The Wandering Jew, someone without roots in a community, is often joked about as those in the Jewish community move from community to community seeking upward mobility. But the origins of the actual term is a negative one, as legend has it originating in Biblical times with Cain sent off as the original wandering Jew. A story in Genesis has Cain being issued the punishment to wander the earth, never reaping a harvest, only scavenging. During Medieval times, another legend had an eternal wanderer without the possibility to rest until the second coming of Christ, and gave justification to communities as Jews were vilified, attacked and cast out of many eastern European communities.
In the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Joseph Jacobs commented, “It is difficult to tell in any one of these cases how far the story is an entire fiction and how far some ingenious impostor took advantage of the existence of the myth.”
In reality, Jews have been in America since colonial days for the same reason as other religious and ethnic groups – for religious freedom and to escape religious persecution, just as the original Pilgrims.
A man named Joachim Gans was the first Jewish-born person to arrive on American soil, in 1584. Prior to that, a Spanish conquistador and converted Jew, Luis de Carabajal y Cueva, landed in what is now Texas in 1570. The first recorded Jew in Detroit was Chapman Abraham, a fur trader from Montreal who in 1762 traveled along the Detroit River. At the time of his death in 1783, his residence was recorded as Detroit. By 1840, there were about 15,000 Jews in the country out of a population of 17 million Americans, according to the 1840 U.S. Census, representing a small but stable middle class minority. Those that came in the 1840s were primarily German Jews, and in Detroit, many entered the fur trade, fishery business and dry goods businesses. At that time, according to historians, intermarriage with non-Jews was quite frequent, until a rapid rise in immigration led to 50,000 Jews in 1848.
During this period, Detroit’s first congregation was formed at the corner of Congress and St. Antoine, called Temple Beth El, by 12 German Jewish families. It originally was a an orthodox congregation as well as a Jewish congregational cemetery. In 1861, Beth El became a Reform temple, having adopted a new set of laws from the then emerging and innovative branch of the religion, and moved to Rivard Street. The change to the Reform movement lead some more traditional members to be very unhappy with the reforms. Seventeen of the more Orthodox members left, forming Congregation Shaarey Zedek, which later became a Conservative congregation.
Following the congregational split, the temple purchased a large building on Washington Boulevard and Clifford Street, near Grand Circus Park, where services were held until 1903, when the congregation authorized a new building designed by a young architect and congregant, Albert Kahn, at Woodward Avenue near Eliot Street. Jews, as they prospered, moved northward, near what is now Midtown, and religious institutions followed their worshippers.
Shaarey Zedek members worshipped at the intersection of Congress and St. Antoine, and in 1877 built an elaborate Moorish Revival building for its population within the city, where they remained until 1903. At that time, they followed their members out to the more fashionable and affluent neighborhoods of northeast Detroit, from Winder and Brush streets, and in 1913 built a spacial domed Neoclassical synagogue at Willis and Brush street, where they remained until 1932, when they built a Romanesque Revival sanctuary designed by architect Albert Kahn at Chicago Boulevard at Lawton in 1932.
Just as with other immigrant groups, Jews immigrated to the United States for better economic opportunities and to escape religious persecution, especially a rise of pogroms, or organized massacres against Jewish villages in Russia, Poland and other countries in eastern Europe. While early Jewish immigrants were either wealthy or middle class, between 1880 and 1914, most Jewish immigrants were poor and from more traditional and observant Jewish backgrounds.
In 1880, there were approximately 1,000 Jews in Detroit; by 1920 there were almost 35,000, and in 1937, Detroit was the fourth largest city in America with the sixth largest Jewish community. There was one Reform temple, Temple Beth El, and four Orthodox congregations, Shaarey Zedek, B’Nai Israel, B’Nai Jacob, and Beth Jacob.
While New York City and Ellis Island were the first stopping point for immigrants of all colors and backgrounds, Jews, like Italians, Irish, German, French and other foreigners often made their way to other cities, migrating west to cities like Detroit, where industry and culture were prospering. Familial sponsors provided the opportunity to settle in neighborhoods of their “own”. By the 1940s, a good deal of the Detroit Jewish community was centered in the 12th Street, Linwood and Dexter neighborhood in the city of Detroit, with the Jewish population having risen to 85,000 and the number of congregations catering to its citizens at 48, with many small, neighborhood synagogues.
Since settling in Detroit, Jews have always been on the move, seeking improved housing, more space, greener pastures. A northwest migration pattern which began in Detroit has continued to today into the northwestern Oakland suburbs. From 1840 to 1940, the movement was from Lower Hastings to Upper Hastings in Detroit; between 1920 and 1940, to the Twelfth Street and Dexter areas just west of Oakland to northwest Detroit from the late 1930s to the 1960s.
