregation made do without one, sustained by a wonderful spirit of volunteerism.”

As the town and the congregation grew after WWII, Beth Israel moved to a house on Hill St. In 1951, it teamed up with Hillel to build a shared facility on the site, moving temporarily to a house a few blocks away during construction. A photo from the new building’s open house shows Zwerdling and rabbi Julius Weinberg chatting with then-U-M president Harlan Hatcher.

“I joined the synagogue in 1963,” Aminoff recalls, “when our third child was born.” By then an Orthodox minyan was meeting separately, but because the space was inclusive of all forms of Judaism, the building was called the Beth Israel Community Center.

“Being small is great,” says Aminoff, “because it allows for a kind of intimacy and familial connection a larger congregation doesn’t.” But it had its drawbacks, too.

“Because we were very close, we felt like family,” Aminoff recalls. “So as our children grew up, they didn’t want to date. The boys didn’t want to date the girls, and the girls didn’t want to date the boys, because they were like cousins.”

But Ann Arbor’s Jewish community was growing quickly. As the city sprawled outward–the population more than doubled between 1950 and 1970–the shared facility was no longer big enough for both the congregation and Hillel. “In 1964, bursting at the seams, Beth Israel embarked on a fundraising campaign to build its own building,” the Encyclopaedia Judaica relates. “Subsequently, a faction of the membership broke off and began the Reform congregation, Temple Beth Emeth.”

Ruth Siegel, widow of former congregation president Kip Siegel, explained the split in a 2013 StoryCorps interview posted on “We were crunched in there,” Siegel recalled. “It was adequate, but then it turned out that more and more people were coming to town, and we needed to expand.”

The rabbi at the time, Harold White, also wanted Beth Israel to formally affiliate with Conservative Judaism. But “a number of people, I would say more than maybe one-third of our congregation, did not want to do that,” Siegel recalled. “They wanted something else. They decided to split off, and they formed their own congregation,” which became Beth Emeth.

In addition to the more liberal and less Hebrew-oriented Reform temple, non-religious Jews formed a secular group, the Jewish Cultural Society, and the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan formally organized as a distinct congregation.

Beth Israel affiliated with the Conservative movement and took back its former name as a congregation. But it was now much smaller, and it no longer needed urgently to separate physically from Hillel–even if it had the capacity to do so. By the time Allan Kensky replaced an interim rabbi in 1971, Beth Israel was at a low point. Recalls Kensky, “they were not a hundred percent sure they would make it another year.”

Kensky was plucked out of the New York Theological Seminary by U-M classics prof Gerda Seligson–the first woman ever elected president of a Conservative congregation in the United States.

In Beth Israel’s reduced state, members “sensed it would be hard to attract a seasoned rabbi looking for all kinds of perks,” Kensky recalls in a phone interview. So Seligson went to the seminary and “told everyone in sight that she was looking for a new rabbi,” says Kensky. “Whatever she said, she made a splash.”

Kensky was not at the seminary when Seligson showed up–he was at NYU, where he was working simultaneously on a master’s degree in political science. But “my colleagues told me about her visit–that she was a professor of classics at the University of Michigan, that she was a rabbi’s wife in Germany during the Hitler period. That she found refuge in England [where] her husband died, and came to the States. That the synagogue in Ann Arbor shared a space with the Hillel Foundation and that there were always serious students around …

“I had very fresh memories of the Vietnam War teach-ins at Michigan, and the rent strike there was rather famous.” Though he’d planned to stay at the seminary, the thought of Seligson, Ann Arbor, and the needs of the congregation spoke to him in such a way that he said to himself, “I’m going. It all sounded so exciting to me. I did an about-face. It was a transformative moment.”

The congregation board gave the young rabbi a one-year contract. That was OK with Kensky. “I was twenty-five, a single guy, and I wanted to test the waters myself.”

His first task was “to reenergize the congregation.” He found the sanctuary somewhat sterile and uninviting, so “after six months, I simply redesigned it. I got Gerda to help me. The back half we left the way it was. We brought the readers’ table to the floor and had seats facing each other with an open space in the middle. We worshipped this way except for High Holy Days … Nowadays, I would never do such a thing without a process, without a vote. But then, I just did it. That was a type of experimentation. It gave it a bit of a buzz.”

Moving furniture around was a temporary fix. “The congregation had a deep longing for a synagogue of their own,” recalls Kensky. “The key was president Dr. Eduardo Schteingart,” a U-M physician. “It was Gerda’s vision to find a new rabbi; when Eduardo came into office, it was his vision to build us a synagogue.”

