Michigan has been home to Jews since 1761, when the first Jewish settler, Ezekiel Solomon, came as a fur trader and supplier to the British troops in the strategic wilderness outpost at Fort Michilimackinac.
Chapman Abraham, one of Solomon's partners, is the first known Jewish resident in Fort Detroit, held by the British. By 1762 he was bringing furs and needed goods in flotillas of voyageur canoes back and forth on the hazardous water route from Montreal. While residing most of the year in Michigan, both Solomon and Abraham remained members of the Montreal congregation, Shearith Israel. During Chief Pontiac's 1763 native uprising against the British, they each were captured and imprisoned, but eventually released. These two pioneer Jewish fur traders are recognized by Michigan Historical Markers placed by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan.
Years before the American Revolution, Ezekiel Solomon, Chapman Abraham, and their other Jewish trading partners, Gershon Levi, Benjamin Lyon, and Levi Solomons, are credited with helping to "push back the wilderness of the Great Lakes country," and open up the continent for settlement. The British did not leave Michigan until 1796.
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the laying of the railroads by 1848, and boat traffic on the Great Lakes opened up the route to Michigan. Moreover, the early promise of freedom of religion in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and free public education attracted Jewish immigrants. As the fur trade had brought Jews to Michigan in the 18th century, Michigan's prosperous lumber and mining industries offered economic opportunities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs fanned out to peddle needed supplies to the lumber and mining camps and farms in the wilderness of both the upper and lower peninsulas. These peddlers provided a needed alternative to the lumber barons' "company store." They became active citizens of their new communities and established Jewish cemeteries and synagogues in order to maintain their Jewish heritage. Their beginnings as peddlers often developed into prosperous mercantile businesses.
Michigan was declared a state in 1837. Ann Arbor was the first Michigan community where a colony of Jews settled in the 1840s, during the German-Jewish immigration. The five Weil brothers and their parents arrived in 1845; they conducted Sabbath and holiday services in their home. Michigan's first Jewish cemetery was established in 1848/9. The site is on the east lawn of University of Michigan's Rackham Building, noted with a historical plaque.
Starting out as farmers and peddlers, the Weil brothers later operated a prosperous tannery with over 100 employees. Jacob Weil, educated in European universities and a rabbi, was elected alderman in Ann Arbor and invited to the faculty of the University of Michigan, which he declined in order to continue as president of the family tannery firm. By 1873 the Weils had moved to Chicago to expand their business, J. Weil and Bros. Jewish immigrant families followed the route of the railroad across southern Michigan to Chicago, establishing themselves in the mid-19th century not only in Ann Arbor, but also in Ypsilanti, Jackson, and Kalamazoo. Maurice Heuman was elected mayor of Jackson, Samuel Folz in Kalamazoo.
A Historical Marker in Kalamazoo honors arctic pioneer Edward Israel, a University of Michigan graduate, who served in 1881 as scientist on the nation's first polar expedition led by Lt. A.W. Greely. Along with 18 of the 25 expedition members, Israel perished of starvation after severe storms in the third winter of the expedition.
By 1845 the families of German immigrants Samuel Leopold and Julian Austrian, sailing their one-masted sloop to Mackinac, established a pioneer fishing business – which soon shipped as much as 1,000 barrels of salted fish to cities around the Great Lakes, including Cleveland. They became owners of a large fleet of sailing vessels, and after the discovery of copper in the Upper Peninsula, opened shops in five towns across the peninsula.
Jake Steinberg, Gustave Rosenthal, and Moses Winkleman operated successful stores in different "U.P." towns, supplying the many lumberjacks and miners and their families. "Winkleman's" grew to a large chain of shops for women's apparel.
An observant Jew who closed his store on the High Holidays, William Saulson operated the prosperous "People's Store" in St. Ignace. In 1888, he was elected Mayor of St. Ignace. In an ad published in 1884, Saulson proposed the building of the Mackinac Bridge, which opened 75 years later, in 1958. The five-mile-long suspension bridge linking the two peninsulas was designed by engineering genius David Steinman; Lawrence Rubin was the executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.
Bavarian-born Dr. Frederick L. Hirschman, an 1873 graduate of one of the first classes of the Detroit College of Medicine, went to the Upper Peninsula to combat the smallpox epidemic there, and remained a doctor to the Republic Mines until his early death at the age of 38.
