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Virtual Jewish World:
Detroit, Michigan


Virtual Jewish World: Table of Contents | United States | Michigan


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Detroit, the largest city in Michigan, is home to an estimated Jewish population of 96,000, comprising roughly 2.2% of the total population in the Detroit metropolitan area. The first Jews moved to the area in the late 18th century and Jewish immigration swelled during the begining of the 20th century as Jews came from around the country seeking employment in Detroit's massive industrial complexes.

- 1760 to 1840
- 1840 to 1880
- 1880 to 1914
- 1915 to 1940
- Post World War II
- Jewish Tourist Sites

1760 to 1840

Jews had come to Michigan in the 18th century as fur traders and merchants. Chapman Abraham, Detroit's first known Jewish settler, arrived in Detroit in 1762 and became a successful trader for more than 20 years. Levi Solomons, partner of Chapman Abraham, was captured by the Indians near Detroit during the 1763 Pontiac Conspiracy. Chapman Abraham was captured during the 1763 Indian siege of Detroit, and after two harrowing months was released in exchange for an Indian chief. During the American Revolution Abraham fought in Canada against the invading Americans, remaining a loyalist all his life. Later records show he lived in Detroit in 1783. Hayman *Levy of New York, largest fur trader among the colonists and at one time a partner of Levi Solomons, carried on extensive business with Detroit merchants from 1774.

Ezekiel *Solomon , Michigan's first known Jewish settler, arrived in Fort Michilimackinac (today Mackinaw City) in 1761, and lived in Detroit in 1789. Moses David, of the well-known Montreal *David family, lived in Sandwich (now Windsor), Ontario, in 1792, when Sandwich and Detroit were still under British rule. Isaac *Moses joined Zion Lodge, Detroit's first Masonic lodge, in 1798, two years after Detroit's occupation by the Americans. Louis Benjamin was awarded a new plot of ground in 1808 to indemnify him for his loss in Detroit's great fire of 1805. Frederick E. Cohen, an English Jew, was in Detroit in 1837 during the Canadian rebellion, when he served in the Canadian militia. He became a prominent portrait painter, the first Jewish artist in Michigan. His self-portrait hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts.

1840 to 1880

German Jews arrived in Detroit in significant numbers in the 1840s. Charles E. Bresler, a settler of the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area in the 1830s, moved to Detroit in 1844. He dealt in horses, furs, and wool, and made a fortune importing steel pens. He was one of the incorporators of Detroit's first Jewish congregation, Temple Beth El. Edward Kanter arrived in Detroit that same year, moving to Mackinac the following year where he was employed by the American Fur Company. Later he worked for the Leopold Brothers, pioneers on the island of Mackinac in the fishery business, and fur traders. Kanter returned to Detroit in 1852 and became Detroit's first Jewish banker and the first Michigan Jew to serve in the state legislature. Kanter Street is named after him. Simon Freedman, a settler of Adrian, Michigan, in the early 1840s, established a large dry goods business in Detroit around 1844, joined by his family. Like Besler, the Freedman brothers were among the founders of Beth El: Joseph was the first secretary of the congregation, Simon served as president, and Herman was president of the religious school board. In the 1870s David J. Wockum was the first Jew to serve on the Detroit Board of Education.

In 1850 Congregation Beth El was founded in the home of Sarah and Isaac Couzens by 12 German Jewish families. In 1851 a half acre of land on Champlain (later Lafayette) Street was purchased for a cemetery, the oldest Jewish congregational cemetery in Michigan. Beth El congregation's first rabbi, Samuel Marcus, was interred there in 1854 during a cholera epidemic. Originally an Orthodox congregation, Beth El became Reform in 1861, resulting in the withdrawal of 17 members who formed the Orthodox Shaarey Zedek congregation, later an important Conservative congregation. Beth El became a large and influential Reform Congregation, and among its leading rabbis was Kaufmann *Kohler (1869–71).

