THE STORY OF OUR CONGREGATION
Congregation B’nai Israel was officially organized in Kalamazoo by a group of 20 Jewish families. These early Jewish settlers emigrated to the Kalamazoo area from Germany. The first recorded meeting was held on October 1, 1865, and the group’s first action was to acquire land for a burial ground on property adjoining Mountain Home Cemetery on West Main Street.
This land was consecrated on December 17,1865 and is still in use today. The by-laws were signed on January 7, 1866, and Congregation B’nai Israel officially came into being. Services, conducted in German, were held in private homes by the congregation’s first rabbi, Simon Rosenberg.
In 1873 the congregation purchased a house at 152 East South Street. A temple and school building were erected on the lot, and the house was used as the rabbi’s residence. The temple dedication on January 29, 1875, was conducted by Rabbi Isaac Epstein, accompanied by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, one of the founders of Hebrew Union College (1875) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
Congregation B’nai Israel was one of the 34 founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
East South Street
Rabbi Samuel Thurman was elected as the fifth spiritual leader in 1908. In 1910 the congregation debated whether to build a new, more modern synagogue. With Rabbi Thurman’s encouragement, the East South Street Temple was sold and a new building site was purchased at 621 South Park Street. The cornerstone of the new Temple was laid on November 6, 1910, and was dedicated on September 15, 1911. The building was a Greco/Roman design, with six imposing columns on the front portico. The following inscription was carved over the portico: My House Shall Be A House of Prayer for All People.
The congregation thrived under the leadership of Rabbi Thurman. However, following his departure effective January 1, 1913, membership declined. Unable to secure a permanent rabbi, the congregation’s needs were met by using the services of rabbinic students from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Student rabbis served until Rabbi Philip Waterman assumed the pulpit in 1918. Rabbi Waterman was widely respected and loved by the Kalamazoo community, and he married Helen Isenberg, the daughter of one of the prominent pioneer families of the congregation. In March 1922, however, he accepted a position at Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids. As they held services on Sunday morning, Rabbi Waterman continued to conduct services on Friday evenings until June 1923 and maintained his ties with the community until 1960. Once again, the congregation required the services of student rabbis
Without a full-time resident spiritual leader, however, the congregation fell on lean times, and the congregation declined in membership. The decline continued through the 1930s and 1940s, and the congregation struggled to survive. When membership declined to 20 families the congregation decided that maintaining the building was no longer practical, and in 1946 the decision was made to sell the Park Street building to the Congregation of Moses.
For the first time since 1875 when the South Street Temple was built, Congregation B’nai Israel did not have a house of worship. It was at this point that the congregation first moved to People’s Church to conduct High Holy Day services, and an occasional Shabbat service. As membership continued to decline, however, several other locations were utilized, and services became less frequent. Nevertheless, the Board of Directors of the congregation continued meeting annually and acted as custodians for The Jewish Mountain Home Cemetery and the congregation’s finances.
Rabbi Philip F Waterman
It should be noted that in 2009, Richard Cavaler, a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Southfield MI, discovered an important piece of information about our South Street Temple. While looking at our temple website, he noticed the date of the dedication of the South Street Temple as January 1875. At that time Congregation Shaarey Zedek was considered the first congregation to do dedicate a building for worship, as they dedicated a building in July 1877. Thanks to the research of Mr. Cavaler, that honor now belongs to Temple B’nai Israel as having “constructed the first building in the State of Michigan specifically erected and designed to be a synagogue.” A special commemorative service was held by us on October 22, 2010, to celebrate the 135th anniversary of the South Street Temple. (The South Street building was sold by Temple B’nai Israel in 1910, and after being used for commercial services for many years, was demolished in the late 1960s.)
In January 1961 Jerrold Rakieten assumed the presidency of the congregation and led the drive to increase activity. He held an initial meeting and service in the Green Room of the Civic Auditorium. As a result, additional services and meetings were held in the following months, and a full-time Sunday school program and Sisterhood were formed. In 1962 the congregation rented an old farmhouse at 6318 Portage Road. The congregation refurbished the house, and on May 18, 1962, the first Shabbat services were held there. The congregation celebrated its 100th anniversary in this building with activities that included a rededication service held on May 22, 1966. Rabbi Raphael Sonnenfeld was hired and served the congregation from 1966 to 1969. When the congregation failed to grow, the services of a full-time rabbi could not be sustained. Rabbi David Jessel served the congregation in a part-time capacity for the next year, however, the congregation was compelled to return to the use of student rabbis in the fall of 1970. In 1974, the building on Portage Street became unserviceable. All of the furnishings of the building, with the exception of a portable ark, the congregation’s two Torahs, and religious items, were sold. Services were held at Nazareth College for one year, and in 1975 the Temple once again returned to The People’s Church at the church’s present location on North 10th Street.
Following this move, the religious school was held at the Congregation of Moses for several years before being relocated to The People’s Church. Classes were held at the Gagie School in Kalamazoo from 1986 through the 1994 school year and then were moved to our current building on Grand Prairie Road. In September 2016 the religious schools of TBI and Congregation of Moses merged to form a unified religious school originally called the Kalamazoo Community Jewish School (KCJS), and an independent Director was named. The name of the school was changed to The Marvin and Rosalie Okun Kalamazoo Community Jewish School (OKCJS) following the establishment of an endowment by the Okun family to support the school operations in perpetuity. Additional support for the religious school teachers comes from The Shana Winter Fund for Jewish Education, a fund created in memory of Shana Winter.
