THE STORY OF US
Congregation B’nai Israel was officially organized in Kalamazoo by a group of 20 Jewish families. The first recorded meeting was held on October 1, 1865. 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 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.
Rabbi Samuel Thurman was elected as the fifth spiritual leader in 1908. Under Rabbi Thurman’s leadership 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 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 in 1912, membership declined. Unable to secure a permanent rabbi, the congregation’s needs were met by bringing 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 accepted a position at Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids in 1922, but nonetheless maintained his ties with the community until 1960. In 1923 the congregation once again 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 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.
In January 1961 Jerrold Rakieten assumed the presidency of the congregations and led the drive to increase the activity. The initial meeting and service was held 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. Centennial activities included a re-dedication service held on May 22, 1966. Rabbi Raphael Sonnenfeld 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 the Ark, 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 its present location on North 10th Street.
Religious school was held at Congregation of Moses for several years before being relocated to The People’s Church. Classes were held at the Gagie School from 1986 through the 1994 school year. In 2016 The congregations of West Michigan joined Hebrew schools. Today The Marvin and Rosalie Okun Kalamazoo Community Jewish School is serving members of Temple B’nai Israel, the Congregation of Moses, and Temple Beth El of Battle Creek.
To enrich and enhance the spiritual services provided our members, Martin Gal was trained as a Rabbinic Aide. Martin attended the Rabbinic Aide training session at Kutz Camp during the summer of 1991.
Temple B’nai Israel celebrated its 125th anniversary on the weekend of October 5-6, 1991, with a Shabbat service and dinner dance. The theme of the event was “Proud Past-Promising Future.”
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 Gugenheim 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. A town 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 the Judson Baptist Church at 4409 Grand Prairie Road from Kalamazoo College. 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.
On September 5, 1994, Rabbi Michael Cahana and young and older 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 Synagogue to call home.