CONGREGATION AHAVAS ISRAEL #149
Member Lists, 1860's - 1952
In the 1880's the orthodox Jewish population of Grand Rapids had grown,in
numbers, to the extent that it was possible for them to hold minyans in private
homes, but at that time they had no organized congregation or services. A reform
temple (Temple Emanu-El) provided religious services in the city in that period
and the earliest orthodox organization was the Hebrew Beth Olam Cemetery
association. This group was founded in 1890 and owned the Greenwood Cemetery. In
1892 a nucleus of about fifteen families grouped together to found Temple Beth
Israel. From this humble beginning came the start of the history of what is now
Congregation Ahavas Israel. Records of the Beth Olam Cemetery group indicate
that their membership in 1892 included:
Harry Rose (of Big Rapids)
These men and others formed the Beth Israel group, but this initial organization was loosely knit and there are few accurate records from this era. It is known that the members met for prayers in a small store at 50 Bridge Street and held regular Sabbath services there. In 1895 the group moved to 18 Bridge Street and again in 1897 the congregation moved to a house on Ottawa Street which then served as a gathering place and locale of services. Dues were ten cents per month and bicycle teams would tour the city on a Sunday morning making collections for the small Shule. By the turn of the century, there were about fifty families and it was decided to start searching for a site on which to build their house of worship. New members up to 1900 included:
In 1903 property was purchased at 438 Ottawa, N.W. and Temple Beth Israel was erected and officially opened under it's president, Max Braudy. As the membership increased, the problems of administration and procedure became more difficult. Policy changes did not always meet with the full approval of all members. The first Orthodox congregation was about to face it's greatest problem as events were leading to a major congregation rift. The differences of opinion due to the extremely orthodox element, the conservatives- aiming at modification and the usuall quarrelsome group who look for arguments, caused a small group of dissenters to hold their own minyans on the West Side before 1911. The situation resolved itself in the fall of 1911 at the High Holiday services. Rev. Albert London had insisted upon having a choir of six girls including his three daughters on the Bema for the Holidays, despite contrary instructions from the Beth Israel officers. When a group of orthodox members entered the shule and saw the girls on the Bema, they marched out in a body and joined the small West Side group. These men held their own services in a room upstairs from Virjonsky's butcher shop. Among this group were Abraham Siegel, Ephraim Smith, Abraham Lawrence,Charles Smith, Israel Smith, Julius Silverman, Abraham Silverman, Hyman Silverman, Isaac Wapner, Louis Levy, Benjamin Wepman and Louis Morrison.
These men and others joined to form Congregation Ahavas Achim in 1911 with Abraham Siegel chosen as the first President. After a while they purchased a small house on Scribner and First Streets which was then used for meetings and services. When large accommodations were needed for the Holidays the congregation would move to the rented Eagle Hall on Front Street. Ahavas Achim began with fifteen to twenty families but increased substantially in the next few years. Others from Beth Israel and newcomers added to the membership. In the 1920's both congregations continued growing and were about equal in membership. Instructors would come to the homes and teach small groups of children until 1916 when the Grand Rapids Hebrew School was founded and a Talmud Torah was purchased on Front Street. The association was independent of the two shules with membership and dues entitling the children to attend the school.
Teachers were hired for the eighty plus pupils. In 1917 a hall was added for use as an auditorium. In 1918 Boruch and Rachel Crohon paid up the mortgage and gave the building and property to the community with the agreement that the school would hereafter be known as the B & R Crohon Hebrew School. A new association was formed and dues consisted of a twenty-five cent initiation fee plus upwards from a base charge of $5.00 per year tuition charges. In 1916 a committee composed of Abraham Turetsky, Abraham Silverman and Julius Silverman purchased the Washington Cemetery for the Ahavas Achim congregation in conjunction with the Workman Circle Group. Now both Shules had their own association and cemetery. On August 111, 1921 the West Side Ladies Helping Hand Society purchased the former Methodist church on Scribner and Second Streets for Congregation Ahavas Achim. The building was renovated before the congregation moved in.
The officers in 1921 were Abraham Silver-President, Harry Siegel-Treasurer and Nathan Armour-Secretary. At this time both shules had over 100 members and their differences were as prominent as ever. More disagreements appeared over the Hebrew School operation and Ahavas Achim decided to establish it's own school in the Scribner building. In 1923, Rev. I. H. Pekarsky was retained to teach the fifty students in the school. Neither shule had Rabbinical Leadership in 1923. In the depression years efforts were initiated to bring about a more harmonious attitude between the two congregations. Despite early failures the pattern was slowly forming for a happier solution. In 1936 discussions became more persistent as duplicate expenses, limited membership, conflictions and other factors caused thoughts to turn towards a merger. The ground work for a consolidation began in the spring of 1937. Plans were finally completed to dissolve both Beth Israel and Ahavas Achim and form a new identity by combining the names and forming "Ahavas Israel" on July 18, 1937. There were to be only one set of officers and board of directors, one combined cemetery association and one Hebrew School.
Weekly Sabbath services were held at the West Side (Scribner) and the daily services at the East Side (Ottawa) buildings. On July 26, 1937, the first meeting of the Ahavas Israel Congregation was held and 60 members voted to hold High Holiday services in a "neutral hall" and 35 voted to hold them in one of the synagogues. President Abraham Turetsky announced that dues per year would be $15.00 and included sears for the Holidays. Other officers were: Nathan Weiner,vice-president, Louis Kleiman, treasurer and Hyman Berkowitz, secretary.
Holidays were to be held in the Civic Auditorium when it was decided that it was not the proper place and the original decision was reversed so that services were held in both shules. A meeting was held and it was decided to sell both shules and the Hebrew School and put the money in trust for a new Jewish Center building. The original Building Committee included: Harry Boorstein, Nathan Weiner, Harry Dexter, Louis Kleiman, Sam Wapner and Jacob Kleiman. In 1940 the Ottawa property was sold to the Nazarine Congregation and the contents were moved to the Scribner edifice. In 1942, the Board of Trustees decided that children should not have separate Sabbath services but should join the congregation and that henceforth the Rabbi should deliver his sermon in English. In January, 1947 the congregation joined the United Synagogue of America, mother body of all "Conservative" congregations, thus completing the change of the shule from Orthodox to Conservative. In the fall of 1947, the congregation having grown to a membership of 240 families, it was recommended by the building committee, that a building and property on Lafayette Street be purchased. The building was remodeled for a new school center and plans were adopted to begin a campaign to increase the building fund so construction on a new building could begin the following year. The foundations were poured in the fall of 1948 and the ground breaking ceremony was held with Sam Himelstein, as chairman and Max Plafkin and Louis Kleiman having the honor of digging the first shovels of earth. The last service in the Scribner building was held on May 8, 1949 with the "Procession of the Torahs". On Sunday, October 2, 1949, the cornerstone was laid and on November 11th the Dedication ceremonies were held to open the new auditorium.
Created: 13 July 2005