1880 to 1914

By 1880 there were approximately 1,000 Jews in Detroit, more than half from Eastern Europe, the others, German Jews. Detroit's Jewish population leaped during the so-called Great Migration from Eastern Europe, especially from 1880 to 1910 and from 1917 to 1924 when the government instituted its immigration restrictions. By 1920 the number of Jews in Detroit had reached almost 35,000, a 247% increase in 10 years while the general population of Detroit increased only 114%. There was one Reform congregation, Temple Beth El, and four Orthodox congregations, Shaarey Zedek, B'nai Israel (1871), B'nai Jacob (1875), and Beth Jacob (1878). Three charities existed: the Ladies' Society for the Support of Hebrew Widows and Orphans, popularly known as "Frauen Verein" (1863), Beth El Hebrew Relief Society, and Shaarey Zedek Jewish Relief Society. B'nai B'rith, Kesher Shel Barzel, and the Free Sons of Israel all had lodges in Detroit, and there was one flourishing social club, the Phoenix Social Club (1872).

Relations between the Ostjuden newcomers, most of whom were of the Orthodox tradition, and the more acculturated German Jews, primarily members of Temple Beth El, were ambivalent. Considerations of class, social standing, religious outlook, and degree of Americanization tended to keep the groups separate. However, the German community's sense of obligation to their less fortunate coreligionists overcame their feelings of antipathy, at least publicly, with the founding of two new charitable societies, the Hebrew Ladies' Sewing Society (1882) and the Self-Help Circle (1889), organized to assist the new immigrants, although many of them felt patronized. In 1896 a Detroit News article noted that "it is very rare that a German Israelite seeks relief from anybody," contrasting German Jews with East European Jews who needed charity. By 1903, however, a Detroit Free Press article pointed out that Russian Jews, while not so successful in business as German Jews, were "making their way upward." The article listed leading Jewish businessmen and four synagogues, the Division Street Talmud Torah, the House of Shelter, and the Hebrew Free Loan Office and concluded that Russian Jews were "intelligent, sensible, hard-working people, sober and religious, of good moral character and determined to get ahead in the world. They are men with characteristics that make any nation strong." Their German counterparts rarely agreed.

Some Eastern Europeans, conscious of the gulf between themselves and the city's German Jewish community, preferred to establish communal institutions more responsive to their special needs. The most important of these were the Talmud Torah Institute (1897), Hebrew Free Loan Association (1895), and Workman's Circle (Arbeter Ring) (1907). By 1917, Branch 156 of the Workmen's Circle was not only the largest secular Jewish organization in Detroit, but the largest Workmen's Circle branch in North America. It was the first of a wave of secular Jewish institutions that included Labor Zionist organizations, the Yiddish Sholom Aleichem Institute, Hayim Greenberg, and Farband Shule and the five IWO Communist-affiliated Hersh Leckert Schools. When the Farband Shule declared itself "the non-parteische" (non-partisan) school, it meant it was not a Hersh Leckert School.

Realizing that the profusion of Jewish charities resulted in unnecessary duplication and waste, Leo M. *Franklin , rabbi of Temple Beth El (1899–1941), united the Beth El Hebrew Relief Society, Hebrew Ladies' Sewing Society, Jewish Relief Society, and Self-Help Circle into the United Jewish Charities (1899). David W. Simons was the first president and Blanche Hart was superintendent until 1923. Despite differences, the German and the East European groups managed to cooperate in communal undertakings. This was exemplified when Temple Beth El, oldest and most prestigious congregation in the city, agreed to join the Kehilla (1911) organized by the Orthodox community. Prominent rabbis of the period included Leo Franklin; Judah Leib Levin, who was instrumental in organizing the United Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in the early 1900s, and founded the Yeshivah Beth Yehuda; and Abraham *Hershman of Conservative Shaarey Zedek (1908–46), an ardent Zionist.

Starting in the 1880s, Detroit's Jewish communities concentrated most heavily in the retail and wholesale clothing trades, mostly as proprietors of their own businesses, and in the clerical or white collar occupations as salesmen, insurance agents, and office workers. While Jews did not dominate any trade the way they did the garment industry in New York, a Jewish "monopoly" in Detroit's economic life did develop in the waste material and scrap metal business. By the late 1880s Jews outnumbered gentiles in this industry, and by the 1890s it had become almost solely a "Jewish" industry. This dominance was to continue after World War II.

Jews participated in the political life of Detroit during this period. Samuel Goldwater, a city alderman in 1894 and the Democratic Party's candidate for mayor in 1895, was the major force behind the organization of the Michigan Federation of Labor (1889). David E. Heineman served as a member of the state legislature (1896–1901) and Detroit's City Council (1902–09), and was city controller during 1910–13. In 1909 he was president of the American League of Municipalities; he also designed the flag of Detroit. Charles C. Simons was a state senator (1902). David W. Simons was a member of the first nine-man city council (1918).

