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Congregation Beth El

Michigan's oldest synagogue in continuous use since 1885

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About The first 100 Years; 1885-1985

Historical MarkerDuring the second half of the nineteenth century, many Jewish settlers were attracted to the Grand Traverse area by its prosperous lumber business and fertile agriculture opportunities. They continued to follow the trade of their ancestors and came as pack peddlers. Many eventually settled down and opened businesses of their own or in partnership with fellow Jews in the rough pioneer towns of the era.

Julius Levinson, Julius Steinberg and Solomon Yalomstein were the original Jewish settlers in Traverse City. They all became prosperous merchants and were the first trustees and first officers of the Hebrew Congregation.

In all likelihood, the members of the congregation originally met in private homes. They were devout Jews, and when their population expanded to ten males who could be assembled to create a minyan, they decided to establish a synagogue.

In 1882, Articles of Confederation were written to form a Hebrew Congregation. Two years later, Julius Steinberg purchased five acres of land as a cemetery for its members. And in 1885, Perry Hannah, a local lumber magnate and philanthropist whose contributions figure greatly in the building of Traverse City, donated the land where our synagogue is still located.

Ground was broken and a cornerstone was laid in 1885. The congregation was able to pay for the synagogue's construction through fund-raising efforts and mortgages. Temple Beth El was completed and formally dedicated in March, 1886. The Star of David stained glass window still seen above the ark today was donated by Julius Steinberg.

The presence of Temple Beth El drew families to the area. However, the congregation could not support a full-time rabbi , and services were often limited to the High Holy Days.

By the turn of the century, as the lumbering boom waned, the town of Traverse City actually became a city. There were over 40 Jewish families in the region. But the presence of a permanent rabbi was still not realized, and the Jewish population of the area began a decline in the 1920's and '30's.

In 1939, the congregation responded to the request of the Joint Distribution Committee to resettle survivors of Nazi suppression in small towns and the synagogue was active in raising funds to aid in rescue and resettlement efforts.

During this period, some younger Jewish families settled here and became active leaders in synagogue life. They wanted some changes from the Orthodox practices of the congregation. Prayers in English were introduced, making the religious services more meaningful to the modern Jewish family.

Efforts were made in the 1940's to begin a religious school for children, but not until the 1950's did the number of young people increase enough to make this possible. At first, Congregation Beth El members were the teachers. However, it was realized that a student rabbi was needed for adequate instruction, as well as to conduct more frequent services and offer adult education.

So our ongoing program of visiting rabbinic students began in 1952 when Beth El president, Dr. Harry Weitz, first contacted the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati began providing our student rabbis in 1965.

A larger membership with its increased activities made renovation imperative by 1960. The sanctuary's wooden seats were replaced with plush, cut velvet chairs. The basement was converted into a multi-purpose room and the mikvah and fireplace were removed to accommodate a kitchenette and bathroom . In 1972, the former second-floor women's gallery, which had not been used since the 1940's, was removed to provide permanent living quarters for the visiting student rabbi.

Through the help and encouragement of temple members, Congregation Beth El was officially listed on the State Register of Historic Sites, due to its distinction as the oldest building in Michigan in continuous use as a synagogue. A major celebration was held at the site in October, 1977 to dedicate the marker, which proudly stands in front of our building. It was unveiled by Governor William G. Milliken.