Written at the invitation of then Mayor Dennis Archer, Judith Levin Cantor's 2001 letter reporting on the Jewish community was sealed in the Detroit 300's Century Box to be opened in 2101.
Greetings to Detroit Region's Citizens of 2101!
The tri-county Detroit metropolitan area, as well as Windsor in Canada's Essex County, has just completed a splendid, year-long 300th birthday celebration. We extend congratulations to you in the Detroit region as you begin your 400th anniversary gala. It is my honor and responsibility to write the letter to you about this area's Jewish community, particularly during the twentieth century.
In a quick review of earlier history, the first Jew who came to British Detroit was Chapman Abraham, a plucky fur trader who arrived by voyageur canoe in 1762 and established a business and residence within the fort of the city. Through the 1800s, adventurous Jews in modest numbers continued to be attracted to this area, which was among the first in America to have a guarantee of religious freedom written into the Northwest Ordinance as well as to offer free public education through high school. Temple Beth El and later Congregation Shaarey Zedek were first established in the mid-nineteenth century in Detroit, and continue as leading Jewish religious organizations of the nation to this day.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the promise of America — of religious freedom and of new opportunity — beckoned to many Jewish people suffering from severe oppression and poverty in Eastern Europe. At that time, Detroit was already one of the nation's leading industrial cities with a healthy thriving economy. Along with other peoples, Jewish immigrants were attracted to this city in large numbers, increasing from 1000 in 1880 to more than 30,000 by the 1920s. Arriving without skills and without capital, but with great ambition and fine dreams of making a better life for themselves and their families, many Jewish immigrants put packs on their back and struck out to make an immediate living as peddlers. These immigrant people also tried to preserve their Jewish religious heritage, transferring their tradition to the new world to be passed on from generation to generation.
These ultimate entrepreneurs, peddlers within Detroit and throughout the towns of Michigan, often developed their businesses into small retail establishments — dry goods stores, shoe stores, shops for drugs, novelties or candy. In addition, those who had put down roots earlier in the nineteenth century, whether of German or Eastern European origin, were by the 1920s operating some of Detroit's successful downtown retail businesses: B. Siegel's and Himelhochs on Woodward Avenue; Sam's Cut Rate; People's Outfitting; Cunningham Drug Stores; and Winkelman's Women's Apparel.
In answer to the pressing needs of the many immigrants, in 1899 Rabbi Leo M. Franklin of Temple Beth El led the consolidation of the then-existing self-help charitable groups into a central philanthropic agency, the United Jewish Charities. David W. Simons, who later was elected to Detroit's City Council, was its first president and Fred M. Butzel, a valued leader. One of the charter groups was the Hebrew Free Loan Association, which was first established to make interest-free loans to needy newcomers so that they could get a start by buying goods for their pack. The Fresh Air Society camp was begun in 1902. A first Jewish community center was built in 1903; boys' clubs and the Boy Scouts were introduced along with vocational training and sports teams. United Jewish Charities evolved over the years into the current Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, a major philanthropic and social service agency up to this time and for the future.
In 1912, Rabbi Judah L. Levin led a march of rabbis, community leaders and supporters down Detroit's Brush Street in a drive to raise money to build a Jewish hospital. With the slogan "Buy a Brick to Save the Sick," $7,000 in nickels and dimes was collected from the neighborhood Jewish people. Reinvested through the years, four decades later the resultant substantial sum was contributed to the building fund, which led to the opening of Sinai Hospital in 1953. Sinai Hospital continued to serve the city as a leading medical and research facility for over forty-five years, but with changes in the economics of health care, it was sold to the Detroit Medical Center and in 1999 merged as Sinai/Grace Hospital. The proceeds of the sale of Sinai Hospital were established in the Jewish Fund, which continues to provide citywide grants for health care as well as support for the Detroit Medical Center.