Kensky points out that the success of a congregation depends on the partnership between the rabbi and the laypeople. “I was very fortunate that we had this strong leadership team of me, Gerda, Eduardo,” says Kensky. Seligson “was very nurturing to me … a Jewish mother. She made sure I wasn’t alone on Shabbat. She was president, but so much more than a president.”

Beth Israel broke ground for its building on Washtenaw on June 26, 1977. On October 1, 1978, the eve of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), the congregation marched from Hill St. to their new home at 2000 Washtenaw.

“Rabbi Kensky made us a congregation, and we made him a rabbi,” Aminoff says. “Over the years, we’ve become much more liberal, but we’ve stuck to our Conservative roots.”

The traditional orientation of the Shabbat service remains–“the Hebrew language focus, the melodies are mostly the same,” says Kensky. “At the same time, we went from a time where women were not taking leadership roles in the synagogue to one where the synagogue became fully egalitarian … We didn’t do anything unilaterally but discussed it openly, congregation-wide, and we did it one step at a time.”

In 1975, a bat mitzvah girl and her family asked to recite an aliyah (a blessing over the Torah) that until then had been done only by men. A committee decided to grant the request–not just to the young woman coming of age but to all women in the congregation. By the time Kensky left in 1988 to return to the seminary–he eventually became its dean and is now retired from a rabbinate in Illinois–women were taking part in minyans and running the services.

When Kensky left, he recalls, there were a “good number of longtime Ann Arbor residents active in the congregation as well as many new people. It was very fertile ground.”

Into that fertile congregational landscape, Rabbi Rob Dobrusin landed. With a current membership of 470 households, he says it’s a medium-sized congregation, and he likes it that way. “We are a good community of interesting and dedicated people.”

EMU political science prof Jeffrey Bernstein and his wife Lisa joined Beth Israel after they married in 1993. “The Conservative movement has a great deal of respect for tradition, for the past, for the holy text, but a very strong belief that we can take the text and interpret it, make meaning for it in modern times,” he says.

A service at Beth Israel “feels like a traditional religious service,” Bernstein says. “But if my grandfather, may he rest in peace, attended, it would feel a little different than his world. The participation of women would be different, and the liturgy and practice would be different but familiar …

“The stylized image of the rabbi is of a highly exalted person who sits up on the bimah [a raised platform], ruling over the flock. One of the best things about Beth Israel is that while both of our rabbis are spiritual leaders, they are also people. Rabbi Dobrusin–who, by the way, encourages me and others to call him Rob–loves talking about baseball. He’s as comfortable talking about baseball as Judaism. And Kim Blumenthal, our associate rabbi, is the first woman rabbi we’ve had.”

A former congregation president, Bernstein is co-chairing the committee organizing the anniversary celebration. One hundred years ago, he says, Beth Israel “started out as small group of individuals who needed a place to pray.” Today’s members “hoped we would find a good synagogue that would be home for us. And we did. We have to make sure the synagogue is here for our kids as well.

“My kids probably won’t end up living in Ann Arbor. But someone else’s kids will, and we have to make sure we’re financially healthy and a strong community that people want to be a part of. That’s what we want. That’s what we hope for.”

How the Jewish cemetery was discovered

To the Observer:

Thank you for an excellent article by Jan Schlain on the 100th anniversary of Beth Israel Congregation [June]. There is one error, however, that requires correction. After the Weil family moved to Chicago and New Jersey, the remaining Jewish community dispersed throughout the country. Their small cemetery indeed was forgotten until members of a fraternity brought a tombstone, beautifully engraved with Hebrew lettering to the Hillel Foundation. Although dating back to the 1840s, it was well preserved due to the fact that it had been lying face down, used as a doorstep at the fraternity house. It was theorized that some of the members had been carousing in the Forest Hill cemetery years before, that the stone may have been loose, and it was brought back to the frat house. Fortunately for us, as it ultimately led to the discovery of the existence of the first Jews of Ann Arbor and their “Private” cemetery that originally was located in the eastern area of the Rackham Building, where a State of Michigan Historical Marker has been placed in recognition of the first Jewish cemetery in the state of Michigan. (The plots subsequently were moved to Forest Hill Cemetery in order to allow for the construction of the Rackham Building.) Prior to the existence of Fletcher Street, the “Private” cemetery was adjacent to the much larger “Public” cemetery in the land on which the Power Center was built.

Helen Aminoff