By 1903, at the far western end of the Upper Peninsula, Russian Polish immigrants Harry and Sam Cohodas first opened fruit markets in Houghton, Hancock, and Calumet. These developed into the nation's third largest wholesale produce business. The Cohodas family became nationally known for its philanthropy and support of civic and Jewish causes. Temple Jacob opened in Hancock in 1912, named for merchant Jacob Gartner, and still serves the Jewish students and faculty of Michigan Technological University.
Supplying five million board feet annually for the building of the nation's homes and factories, "white pine was king" in Michigan until about 1910, when the valuable forests had been stripped. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Jews followed the centers of lumbering, from Bay City and Saginaw on the state's eastern side to Grand Rapids, Traverse City, and Muskegon on the western shore, and, as mentioned, crossing over to the Upper Peninsula. A successful work shirt manufacturer, immigrant Julius Houseman first was elected mayor of Grand Rapids, then to the Michigan State Legislature, and in 1883 to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the only Michigan Jew to serve as United States Congressman until a century later, with the elections of Howard Wolpe and Sander Levin.
Peddler Julius Steinberg from Souvalk, Poland, settled in Traverse City, where he soon built a prosperous clothing and dry goods store, and in 1894 opened an elegant two-story Grand Opera House on top of his store – known as "the finest opera house north of Chicago."
"The oldest synagogue building in continuous use," according to the Michigan Historical Commission, opened in Traverse City in 1885. A second synagogue was founded in 1896 in nearby Petoskey. Both continue in active use, serving local Jews as well as summer and winter vacationers.
A port on Lake Michigan, Muskegon survived the decline of lumbering by building foundries and factories to supply the emerging auto industry of the early 20th century. The Muskegon Scrap Metal Co. was run by Henry, Harry, and Isadore Rubinsky. In nearby Holland, Padnos Iron and Steel grew into an essential supplier to industry; the Padnoses are prominent philanthropists in the state. Later, in 1933, World War I veterans Harold and Leo Rosen opened the American Grease Stick Company, a major supplier of solid lubricants to the auto industry. The Muskegon Jewish House of Worship was dedicated in 1948.
In the 1890s, Russian Polish Jewish immigrants established a "Palestine Colony" at Bad Axe in Michigan's "Thumb" area, which unfortunately did not survive the economic "Panic" of that decade. Later, the Sunrise Cooperative Farm Community, of close to 100 families, supplied mint to Parke Davis pharmaceutical, but only lasted from 1933 to 1938. In the fruit belt of southwestern Michigan, a number of Jews established farms; the Ben Rosenberg family remained as successful farmers and community leaders for three generations. Nearby South Haven, on the shores of Lake Michigan, became known as the "Catskills of the Midwest." For three decades before World War II, Jewish immigrant families ran more than 60 resorts there, attracting thousands from Chicago and the Midwest.
By 1850 in Detroit, 12 Orthodox men formed Detroit's first Jewish congregation, the Beth El Society. In a characteristic pattern, they hired a rabbi, Rabbi Samuel Marcus, who for $200 a year also served as the mohel, the shohet, the cantor, the teacher of the children, and the judge to settle community disputes. They rented a room in which to meet, set up a school, bought land for a cemetery, arranged for traditional burials, and formed societies to care for the sick, the poor, and the widows and orphans. Rabbi Marcus died in the cholera epidemic of 1854.
When the Beth El Society adopted the Reform ritual advocated by Cincinnati's Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, in 1861 17 traditionalists withdrew to form the Shaarey Zedek Society. Today these two congregations are among the country's largest
In the time before the Civil War, Beth El's Rabbi Leibman Adler was preaching vigorous abolitionist sermons. Ernestine Rose, a Jewish woman who belonged to the national coalition of social reformers, had visited Detroit in 1846 to speak out against slavery as well as child labor, and for women's rights. Temple members Emil Heineman and Mark Sloman were active participants in the Underground Railroad. From the 151 Jewish families in Michigan, 181 men and boys served in the Union Armies; 38 lost their lives in the conflict.
To meet the needs of the growing wave of immigrants, in 1899 Detroit established the United Jewish Charities, under the leadership of Rabbi Leo M. Franklin. This included the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which since 1895 had been helping peddlers with loans of $5 to get them started.
