Temple Beth El, the first Jewish congregation in the state of Michigan, was established in Detroit in 1850. It was a turbulent time in the development of our nation: the debate over slavery was raging and tremendous economic growth was under way. Twelve families drew together in the home of Isaac and Sarah Cozens to form the Beth El Society. There were 60 Jews in Detroit at the time, out of a total population of 21,000.
The founders of Beth El were German immigrants. They hired their first rabbi, Samuel Marcus, who conducted services in the Orthodox mode, taught the children, and met other ritual needs of the community. They purchased land for a cemetery. They established a day school for their children’s religious well as secular education. Sermons and instruction were in German. After its initial meeting place in the house on Congress and St. Antoine Streets, the congregation rented space above stores on Jefferson Avenue and then Michigan Grand Avenue. Finally, in 1861, the congregation purchased its first permanent home on Rivard Street. The dedication ceremonies received much local as well as national attention.
In the spirit of reform which was prevalent in the country and in particular among Jewish congregations, the members of Beth El saw the need to modernize and revitalize their age-old faith. The congregation adopted by-laws in 1856 which affirmed many innovative ideas, in the pattern of Reform Judaism as it was developing in the United States. In 1861, the congregation introduced instrumental music and a mixed choir in services. This was contrary to the practices of Orthodox Judaism and led seventeen families to resign and create what is now Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Other changes followed, including permitting men and women to sit together, the introduction of Confirmation, abolishing the wearing of a prayer shawl (tallit), and the use of a new American prayer book. The first confirmation ceremony took place in 1862.
By 1867, the congregation had outgrown its quarters and purchased a new building on Washington Boulevard and Clifford Street. The noted architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, officiated at the dedication. The day school was discontinued and replaced by a religious school that supplemented the students’ public school education. Dr. Kaufmann Kohler served as the sixth rabbi of the congregation from 1869 to 1871. The Beth El Hebrew Relief Society was formed as the first centralized Jewish philanthropic agency in Detroit. English replaced German as the language of instruction, though the sermon was still delivered in German by rabbis who had been trained In Germany.
The first American-trained rabbi, Louis Grossman, was engaged by the congregation as its tenth rabbi in 1884, upon his ordination from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Temple Beth El had been one of the charter members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, founded in 1873 to bring together the Reform synagogues of America and to establish an American rabbinical seminary, (Kaufmann Kohler later became the second president of the College after the death of its founder, Isaac M. Wise.) Temple Beth El was also the host of the meeting of the U.A.H.C. in 1889 at which the Central Conference of American Rabbis was founded.
Rabbi Leo M. Franklin became the eleventh spiritual leader of Temple Beth EI in 1898 and went on to serve the congregation for almost fifty years, playing a prominent role in the community and nation. He was instrumental in establishing the United Jewish Charities (later the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit), Detroit’s first Anglo-Jewish weekly, The Jewish American, an interdenominational community Thanksgiving service, and the Jewish Student Congregation at the University of Michigan. Rapid growth of the congregation led to the construction of a new Temple on Woodward and Eliot (now the Bonstelle Theater) in 1903. When membership exceeded 800 families, the congregation built a new home at Woodward and Gladstone in 1922, designed by the late Albert Kahn.
Over the years, Beth El’s rabbis, as well as its energetic lay leaders, played prominent roles in the development of the Detroit Jewish Community and the national institutions of the Reform movement. Upon Rabbi Franklin’s retirement in 1941, B. Benedict Glazer was elected rabbi of the congregation. He established a reputation in the field of human relations and fought actively against discrimination. He established a unique annual institute for members of the Christian clergy.
After Dr. Glazer’s untimely death in 1952, Richard C. Hertz served as spiritual leader of Beth EI from 1953 to 1982. Rabbi Hertz re-introduced the Bar Mitzvah as well as a new Bat Mitzvah ceremony, and programs for young families. Once again, the membership outgrew its facilities. Young families were settling to the northwest area. The doors to our present magnificent home on Telegraph and 14 mile Road in Bloomfield Hills opened in 1973.
Today, Beth El continues to be in the forefront of leadership, visioning, and innovation. Rabbi Mark Miller began his tenure on March 1, 2014. In a short time, he has brought together a dynamic staff team, worked closely with lay leaders to update our governance structures, and revitalized our worship, education, and programing.
From the spiritual to the recreational, cultural to educational, in all that we do, we are guided by a belief in God, and in the dynamic, miraculous promise of our faith to heal, excite, nurture, and grow. More than 1,100 families call Temple Beth El home, and we look forward to the limitless possibilities of a vibrant Jewish life in our Detroit Metropolitan community.