1915 to 1940

The outbreak of World War I ended European immigration to Detroit until 1920. In 1915 the Jewish communities contained one Reform and 19 Orthodox congregations and by 1940 the Jewish population had risen to 85,000 as the number of congregations rose to 48. During these years the Jews of Detroit strengthened their communal organization. A survey of communal needs made in 1923 by the Bureau of Jewish Social Research of New York resulted in the organization, in 1926, of the Jewish Welfare Federation. Its first director was Morris D. *Waldman . Eventually housed in the Fred M. *Butzel Memorial Building, the Federation included among its affiliate agencies the Jewish Community Council, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family and Children's Service, Jewish Home for the Aged, Fresh Air Society, Hebrew Free Loan Association, Federation Apartments, Jewish House of Shelter, Jewish Vocational Service and Community Workshop, Resettlement Service, Midrasha-College of Jewish Studies, Sinai Hospital and Shiffman Clinic, United Jewish Charities, and the United Hebrew Schools. The Jewish Community Council, organized in 1936, comprised 340 organizations and immediately took an active role in urban affairs, the civil rights movement, holding joint meetings with the NAACP and African American clergy. They would later offer staunch support of Israel. The first community-wide fund drive of the Jewish Welfare Federation in 1926 had 3,185 contributors; in 1940 there were 20,440 contributors; and in 1967 and 1969 the city's Allied Jewish Campaigns raised two of the highest per capita totals in the U.S.

Jewish education received a boost in 1919 when the United Hebrew Schools was organized by a merger of two talmud torahs. By 1940 the United Hebrew Schools had ten branches. In 1925 Congregation Beth El opened a College of Jewish Studies, and in 1940 an Institute on Judaism for Christian Clergymen. In addition to the various congregational Sunday and Hebrew schools and the secular schools, Jewish education had been fostered by the Beth Yehuda Day and Afternoon School, the Hillel Day School, and the Akiva Hebrew Day School.

If Detroit had become known for its modern, industrial achievements, it also gained a more infamous, less savory reputation that set it apart from other cities. It was unfortunately tarnished by its social and cultural blights. Racism and antisemitism may have been common features of the American cultural landscape in the 20th century, but their malevolence in Detroit was unmatched anywhere else. Father Charles Coughlin's vitriolic antisemitic national radio broadcasts in the 1930s, Henry Ford's anti-Jewish newspaper campaign in the Dearborn Independent during the 1920s, the Black Legion's night-riders and lynching, Gerald L.K. Smith and others, still evoke fear and anger in Detroit Jews. The 1930s also saw Detroit's German American Bund become fairly active. Along with news of the events in Europe, more subtle actions like department store ads from J.L. Hudson's that read "only Gentiles need apply," and public swimming pools that did not allow Jews to swim, or restrictive covenants that prevented Jews from purchasing or renting houses in Pleasant Ridge or Grosse Pointe or Birmingham, appreciably increased anxiety among Jews in Detroit.

The UJC 1923 Survey had noted: there appeared to be "no Jewish labor class consciousness in Detroit." While that lack of "labor class consciousness" may have been pervasive, organized Jewish groups, like the Jewish Community Council, the Workmen's Circle, the more than 80 landsmannschaften, supported the labor movement in Detroit. Perhaps the most notable example of this was the Detroit Laundry and Linen Drivers Association founded and led by Isaac Litwak in 1934. Within two years it had become Teamster Local 285 and in 1937 carried out no fewer than 12 major strikes. Unique among Jewish urban businesses, 25% of the laundry and linen workers in Detroit in 1936 were Jews. Locked out of other, more traditional Jewish enterprises like department stores because of antisemitism, Jews logically gravitated from tailoring and rag peddling to this trade. Nearly 90% of the laundry and linen industry was owned by Jews. Yet, in 1937, picket lines were attacked by goons, Litwak was severely beaten several times, once dragging himself to the line; he was arrested and joined in jail by Jimmy Hoffa, who made sure Litwak was not beaten or killed. The union triumphed in 1937 as it brought unorganized drivers earning $18/wk to contractual arrangements guaranteeing $95. The turmoil was typical of the early days of union organizing in Detroit, but with added emotional trauma in this case: although no charges were brought, it was clear that Jewish owners or their surrogates had hired Jewish hoodlums from the remnants of the notorious Jewish Purple Gang, to beat and break Jewish workers and their union.