After World War II, as first the National Highway Act subdivided the city with the building of M-10 the Lodge freeway, and then developers building affordable brick ranch homes with cheap mortgages in Oak Park, and then Southfield, those inner ring suburbs became meccas of Jewish settlement.
“Jews, like other white populations, were enticed by the federal government’s efforts to subsidize suburban living: mortgages were easy to obtain and cheap if one were white, and new developments, also subsidized by government relief, offered plentiful affordable housing in the postwar era,” wrote Lila Corwin Berman in Jewish Migration and the American City. “Encouraging home ownership, especially in newly built suburbs, became a national policy intended to stimulate the economy and produce proper citizens.”
The Jews, as another immigrant group attaining affluence, assimilation and success, were striving to become those proper citizens. Robbi Terman, archivist with the Leonard N. Simons Jewish Community Archives, said there were a few reasons Jews were leaving the city of Detroit for the suburbs. “A lot of different groups were moving north into the suburbs. A lot of Jews were in retail and they were following their customers,” Terman noted. “Jews were also becoming more affluent and seeking larger homes and property, and more space. They could show their affluence off with their bigger homes.”
Further, first the 1943, then the 1967, race riots precipitated active movement by those Jews who could leave city for greener – and less troubled – pastures.
In this they mirrored other groups of non-Jewish, upwardly mobile middle class who abandoned central cities for the suburbs, which was the classic American dream of the 1950s and 1960s, and the antithesis of today: suburban life, which in metropolitan Detroit led to suburban sprawl. As Judith Levin Cantor stated in Jews in Michigan, “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 stereotypical 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 there... In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, often only Jewish merchants would allow blacks to shop in their stores...As black workers moved into Detroit, they occupied areas in which Jews lived, and fears or prejudices on both sides fostered the Jewish moves.”
Berman noted that liberal Jews around the country tried to stem the tide of Jewish movement, and liberal Jewish leaders urged Jews to welcome African Americans into their neighborhoods. But as African Americans did encroach into first Oak Park, and then Southfield, Jews fled, moving outward to the north and west within Oakland County, to newer subdivisions being developed in West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills.
“Many of the less religious Jews, those who don’t feel the need to live right near Kosher butchers or their shuls (synagogues), could move out and show their affluence,” explained Terman. “West Bloomfield seems a lot less religious, with many Reform temples along Walnut Lake Road. There’s less of a need to walk everywhere on the Sabbath.”
Today, the Jews in Oak Park and areas of Southfield tend to be extremely religious, choosing to live together in clusters with small Orthodox synagogues, social halls and Kosher butchers, sustained by a project called the Neighborhood Project, instigated by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, which provides no interest loans to eligible Jewish families seeking to buy homes in these areas.
“Jews tended to move together, leaving one neighborhood and settling in a cluster of streets in another,” Berman wrote. “They also relocated their holy and community spaces. Each move was occasion for Jews to redefine themselves: as dwellers of sacred space, as consumers of the American architectural tradition, and as part of the American religious landscape.”
As its congregants moved northward, so did Congregation Shaarey Zedek, which had become a leading synagogue in the U.S. Conservative movement, building a large building on Bell Road in Southfield, off of Lahser, Telegraph and the Lodge freeway, where it continues to stand today. At its peak, in the 1970s and 1980s, it had over 3,000 families as members; today, as families have moved northward to West Bloomfield, Commerce Township and Farmington Hills, and the Conservative movement has declined nationwide, the synagogue has about 1,200 member families, Rabbi Joseph Krakoff said.
“Today, we have a large contingent (of our congregation) that lives in West Bloomfield, and then we have a lot that lives in Huntington Woods,” Rabbi Krakoff said. “In the last 15 years, we have a large amount that lives in Bloomfield and Birmingham, then our population comes from Farmington Hills, and next from Commerce Township. We have a few families in Ferndale, and some now in Detroit. There are still some of our population living in Southfield, as well. We attract members from lots of different suburbs, not just from four key locations like we may have once done, but all over.”
In September 1951, then Rabbi B. Benedict Glazer for Temple Beth El noted that religious classrooms were filled to capacity and additional facilities were needed to be obtained so that more children could be educated, according to Jan Durecki, director of Rabbi Leo M. Franklin Archives at Temple Beth El, and in 1952, the temple purchased more than 20 acres on Northwestern Highway between Nine and Ten Mile roads. But in 1953, temple leadership decided to hold off on moving, and the temple itself bought houses in the area near the temple at Woodward and Gladstone, created off street parking, converted a gymnasium into classrooms, and modernized the temple and social hall.
Yet, the fact remained that in the 1960s, according to Durecki, 60 percent of the congregation lived in the suburbs – with 85 percent of the children who needed to receive religious education.
They broke ground at their current location at Telegraph Road and 14 Mile in Bloomfield Township in 1971, and the building was dedicated in 1974.
