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History of the Jews in Michigan

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Location of Michigan (red) in the United States.

History of Jews in Michigan[edit]

Colonial Michigan[edit]

Following the British conquest of Quebec City in September 1759 and Montréal in September 1760, Jews began settling in Canada.[1] In the 1760s and 1770s, the Michigan territory and parts of Canada constituted a single region, the "Upper Country." Most of the first Jews in Michigan were intimately involved with the early Congregation Shearith Israel, Canada's first Jewish Congregation.[2]

Fort Michilimackinac, Mackinac City.

The first Jew in Michigan, Ezekiel Solomon, arrived in Michigan at Fort Michilimackinac in the Summer of 1761 to obtain furs from American Indians in the territory. He came from Berlin, Germany. His sister Esther Solomon married Moses Hart, brother of Aaron Hart, who is widely considered the Father of Canadian Jewry. He actively participated in the Congregation Shearith Israel and was on its board of directors.[3] In 1779 he founded a general store in Mackinac, and in 1789 he was part of a committee of 8 that organized Michigan's first Board of Trade.[4] In 1762, another Jew, Chapman Abraham, arrived in Michigan Abraham became the first Jew in Detroit when he went there to do business with the merchant James Sterling.[4] He maintained a residence in Detroit until he died in 1783.[5]

Solomon and Abraham worked as commissaries of the British Army during the French and Indian War alongside Levi Solomon, Benjamin Lyon, and Gershon Levi. Solomon and Abraham were captured at various points in 1763 during Pontiac's Rebellion.[3] Solomon was captured during the June 2nd, 1763 massacre at Fort Michilimackinac and later ransomed at Montréal.[6] The Ojibwe captured Abraham as he sailed the Detroit River and condemned him to death. While tied to a stake, they gave him a customary last meal of pottage that he burnt his mouth on. In a rage, he threw it into the face of the man who gave it to him.[7] They considered this proof of insanity and immediately released him, as it "was contrary to their beliefs to kill a madman."[2] The Moravian missionary John Heckewelder later documented Abraham's experience in his History, Manners, and Customs of The Indian Nations who once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States.[7] Heckewelder's account eventually inspired the poet Stephen Benet to write a story of a Jewish fur trader, Jacob and the Indians, in his Tales before Midnight.[8]

John Lawe, British Lieutenant in the War of 1812 and associate justice of Michigan Territory.

Early American Migration[edit]

In early America, most Jews in Michigan resided in the Upper Peninsula. By 1800, most Jews in the Mackinac and Drummond Islands were English. Some served on the British side of the War of 1812; John Lawe, for example, served as a British Lieutenant and took part in the defense of Fort Mackinac during the 1814 Battle of Mackinac Island. Following the Treaty of Ghent, many Americans treated him with animosity due to his former loyalty to the British. Lewis Cass later appointed him as an Associate Justice in the Michigan territory in 1831.[9]

Jacob Franks, John Lawe's Uncle, moved to Mackinac during the War of 1812. Before moving to Mackinac, Franks was a businessman in Wisconsin, having opened the territory's first grist mill. In 1806, he sent ten thousand pounds of deer tallow to Mackinac. While in Mackinac in 1914, he and three others were tasked with inventorying two captured schooners, the USS Scorpion and the USS Tigress.[10]

Mid-to-late 19th century[edit]

Migration to Southeast Michigan[edit]

Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti[edit]

Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti attracted the bulk of Jewish immigration to Michigan in the mid-19th century due to the large pre-existing German community in Washtenaw County and its growing agricultural economy. Growing anti-semitism in Central Europe caused a Jewish diaspora, accelerating immigration to the area. Most worked as peddlers until they could establish themselves in manufacturing, trade, or as craftsmen. Most Jews mentioned in the 1850 Detroit directory came from the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti community, and at least half of the founders of Temple Beth El, Detroit's first Jewish Congregation, had previously lived in the area.[11] Around the same time as settling began in Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti, Jews began to settle lightly along the developing Michigan Central Railroad.[12]

An anti-semitic ad published in The Michigan Argus.

The first Jews in Ann Arbor were the five Weil brothers from Bohemia: Solomon, Leopold, Marcus, Moses, and Jacob. Leopold brought a wife and two kids, and his wife brought her brother and his wife. The five brothers worked together to form a tanning firm called J. Weil and Brothers, which grew to employ more than 100 men.[13] The brothers also regularly held services, including Michigan's first minyanim in 1845.[14] Charles, Henry, and Emanuel Lederer immigrated to Ann Arbor in 1847 from the same village in Bohemia as the Weil brothers. In 1849 they moved to Lansing, Michigan, where they established a tannery, soap factory, and a general store. By 1850, a large community of Jews had settled in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti community.[15] They often faced anti-semitism; for example, in 1851, W.M. Ohara ran an anti-semitic ad in a local newspaper, The Michigan Argus.[16]

In April 1859, Jacob Weil was elected Alderman and, in April 1860, re-elected. In the early 1860s, Moses Weil and his family moved to Chicago, Illinois, and opened a tannery there. Around the same time, Jacob Weil and his family moved to Newark, New Jersey. Over the next decade, the rest of the Weil family migrated to Chicago. With the nexus of Ann Arbor's Jewish community moved elsewhere, the remaining Jews gradually emigrated from Ann Arbor.[17] By 1886 Ann Arbor's Jewish community had vanished, having mostly migrated to Detroit. Soon after, in 1895, William Lansky arrived with his family and became the new heart of the city's Jewish community.[18]


Most early Jewish migrants into Detroit were German Jews, due to the large pre-existing German community in Detroit. Many of the migrants came in family units.[19] Before Rosh Hashanah in September 1850, 12 German Jews organized an Orthodox Jewish congregation called Bet El, later renamed Beth El. They initially congregated in the home of Isaac and Sarah Cozens, before moving to a room above a tobacco store in 1852. Rabbi Samuel Isaacs, previously from New York City, became the congregation's principal leader — he taught, performed circumcisions, and acted as a cantor.[20]

A joke about Jews from the July 27, 1850 issue of the Detroit Free Press.