Post-World War II

This period witnessed a growth in prosperity among the Jews of Detroit, and increasing mobility characterized by a steady move to the suburbs. The community's religious institutions were consolidated: by 1968 there were 23 Orthodox, six Conservative, four Reform, and one humanistic congregation founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the Birmingham Temple, in the Detroit metropolitan area. Prominent in Jewish and general community affairs was Rabbi Morris *Adler , who served Congregation Shaarey Zedek from 1938 to 1966, when he was tragically shot in his pulpit and killed. A constant of Detroit Jewish history has been movement. By the time Jews began to move into Oak Park, the first suburb northwest of Detroit, beginning around 1948, an organized or identifiable Jewish presence in Detroit had existed for a hundred years. In that century, perhaps nothing characterized that people more than its movement – mytho-biblical in its quick, successive generational wanderings and in its group cohesion. It seemed that Jews moved en masse about every 20–30 (not to say 40) years. Morris Waldman, Federation's first executive director, who arrived in 1924, observing the rapid evacuation of the Hastings neighborhood in favor of the Westminster-Oakland area, called the phenomenon a hegira, a mass migration.

The pattern of Jewish settlement in Detroit from 1840 to 1940 was a northwest exodus: from Lower Hastings to Upper Hastings, to Oakland between 1910 and 1940, to the Twlefth Street and Dexter areas just west of Oakland, to Northwest Detroit, from the late 1930s to the 1960s. After World War II, Oak Park, then Southfield became the greener pastures, where Jews could buy the typical brick ranch houses, in the midst of trees and open spaces, followed quickly by West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills. When correlated with generational, socio-economic upward mobility, such a prolonged series of moves seems to have sprung, in part, from a desire for larger homes, more space, and the pursuit of symbols of economic success. It mirrored the non-Jewish, upwardly mobile middle class abandonment of the central cities for the suburbs, the American dream of the 1950s: suburban life. As each generation of Jews became more educated, more successful, more American, and more assimilated, the wish to demonstrate all those features strengthened and took the form of new and bigger or better homes in new neighborhoods. Yet more than a quest for symbols of educational and economic achievement accounts for the regular relocation of whole communities. Federation surveys implied that, for all their tolerance, many Jews retained stereotypic views of African Americans and feared living in the same neighborhoods, although they often supported civil rights and defended blacks in that arena. In the Hastings Street neighborhood, long after Jews had moved their residences from there, they retained businesses. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s often only Jewish merchants would allow blacks to shop in their stores. And only Jews would sell their businesses to blacks as white, non-Jewish racists grew more hostile to black neighbors – and to Jewish neighbors or businessmen. As black workers moved into Detroit, they occupied the areas in which Jews lived, and fears or prejudices on both sides fostered the Jewish moves.

A prominent Jewish community leader was Max M. *Fisher (d. 2005), long associated with the UJA, United Israel Appeal, and American Jewish Committee. As war seemed imminent in the Middle East in 1967, Fisher was flown from his yacht in the Aegean (where he was vacationing with Henry Ford II) to Tel Aviv, where he learned of Israel's needs and strategies. When he returned to his yacht, he convinced Ford to write a personal check for $100,000 and took Detroit by storm. Working with his friend Paul Zuckerman, who chaired the Israel Emergency Defense Fund, Fisher, just after a record-breaking UJA drive that had raised $5,627,136, cajoled, harangued, and convinced the Jews of Detroit to "give as you never gave before." Detroiters gave $4,700,000. Jewish Detroit had never been more united.

As Jewish professional success grew, and vestiges of anti-Jewish discrimination remained, Jews responded with specific actions. When Jewish physicians were blocked from practicing at some Detroit hospitals, Sinai Hospital was created; Jewish lawyers led the way in ending "restrictive covenants" in the Detroit metropolitan area and in reforming the civil rights codes in the Michigan Constitution. Jews were to be found in every area of the city's economic life, although despite the prominence of automobile manufacturing in Detroit, few Jews are employed in this industry. The occupational sphere where Jews have predominated is the waste industry, continuing their control of it from the 1890s. By the late 1960s almost 55 percent of those Jews who were employed could be classed in the manager or proprietor class. By 1970 almost 25 percent of the Jewish working force was in the professions, while 73 percent were white-collar workers. Less than 10 per cent of the Jewish population were blue-collar workers.