Today, the majority of Temple Beth El’s members live in Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield.
Temple Israel, in West Bloomfield, was the last of the Jewish religious institutions to leave Detroit, moving from a location and building at Manderson in Palmer Park in 1980.
“Our congregants had moved out to Southfield, Oak Park, West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills, and it had become more difficult for our religious schools,” said Temple Israel executive director David Tisdale. “At the time, we were renting out public school buildings in Southfield for our after school religious school. The other synagogues had spread themselves out among the suburbs.”
Tisdale said that by staying longer in the city, albeit at a site closer to inner ring suburbs like Oak Park, Ferndale, and Southfield, by the time they made the leap to the suburbs, the Jewish Community Center campus in West Bloomfield was well underway, and they chose a site on Walnut Lake Road which was close to it. “There’s some synergy by being close to the JCC, and we needed a site that was large enough to grow on,” he said.
Growth has been achieved by Temple Israel, reversing the trend seen by many other Jewish synagogues and temples, some of which have closed, merged, or are enticing a much smaller Jewish population to find a home in their chapel. In 1980, there were 1,500 families worshipping with Temple Israel; today, there are some 3,500 families who are members at the Reform temple, making them, according to Tisdale, the largest Reform temple in the United States.
Tisdale said that in 2014, the preponderance of their members come from West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Township, Farmington Hills and Commerce Township, “as well as a very strong population in Huntington Woods.”
“This is just my observation, but we saw somewhat of a shift during the (recent) recession,” Tisdale said. “We saw as housing costs became more affordable, many young families chose to purchase homes in the Bloomfield Township area, versus the Commerce Township area, because housing costs had dropped and they could afford those homes. Now, with housing costs on the rise again, we’ve seen the reverse again.”
A 2005 population study done by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, updated in April 2011, confirmed there were 71,500 Jews in 30,000 Jewish households in Detroit, making Detroit today the 23rd largest Jewish community in the United States, compared to 1989, when there were 96,000 Jews living in 42,500 households.
According to the 2011 study, the core area for today’s Jewish population –
2 percent of Detroit households –includes the cities of Berkley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, Commerce Township, Farmington, Farmington Hills, Franklin, Oak Park, Southfield, Royal Oak, Huntington Woods, Walled Lake and West Bloomfield. A full 73 percent of all metropolitan Detroit Jews live in the core area, with 19 percent living in West Bloomfield, and 36 percent in West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills and Waterford.
The survey results revealed a highly educated population, with 63 percent of adults over age 25 having a four-year degree or higher, and 60 percent of adults in the labor force, while 24 percent were retired.
More concerning for demographers was the information that 24 percent of Jewish households are age 65 and over.
An interesting demographic and sociological twist in the last few years has been the resurgence of a young Jewish population in the city of Detroit, and the recent revival of the Isaac Agree Downtown synagogue, with its youthful – and multicultural – congregation. As recently as 2008, the only remaining synagogue in the city of Detroit, it was in complete disrepair and had difficulty holding services, as it often could not get 10 Jews together to hold a service.
Leor Barak, now the synagogue’s president at 33, writes on its website that the Downtown Synagogue is “more relevant than most communal spaces because its mission is to connect people, Jew and non-Jew alike, to each other and to the city...There is a new vigor and spirit emanating from the synagogue, often literally. Sidewalk dinners are held in the front of the building, with the congregants and guests becoming indistinguishable from the spill-over bar patrons next door. Dance parties, community discussions and potlucks occur alongside religious services...the synagogue boasts a roster of active young members; progressive leaders, like Barak, who are reshaping the role of religious institutions into communities.”
Barak notes that for some Jews, the synagogue is an entry point into Detroit.
Surprisingly, Detroit’s renaissance is assisting some old stalwarts. Shaarey Zedek, with it’s majestic stained glass windows overlooking Southfield’s highway “mixing bowl”, has until recently, been catering to a smaller, older, aging demographic, Rabbi Krakoff acknowledged. For a while, its board debated abandoning it’s Southfield building for investment property at 12 Mile and Meadowbrook in Novi, to follow younger members and appease the need to be closer for afternoon religious school. Compromises were made, with Sunday school remaining at the Southfield building, and afternoons split between Shaarey Zedek for those living in Huntington Woods, Birmingham and Bloomfield, and renting Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills for those living in West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills.
But, Krakoff said, suddenly, they’re hot again. “Now, probably more so since the 60’s and 70’s, because of the increase in population and the popularity of Detroit, we’re the closest to the city,” he said. “We’re smack dab between the city and the suburbs, and right off the highway. Now it’s so convenient for people to stop by here for evening prayers. People tell me every day how easy it is to get here.”
He laughs. “We love our building. Wait long enough and things come around.”