Alpena’s Jewish community has never been a large one, though its founding fathers were responsible for the establishment of Temple Beth-El on White Street.
A history compiled in 1958 by Robert Leyman, a student rabbi serving in Alpena at that time, indicates the first Jewish residents in the area formed the Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1875 with the purpose of caring for the Jewish community and establishing a cemetery.
The white clapboard building that today houses Temple Beth-El originally was used by an offbeat Christian sect called the Perfectionists, who in 1891 had the structure moved from its original site on Hitchcock Street to its current location. After the leader of the Perfectionists apparently was expelled from the congregation on grounds of gross immorality, the group fell apart and the Hebrew Benevolent Society was able to buy their building for $1,100.
Dr. Greg Resnick and Cecile Pizer, current members of Temple Beth-El, recently shared their Jewish community’s rich history and opened up the temple for a presentation to the Association of Lifelong Learners. Resnick, a dentist, moved from the Detroit area to Alpena in 1988, while Pizer is a retired teacher residing in Harrisville.
“There are very few Jewish people here. I am a member of a tiny minority,” said Resnick, whose Jewish grandparents immigrated from Lithuania and Poland to escape persecution. “The welcome I’ve gotten from Alpena has been great. I’ve not experienced the tiniest bit of discrimination or anti-Semiticism. I’m glad I live here.”
Resnick said Jewish people immigrating to the United States were mostly concentrated in big cities, though in the 1800s they began moving into smaller areas for the opportunities afforded to them there.
“They found the trades closed to them and became business people. Alpena was one of the richest communities in the state at one time, and when they moved here, for the most part they became merchants.”
Resnick also said the trend today has reversed, with small towns like Alpena struggling to maintain a Jewish community, while larger areas continue to thrive.
At the time when the 1958 history was compiled by Leyman, there were 44 Jewish adults and 38 children under the age of 21 who were affiliated with the temple. Additionally, there were three Jewish families in Alcona County.
“Rabbi Leyman predicted that the Jewish population would either remain at a similar rate to when he wrote his paper or it would decline as the older generation died off and their children moved away to settle in larger cities,” Pizer said.
Today there are only four families in Alpena, two in Hubbard Lake, two in Presque Isle, one in Harrisville and one in Tawas, she said.
“Unless the economy improves and there is an influx of new people in the community, the Jewish community will die out as so many others have,” Pizer said.
At the time the current building was moved to White Street in 1891, it was supported by wooden posts that were later replaced with a stone foundation and basement. The original floors were softwood and were replaced by the current hardwood floors.
Red carpeting eventually was add in the aisles and on the “bimah” or elevated platform from which the Torah is read during services. A permanent location for the “Sefer Torah,” the holiest book within Judaism, was built into the wall and protected by sliding wood panels. A “ner tamid” or eternal light was placed above the ark. In 1958, the panels were covered by red velvet curtains and today, by white curtains with elaborate gold embroidery.
The compiled history indicates that in the late 1880s, the temple employed a rabbi. Eventually the congregation moved toward only engaging a rabbi for the Jewish High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Around the time of World War I, the congregation began using rabbinical students from the Hebrew Theological Seminary in Chicago, and then later from the Hebrew Union College.
From 1943 until at least 1961, Temple Beth-El employed student rabbis for the summer months as well as the High Holidays. After 1954, the student rabbis came from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
Before Wurtsmith Air Force Base was closed, some of the Jewish airmen stationed there would attend and lead services at Temple Beth-El, Pizer said. Since the closure of the base, services have continued to be held on High Holidays and occasionally during the summer, with a member of the congregation usually leading the service.
Today, only about 10 people attend those services and not all of them are Jewish by faith.
“Some of those who attend are such devout Christians that they want to learn more about the Old Testament,” Resnick said. “Sadly, we see the trend continuing of the Jewish community in Alpena shrinking.”