By the early 1900s, an emerging automobile industry was providing additional economic opportunities. Engineer Max Grabowsky and his brother Morris, along with Bernard Ginsburg, formed the Grabowsky Power Wagon Company to manufacture the world's first gasoline-powered truck. Their successful four-story business in Detroit was bought by Will Durant to make up the new General Motors Company. Durant also hired bookkeeper Meyer Prentis who became treasurer of General Motors in 1919. Robert Janeway headed an engineering group for Chrysler for 30 years; A.E. Barit served as president of the Hudson Motor Car Company from 1936 to 1954. Participating in the wave of American inventiveness, in 1903 Rabbi Judah L. Levin received United States patents, and later British and Japanese patents, for his adding and subtracting machine which now is in the collection of the Smithsonian Institute.
However, since Jews were substantially excluded from the executive ranks of the automotive corporations, many Jewish entrepreneurs became suppliers to the industry. Jewish shops, which eventually grew into thriving businesses, supplied manufactured parts, glass, paint, chemicals, textiles, slag, and coveralls and operated laundries for factory uniforms. Max Fisher's Marathon Oil Company recycled and refined used oil. The Industrial Removal Office in New York City sent Jews to Detroit for industrial jobs and for work at the Ford Motor Company for "$5 a day."
Providing a needed voice for the rights of workers, Jews were prominent in the labor movement. Samuel Goldwater was elected president of Detroit's Cigarmakers Union in the 1890s. Later Myra Wolfgang organized the waitresses' union. Many Jewish leaders worked with Walter Reuther in the UAW, including Sam Fishman, Bernard Firestone, and Irving Bluestone, who later served as professor of labor studies in the Economics Department chaired by Professor Samuel Levin at Wayne University. Prominent labor lawyer Maurice Sugar's papers are collected at the Reuther Library at Wayne University.
In 1912, Henry Ford, who was actively antisemitic a decade later, hired architect Albert Kahn to design the first factory to house a continuously moving assembly line to manufacture the Model T. Kahn continued to design Ford factories. Henry Butzel served as chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, while his attorney brother Fred became known as "Detroit's Most Valuable Citizen." Charles Simons was appointed justice to the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals; while his brother David was elected to Detroit's first nine-man city council in 1914.
In the 1990s, with a total Michigan population of 9,478,000, there were 107,000 Jews statewide, with a Jewish population of 96,000 in metropolitan Detroit, the greater majority in the nearby Oakland County suburbs. It is anticipated that more current studies will show a greater degree of spread to additional nearby communities as well as a decline in the Metro Detroit Jewish population.
An estimated 200,000 Muslims live in Metro Detroit, many concentrated in Dearborn. The local American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Jewish Community Council are each involved in outreach activities between local Muslims and Jews.
His brother, Sander, was re-elected to the House of Representatives from 1982. A leader of the statewide Democratic ticket, Kathleen Straus was elected to the Michigan Board of Education and served as president. Community activist David Hermelin was appointed by President Bill Clinton as ambassador to Norway, where he served until his untimely death. Florine Mark, founder of Weight Watchers in Michigan and a philanthropic leader, is in the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame. William Davidson , a third generation Detroiter, is the owner of the Detroit Pistons, the Detroit Shock, and the Tampa Bay Lightning; chairman of glass manufacturer Guardian Industries, Inc; he is a major philanthropist taking a special interest in Jewish education. The patriarch of the Jewish community, Max Fisher , who passed away in 2004, was recognized as the "dean of American Jewry" and was acknowledged by United States presidents as a "world citizen."
As of 2017, Michigan's Jewish population was approximately 83,155 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. J.L. Cantor, Jews in Michigan (2001); I.I. Katz, The Beth El Story (1955). WEBSITE: MICHIGAN JEWISH HISTORY: www.michjewishhistory.com. See complete texts: Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, vol. 10, 1970, Graff, George, "Michigan's Jewish Settlers"; vol. 23, #1, #2, 1983. Aminoff, Helen "First Jews of Ann Arbor"; vol. 30, 1989. "Historical Markers"; vol. 38, 1998. Elstein, Rochelle. "Jews of Houghton-Hancock…"; vol. 42, 2002. Teasdle, Holly. "Jewish Farming in Michigan"; vol. 42, 2002. Wamsley, Douglas. "Michigan's Arctic Pioneer: Edward Israel and the Greeley Expedition"; vol. 44, 2004. Rose, Emily. "Ann Arbor…"