A Small Historic Synagogue Rallies its Friends
by Sheila Klatzky
When I left the Copper Country of Upper Michigan for college in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1960’s, little did I realize that almost 50 years later, I would become involved with the effort to rescue Temple Jacob, the small historic brick synagogue with its beautiful stained glass windows and copper dome to which my family had belonged so long ago. Nor did I realize that the fundraising effort would be so personally rewarding.
I was intrigued by the fact that this tiny congregation (17 members, as of last count) had managed to maintain a continuously active Jewish presence, with High Holiday services, Passover Seders, Torah study, Sukkot and TuB’Shvat celebrations, Jewish summer camp scholarships and more, in an area sparsely populated and distant from any large population centers, whose glory days of the copper mining boom had ended long ag0 – and at a time when many small town synagogues have closed their doors and dispersed their sacred artifacts due to supposedly inevitable small town Jewish population decline.
Inspired by the decision of the Board of Directors and the Temple Jacob membership to mount a major preservation effort in conjunction with Temple Jacob’s Centennial in the summer of 2012, I volunteered to help with the fundraising. My offer was eagerly accepted.
We commissioned an engineering study and discovered that the synagogue, the oldest continuously active Jewish House of Worship in the Upper Peninsula and the only active synagogue in Michigan listed on the National Historic Register, was badly in need of fundamental repairs, including work on the sandstone foundation, cement work on the retaining walls and sidewalks, roof repairs and other structural issues that, if neglected, would threaten its survival.
We set an ambitious goal of $75,000, considering the small local membership and the absence of any substantial group of affluent donors who could be counted upon for sustaining donations. We developed an initial solicitation letter, which we mailed to the existing mailing list of members and friends of Temple Jacob. Meanwhile, the local Centennial Committee dug into the historical archives, seeking information on anyone who might have a connection to Temple Jacob. Their efforts were hampered by a fire in a downtown store basement where the synagogue records had been kept and which destroyed most of the synagogue’s documentation. With the help of college students at Michigan Technological University, they searched through files of old local newspapers, correspondence with former members, building records, transcripts, photo collections, letters, emails and the internet.
Starting with the families whose ties were the strongest and who had contributed to Temple Jacob in the past, we reached out and discovered people whose ties to the community had been lost and who welcomed the reconnection with their past. Families and friends searched their contact lists and their memories and came up with names of additional people to contact. We also created an online fundraising website, with a video telling the Temple Jacob story, so that people could contribute directly online.
At this point we are halfway to our goal. We thought, perhaps overly optimistically, that we could enlist the support of one or more major donors; instead we have tapped into a broader base of support from people who may or may not have strong ties to Temple Jacob, but who are relatives or friends of former members or even simply people who value the historic connections and the cultural diversity that Temple Jacob represents and who wish to become part of the effort to rescue this beautiful architectural treasure that meant so much to several generations of small town Jewry in Upper Michigan.
Our plans for the future, once the preservation fund has ensured the structural and financial stability of Temple Jacob for the next generation, is to expand the fundraising to provide additional resources for more frequent visits by a student rabbi and for additional programming to enrich the local environment as a living source of small town Jewish identity and culture.
For me personally, the most rewarding part of this effort has been the revitalization of my Jewish identity through the strengthening of my connections to the community which created and nurtured it. Thomas Wolfe said, in the memorable title to his novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” and this is true. But you can retrace the journey, reconnect to others who share their strengths, and realize the value of the faith and optimism of those small town Jewish pioneers by whom your own life has been so enriched.
Sheila Klatzky lives in White Plains, N.Y. She is retired and active in a variety of community organizations and endeavors including the Westchester Women’s Agenda and the Social Change Giving Collaborative.