Even in the days before the Emancipation Proclamation, Detroit Jewish people stood in opposition to slavery and have continued to work for social justice to the present time. In the 1850s, Rabbi Leibman Adler of Temple Beth El was an early preacher for abolition, and despite the law of the land, Mark Sloman and other Jews were assisting runaway slaves escape to Canada via the Underground Railway. During the Civil War, from only 151 Jewish families in all of Michigan, 181 men and boys enlisted to fight in the Union Armies. Moreover, throughout the twentieth century; there is a proud record of rabbis, community leaders, and Jewish organizations working to educate against discrimination and for the passage of the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1967, in the face of dangerous hostility, Detroit Jewish lawyers joined their black colleagues in the South to implement voter registration. As the century draws to a close, Jewish citizens continue to lead in the ongoing effort to break down racial barriers, to enforce fair housing, and to bring about harmony among all peoples.
Education of their children was the highest priority for the early immigrants. As soon as a family was economically viable, the children were sent to college. Consequently, a strong professional class developed, including doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, accountants, teachers, social workers, etc. This continues to this day, when indeed Michigan is represented by a senator in the United States Congress, Carl Levin, who is a member of the Jewish faith.
In the field of architecture, the accomplishments of Albert Kahn, a son of an immigrant rabbi, constitute a distinguished part of the urban scene throughout the Detroit region. Hired in 1910 to design the first factory to accommodate an assembly line for Henry Ford, Kahn later designed the Fisher Building, known as the "Jewel of Detroit," as well as numerous other distinguished industrial, public, and private structures.
Following World War II, the Detroit area's new tax codes encouraged the development of office buildings and shopping centers outside the central city, while expressways to the outskirts of the city were cut through established residential districts. Furthermore, in common with numerous other Detroiters, as families prospered and as the metropolitan area developed new residential areas, many Jewish families moved in a northwesterly direction into the suburbs. New synagogues and community institutions and ethnic shops followed the building of new Jewish neighborhoods, which currently stretch from Oak Park on the south to West Bloomfield on the north.
The Jewish population of the metropolitan area today approaches 100,000. Jewish people have continued a significant presence in the city of Detroit itself in many important ways. They contribute outstanding personal leadership as well as significant philanthropy to all the major cultural institutions of the city, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony, the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Zoological Society, and the medical centers. A visionary without equal is Max Fisher, a leader in the remaking of the face of Detroit's cultural center. Jews are strongly represented in the Detroit legal community, as judges as well as lawyers; as physicians in the Detroit Medical Center; and on the faculty of Wayne State University. Moreover, Jewish builders are investing heavily in the revival of the city, at Brush Park north of downtown, at Campus Martius, as well as in the restoration for re-use of historic buildings. Three small Jewish congregations continue their presence in urban Detroit.
Furthermore, the Detroit Jewish Initiative is an organized multi-faceted commitment of the Jewish community to the city of Detroit. One of the most visible projects, in partnership with other foundations and donors, is the rehabilitation of several urban recreation centers, which are under the auspices of the City of Detroit Department of Recreation. This is an important contribution, which recognizes that the success of the city of Detroit is vital to the success of all peoples in the metropolitan region.
Certainly, the Jews of the Detroit area have been shaped by the cataclysmic international events of the 20th century — mass emigration, two world wars, the Holocaust, and the birth of the state of Israel. Facing the challenge of assimilation, through Jewish education and a strong synagogue community, they have tried to maintain their Jewish identity and heritage, while continuing to make vital contributions to Detroit life — as did that first Jew to arrive in Detroit in 1762, fur trader Chapman Abraham.
I cannot predict how life will be for you Detroiters in the twenty-second century. The technology of our own time is moving so fast as to bring incredible changes and speed to our lives on a regular basis. But the excitement of the 300th birthday of Detroit has left our region invigorated, with a revived waterfront, the promise of a new downtown, and closer to re-realizing its potential as a great metropolis. I trust that the twenty-second century finds this area thriving and prospering and its people living in peace.
With warmest wishes,
Judith Levin Cantor
Dec. 31, 2001
This letter was published in Volume 42 of JHSM's Michigan Jewish History.