Temple B'nai Israel
Kalamazoo’s Congregation B’nai Israel was officially organized by a group of twenty Jewish families in 1865. After acquiring land for a burial ground on property adjoining Mountain Home Cemetery, by-laws were drawn up and signed in early 1866. The first rabbi was the German-speaking Simon Rosenberg, who performed services in local homes prior to the construction of the first temple. Proponents of Reform Judaism, the congregation was one of 34 founding members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“It is our intent that our Temple carry forward the traditions of Reform Judaism as established in this country to the end that our religious practices and experiences shall be significant and inspirational in the changing world. We believe that our identity as Jews and the perpetuation of the Jewish religion depends primarily on the adherence to the moral and spiritual teaching of Judaism and not necessarily on its traditional ceremonies and ties.”–Statement of Religious Policies and Goals, Congregation B’nai Israel (1963)
The first temple building was erected on a lot on the south side of South Street, between Henrietta Street and Burdick Street between 1873 and 1875. It was officially dedicated on January 19th of 1875, making it the oldest synagogue in the state of Michigan. It was torn down along with the Capitol Theater, which resided next door, in 1976 to make room for a parking garage.
Led by Rabbi Samuel Thurman, who took over as spiritual leader in 1908, the South Street location was sold. The congregation moved into their second building in 1911. Located at 619 S. Park Street, the Neo-classical building featured a triangular pediment and six imposing columns. Local contractor Albert J. White led the construction project, which cost $35,000. After Thurman’s departure in 1912 and Rabbi Philip Waterman’s in 1922, the congregation struggled to retain a permanent rabbi, which led to declining membership. Without a full time spiritual leader, the congregation used rabbinic students from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. As membership continued to decline over the next several decades, the congregation struggled to survive through the social and economic upheavals of a depression and two world wars. Eventually, the decision was made to sell the synagogue in 1946 to the Congregation of Moses.
“Among Kalamazoo’s many pretentious and ornate houses of worship there is none handsomer or more fully equipped than the new Temple B’Nai Israel, which has just been completed by the B’Nai Israel congregation and which will be dedicated on Friday evening, September 15, with appropriate services at the temple, to be followed by a banquet at the American House.”–Kalamazoo Gazette, September 10th, 1911
After 1946, the congregants used the People’s Church to conduct occasional services as well as a rented farm house at 6318 Portage Road. It wasn’t until 1995 when the congregation once again found a permanent building to conduct services and to house their religious school. Judson Baptist Church, located at 4409 Grand Prairie, was purchased from Kalamazoo College with the help of a bequest from David Lowe, a former member.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, January 2022. Last updated 12 April 2022.
“Temple B’nai Israel to Observe 125th Anniversary”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 28 September 1991, page A4, column 1
“Temple B’nai Israel Plans Building Dedication”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 3 June 1995, page A4, column 3
“Local Synagogue Was First in State”
Kalamazoo Gazette, 21 October 2010, page A2, column 1
Local History Room Files
Subject File: Temple B’nai Israel
Temple B’nai Israel