Beginning in the late 1990s when our congregation relied primarily on the services of student rabbis who visited on a bi-weekly basis, the congregation determined that it would benefit from having a trained lay-person to support the student rabbi, and to perform certain duties when the student rabbi was not resident. This person would be trained to enrich and enhance the spiritual services that were then being provided to our members. Martin Gal was trained as a Rabbinic Aide at Kutz Camp in upstate New York during the summer of 1991. Patricia Ressler-Billion was trained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati as a Synagogue Associate in 2003. The current Synagogue Associate, Michael Tanoff, attended the Hadracha program in 2010 and 2011. Even though the congregation now has a resident full time rabbi, the support services of the synagogue associate are still used.
Temple B’nai Israel celebrated its 125th anniversary on the weekend of October 5-6, 1991. The theme of the weekend was “Proud Past – Promising Future”, and was celebrated with a Shabbat service led by Student Rabbi Sigma (Sissy) Coran, followed by a dinner dance the next evening. A special slide show was shown, and sterling kiddush cups were given to those congregants whose membership dated back to the early 1960s when the congregation was re-invigorated.
In the summer of 1992, the congregation was notified that we were the beneficiaries of the
estate of David Lowe, a former member of Temple B’nai Israel. The bequest was given in honor of his parents, Clara Guggenheim Lowenstein Isenberg, and David Samuel Lowenstein. A special service of appreciation was held on October 23, 1992, to formally accept the gift from the Lowe Estate executors.
The financial security this gift gave the congregation stimulated a great deal of interest in pursuing a permanent home for the congregation. An all-congregation meeting was held on January 24, 1993, and possible options were discussed in an open forum. Three focus groups were developed from this meeting: Building, Vision Statement, and Enrichment. From the deliberations of the Building Focus Group, the decision was made to pursue the purchase of a building. After a lengthy search, and negotiations that lasted almost a year, a bid was given and accepted to purchase from Kalamazoo College the Judson Baptist Church at 4409 Grand Prairie Road. The purchase was finalized in early August 1994, and with the dedicated cooperation and hard work of several committees and many volunteers, the building was ready for occupancy at the High Holy Day services in September.
During this time, the decision was made to seek an ordained rabbi, instead of student rabbis, to serve our congregation on a part-time basis. Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana was the first rabbi to assume this position. On September 5, 1994, Rabbi Cahana and members of the congregation proudly carried our two Torah scrolls the 2.7 miles from the People’s Church to our new location. It was a joyous occasion for all, with singing and laughter accompanying the Torahs on their travels. After having held services at The People’s Church for 19 consecutive years, and after having been without a permanent home for 48 years, the congregation of Temple B’nai Israel, at last, had a permanent place to call home. The building was dedicated at a special service held on June 4, 1995. Rabbi Cahana led the service and was joined by Rabbi David Hachen, Director of Northeast Lakes Council, Union of American Hebrew Congregations. A beautiful tribute to David Lowe was read by Jeanne Lewis Hartenstein.
Rabbi Michael Cahana served our congregation for one year, followed by Rabbi Orin J. Postrel who served three years. In both cases, the rabbis commuted bi-weekly from other locations. Rabbi Stephen Forstein joined our congregation in 1998 and he lived in Kalamazoo while we shared his services with our sister congregation, Temple Beth El in Battle Creek. When Rabbi Forstein retired in 2006, Cantor Larry I. Charson was installed as our religious leader and he also served as a spiritual leader to both congregations. Sadly, while in service to our congregations, Cantor Charson died unexpectedly in January 2013 and is buried at our Jewish Mountain Home Cemetery.
Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh
Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh was the first full-time spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel since 1969. As a student attending Western Michigan University, he taught at our religious school, and then went on to study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Cincinnati, OH.
Following Cantor Charson’s death, Rabbi Zerwekh was invited to conduct a few Shabbat services and then agreed to spend his final student teaching year 2013/2014 with our congregation. Following his ordination in May 2014, Rabbi Zerwekh assumed a full-time position with Temple B’nai Israel. On Sunday, August 3, 2014, we celebrated the installation of Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh as our religious leader, his first pulpit as a newly ordained rabbi. Rabbi Kenneth Kanter, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, attended the installation and bestowed the rabbinic blessing.
The year 2016 was the 150th anniversary of the founding of our congregation. To start the celebration of this important event, a community concert was held on December 3, 2015, at the First Baptist Church in downtown Kalamazoo. Works by Haydn, Poulenc, Glick, Clara Schumann, and Bartok were performed by Diana Cohen, former Concertmaster of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. A showcase of temple historic artifacts was on display at the Kalamazoo Valley Public Museum from May to mid-August 2016. The anniversary was officially celebrated on June 10-11 with a special Shabbat service on Friday and a community picnic on Saturday evening. To add to the fun, a commemorative sesquicentennial ale, with a specially designed label, was created for the anniversary. And to complete the celebration, an updated 150th Anniversary history was written.
Rabbi Zerwekh served our congregation until June 2018 when he joined Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, MI, the congregation of his youth.
In July 2018 our congregation was pleased to welcome our first woman rabbi, Rabbi Simone Schicker. Rabbi Schicker also came to TBI as a newly ordained rabbi, having recently graduated from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in June of that year. Rabbi Schicker grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas, and decided at age 13, at her bat mitzvah, that she felt called to pursue the rabbinate. Installation service for Rabbi Schicker was led by Rabbi Margaret Meyer on Friday, November 2, 2018. On Saturday evening, following Havdalah, a board-sponsored dinner was held in her honor.
Rabbi Schicker is a welcome addition to our community, as she expresses dedication and enthusiasm in everything she undertakes. She is active in local community organizations, including ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy & Action in the Community), Faith Alliance, and serves on the Friendship Village board. She has been a guest lecturer at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and regularly speaks on panels with other religious leaders.
Her technical skills were abundantly apparent when, because of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, she successfully shepherded us through the High Holy Day services, and continued with on-line Shabbat and Saturday morning services in the following months.