July 31, 2021

Traverse City's Jewish Community Holds a Sacred Gem

Its 135-year-old synagogue is the oldest in the state of Michigan
By Ross Boissoneau | June 19, 2021

It might be small in numbers, but Traverse City’s Jewish congregation is rich in history. One needs to look no further than the white frame building with gable roof ends it calls home. It is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the state, opening its doors in 1886. 

Its inception dates back a year prior, when the town’s early Jewish settlers formed Congregation Beth El. They came from Eastern Europe, largely from Russia and Poland. Ellen Fivenson, a member of the local congregation, said the rampant pogroms — i.e., organized massacres against Jewish people — the occurred in Russia and Eastern Europe during the 1880s and 1890s propelled the migration of a multitude of Jewish families to the United States that that time. A number of those that initially settled downstate then came north, eking out a living by selling pots and pans to the booming lumber camps. 

For those that put down roots Up North, a place to practice their faith was deemed essential, not only by the Jewish people who called Traverse City home but also Perry Hannah, oft considered the father of Traverse City, who supported numerous civic and religious efforts and donated the land upon which a synagogue could be built.  

“Perry Hannah was such an amazing visionary,” says Fivenson. “He donated land to the Congregational Church, the county building — across the street was the Salvation Army church when I came here in 1970.”

Temple Beth El was completed and formally dedicated in March of 1886. Among its founding trustees were local leaders Julius Steinberg, Julius Levinson, and Solomon Yalomstein. All were important in the fostering of the Jewish community Up North, and Steinberg, in particular, is among the titans of Traverse City's history. He built the city’s second opera house above his mercantile business. The store remained in the Steinberg family for over 50 years, closing in 1922 as the J.H. Steinberg Store.

Steinberg’s Grand Opera House opened in 1894 at a cost of $60,000 and boasted a seating capacity of 700–800. It included a 32-by-45-foot stage, a 19-by-36-foot proscenium, and eight dressing rooms. It was illuminated by 400 electric globe lights. When a state law disallowed the showing of moving pictures in second-floor buildings, Steinberg built the Lyric Theater next door. Heavily damaged by fires, the Lyric was rebuilt twice, and the structure is still standing — though not currently in use since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic — as Traverse City’s State Theatre. Steinberg’s Opera House did not get a second or third chance like its neighboring Lyric; it was destroyed in a fire in 1963 and never rebuilt.

Unlike many of Traverse City’s early buildings, its synagogue has withstood the test of time.  The exterior of the building looks today much as it did more than a century ago, except for an addition on the back allowing for handicap access. The addition did enclose one of the original stained-glass windows — a Star of David donated by Julius Steinberg — but it's still visible inside the synagogue.

The interior has seen more sigificant changes over the years. Longtime member Terry Tarnow said the pot-bellied stove originally used for heat in the sanctuary was moved out many years ago. In the 1960s, 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.

A mikvah, it’s interesting to note, is a pool of water in which, historically, observant Jewish women would enter each month, exactly seven days after their menstrual cycle. The tradition is thought to be linked to ancient Israelites’ tradition of immersing themselves in a mikvah before entering Jerusalem’s Holy Temple; in more recent history, non-pregnant congregants would dip into the pool as a symbolic gesture of readying themselves for the potential of pregnancy, bringing forth new life, that following month.

Another part of the synagogue was designated for women and their children only; a large upper balcony on the second floor. In 1972 it was converted to an apartment for the rabbi, though the structure’s lone bathroom remained two floors down in the basement.

The synagogue was designated a State Historic Building in 1977 and hosted a celebration in October of that year to dedicate the marker placed outside the building declaring its official status. Then-Governor William G. Milliken presided at the ceremony. Another celebration took place on the occasion of its centennial. Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg, who continues to serve the congregation today, was part of the proceedings, as were numerous members of the temple and prominent public officials of the time, including Mayor Phil Orth, State Representative Tom Power, and Senators Don Riegle and Carl Levin. Fivenson served as chair of the Centennial Committee.

Now, 135 years after it came into being, the historic structure continues to serve the Grand Traverse area Jewish community. Today, the temple holds about 65 people, and the congregation numbers around 70 families. Like most religious organizations, many people are supportive but not always active, says Tarnow. “We see greater numbers during the holidays.”

Despite its historic significance, the synagogue continues to evolve with the times, recently incorporating Zoom services so people could tune in to services from anywhere — then deciding to keep the online format going for the foreseeable future. “We intend to be hybrid (in-person and online) from now on,” she says.

For Tarnow, the synagogue and its congregants have been a critical part of her life since moving north in 1971.

“I grew up in Detroit and moved here with no family,” she says. “The members became our family away from home. For our boys’ bar mitzvahs, we invited relatives, friends, and the entire congregation. It was our community.” 

Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg serves the congregation as its visiting rabbi. He retired from a congregation in Detroit five years ago and now returns to Traverse City on a quarter time basis. Yes, returns, as he has served here on and off since 1982, when he was a student rabbi.

“After I was ordained I served here half time from 1988 to 1990. I’ve always been in love with the congregation. The folks in northern Michigan are wonderful,” he says, noting that the congregation is a mix of all the denominations of Judaism. “I love that.”

Fivenson said the community has seen an ebb and flow in its numbers, including the establishment of another congregation. Congregation Ahavat Shalom formed in 1997. Eighteen years later, it merged with Congregation Beth El.

Though he was not serving as rabbi locally when the two merged into one, Sleutelberg says he worked behind the scenes to help bring them together. Today he serves the renamed Congregation Beth Shalom once each month.

The members of the congregation said despite the prevalence of so much divisiveness and anti-Semitism in the country, they’ve always felt safe and welcomed in the community. “I’m sure there are folks with bigoted attitudes Up North as well as everywhere else in the world. To the best of my knowledge, we’ve not experienced anything directly. Thank God,” says Sluetelberg. 

Tarnow agreed, noting she’s not seen or heard of any problems locally, “but we’re aware of things.” She noted that the building has added security cameras and that its location near the police station also helps mitigate any potential for problems.

As regards the current and ongoing conflicts and struggles in the Middle East, the mantra seems to be the age-old rhetorical question: Why can’t we all just get along?

“I spend a lot of time hoping and praying for peace … for Palestine and Israel. I lament the loss of life on all sides in the conflict. I pray for the day when we can all get together peacefully,” says Sleutelberg.

“Like every congregation, a lot of members stand with Israel completely,” says Tarnow. “Others think there needs to be a two-state solution. Different opinions from different people.”

What does the future hold for Congregation Beth Shalom? As more people move to Traverse City, whether for retirement or to work, Fivenson is hopeful the numbers will continue to rise, though that makes using the cozy synagogue a challenge.

“I think there are more Jews here that do not participate,” she said. “In the early ’70s, the congregation … had to go to other locations” for holidays. “The synagogue was not big enough. Now we have an arrangement with the Unitarian Church where we can utilize its facilities. It’s a great association.”

Material from Al Barnes’ book Supper in the Evening and Michigan Jewish News are among the sources consulted for this article.

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