Jews prominent in political life included Melvin Ravitz, councilman (1969), and Sander *Levin , state senator and chairman of the State Democratic Committee (1969). Sander's brother, Carl, has served three terms in the U.S. Senate and Debbie Stabenow is Michigan's other senator (2000). Among noted civic leaders have been David A. *Brown (1875–1958); Max M. Fisher, who, after the Detroit Riots of 1967, led the foundation of New Detroit to try to reconstruct the city; Norman Drachler, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools; Leonard N. Simons, president of the Detroit Historical Commission; Alfred A. May, president of the Detroit Round Table of Christians and Jews; Lawrence Fleischman, past president of the Detroit Institute of Arts Commission, and numerous others.

Detroit Jews have a distinguished record as jurists at the state and national level. Henry M. *Butzel was justice of the Supreme Court of Michigan; Charles C. Simons, a judge of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals; Lawrence Gubow and Theodore Levin, district court judges (1969); and S. Jerome Bronson and Charles Levin, judges of the state court of appeals (1969), and Avern Cohn, a federal judge. Jews of Detroit also play a prominent part in the cultural life of the city. When the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was organized in 1918, Ossip Gabrilowitsch became the principal conductor. He filled the post until his death in 1935 when Victor Kolar succeeded him. Mischa Mischakoff was concertmaster. Karl Haas was director of fine arts of radio station WJR and president of the Interlochen Arts Academy, a position then held by Robert Luby; concert pianist Mischa Kottler was director of music at radio station WWJ; Harry Weinberg hosted a long-lived Yiddish Radio Hour; Littman's People's Theatre featured everything from high drama with leading Yiddish speaking actors to burlesque. Albert *Kahn , world-renowned architect, built the city's General Motors Building, Fisher Building, and New Center Building, among many others. Charles E. Feinberg (d. 1988) was an internationally known collector of Jewish ceremonial art and authority on the poet Walt Whitman. Detroit's Jewish population remains a diverse and significant part of the city's culture.

Jewish Tourist Sites

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue

First opened in 1921, the Isaac Agree Synagogue is located in the heart of Detroit. Now housed in a former department store at 1457 Griswold Street, the synagogue has a distinctive triangular shape. The congregation offers a wide range of programming supporting the revitalization of the city. The principal mission of the synagogue is to serve as a beacon for the Jewish community of Metropolitan Detroit by maintaining a traditional, egalitarian synagogue in Detroit; by acting as a conduit for Jewish activity in the city; by offering a wide range of programming that will support the revitalization of the city; and by ensuring accessibility to all.

Learn more about Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, CLICK HERE.

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre

Located in nearby West Bloomfied, the Jewish Ensemble Theatre was founded in 1989 by Evelyn Orbach with a group of prestigious theatre and community leaders to provide a stage for the exploration of ideas that confront issues of humanity from a Jewish perspective. In 2013, productions included God of Carnage, Imagining Madoff, The Whipping Man and The Diary of Anne Frank, which is presented every year at a collaborating theatre.

The Holocaust Memorial Center

Located in Farmington Hills, the Holocaust Memorial Center on the Zekelman Family Campus is America's first freestanding Holocuast memorial center. It "may be the most provocative museum of them all," said The Wall Street Journal, and includes a Holocaust-era boxcar and a unique Kindertransport Memory Quilt.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

M. Tumin, Intergroup Conflicts in Northwest Detroit (1945); Katz, in: Detroit Historical Society Bulletin (Feb. 1950), 4–9; Meyer, in: JSOS, 2 (1940); Detroit Jewish Chronicle, 1–53 (1916–51); G.B. Catlin, Story of Detroit (1923); J.A. Miller, Detroit Yiddish Theater, 1920–1937 (1967); I.I. Katz, Beth El Story (1955); Rockaway, in: Michigan History, 52 (1968), 28–36; Goldberg and Sharp, in: M. Sklare (ed.), The Jews (1958), 107–18; Meyer, in: S.M. Robison (ed.), Jewish Population Studies (1943), 109–30. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: R.A. Rockaway, The Jews of Detroit: 1762–1914 (1986); idem, But He Was Good To His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters (2000); S. Bolkosky, Harmony and Dissonance: Voices of Jewish Identity in Detroit, 1914–1967 (1991); S. Glazer, Detroit (1965); J. Levin Cantor, Jews in Michigan (2001); N. Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate (2002).

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