At the time, the Detroit community was broadly unaware of Jewish culture and customs. The Detroit Free Press regularly described Jews as "mysterious," "cursed," or "wanderers." This sentiment slowly changed as the city grew more accustomed to Jewish culture.[20]

Migration to Western Michigan[edit]

Julius Houseman, Michigan's first Jewish Congressman.

Julius Houseman was Michigan's first Jewish Congressman and a successful businessman. Houseman moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, from Zeckendorf, Bavaria, eventually making his way to Grand Rapids in 1852. He became the first Jew in the city of 3,000.[21] He partnered with Isaac Amberg from Battle Creek to form Amberg & Houseman, a tailoring business.[21] In 1864 he re-organized it as Houseman, Alsberg, & Co until 1876 when he turned it over to his cousin Joseph Houseman. He instead shifted his focus to logging and politics. He also founded and served as president of Temple Emanuel in 1871.[22]

Houseman was a Democrat, serving as Alderman in Grand Rapids from 1863-1870, Kent County representative in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1871-1872, and Mayor of Grand Rapids from 1872-1874. In 1876 he was the Democratic party candidate for Lieutenant Governor. It was suggested that he run for Governor, but he refused. From 1883-1885 he represented Michigan's 5th congressional district in the House of Representatives, becoming Michigan's first Jewish congressman.[22] Houseman's efforts made him the founder and early nucleus of Grand Rapids' Jewish community.

Many followed Houseman into Grand Rapids, including his cousin, Joseph Barth. Barth arrived in Grand Rapids in 1863 and started a dry goods store. He became a member of the city's Masonic Temple and an incorporator of Temple Emanuel, which he was Treasurer of.[23] His brother, Louis Barth, came to Grand Rapids in September 1882, becoming the city's foremost doctor.[24]

In 1881, Edward Israel, son of Mannes and Tillie Israel, Kalamazoo's first Jewish residents, took part in the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition with 23 other men under the leadership of Adolphus Greely. At age 21, he was the youngest member of the expedition.[25] He was in charge of all astronomical and pendulum observations, and Greely regularly referred to him as "a great favorite." He was one of the 18 who died at Cape Sabine in the winter of 1883-1884, on May 27, 1884.[26]

Migration to Northern Michigan[edit]

By 1845, Lewis F. Leopold, his wife, Babette Austrian, their infant son, and his sister Hannah and brother Samuel settled in Mackinac. Samuel and Lewis became commercial fishermen and sent a thousand barrels of salted fish to Cleveland per season. They also sold fishing supplies and traded furs with American Indians. In 1853 Samuel moved to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, joining his siblings Henry, Aaron, Hannah, and Hannah's husband, Julius Austrian. The Austrians and Leopolds became prominent families in Wisconsin, but they also opened several stores in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, at Eagle Harbor, Clifton, Calumet, and Hancock.[27]

In 1846, Edward Kanter arrived in Mackinac and began to work for the Leopolds and Austrians. He was fluent in several languages, including German, French, English, Wyandot, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi. He took over a store in July 1847 and, in August 1847, married the daughter of former state senator Lyman Granger. Kanter entered politics in 1857, running twice for State Treasurer as a Democrat. For eight years, he was a member from Michigan of the Democratic National Committee and was part of the convention which nominated Samuel Tilden for president.[28]

Palestine Colony[edit]

In 1891, Hyman Lewenberg, a German Jew, became acquainted with the bankers Langdon Hubbard and his son Frank Hubbard while peddling in Bad Axe. They offered to sell parcels of land in Huron County to Lewenberg for a low price if he could bring together enough other Jewish purchasers. In July 1891, Lewenberg and eleven other families purchased 660 acres on twelve contiguous plots of land to form a farming town. The following Autumn, three more Jews acquired land in the community.[29]

Except for a German Jew from Detroit, the settlers were Russian Jews from Bay City, Michigan.[30] Idealizing the possibility of a new Zion in America, they named the colony Palestine. They struggled to quickly construct shelter, which forced some to return to Bay City for the Winter. Those who stayed barely subsisted. A passing Jewish peddler saw their conditions and relayed it to the president of Temple Beth El's Hebrew Relief Society, Martin Butzel.[31] Butzel sent Emanuel Woodic, a man with 25 years of farming experience, to survey Palestine.[32] He found a grave situation; the colony had 57 people that shared ten shacks, two cows, and seven horses. They further had cleared only about an acre per plot of land. Butzel raised and entrusted Woodic with $1,200, which he used to purchase each farmer a cow and farming equipment. He then spent the Spring and Summer teaching the farmers to grow and harvest crops.[33]

Butzel also appealed to the Baron de Hirsch fund, which allocated $3,000 in aid to the colony — most of which paid off debts to Langdon and Frank Hubbard.[34] The 1892 Winter was harsh, and Butzel appealed again to the Baron de Hirsch fund, receiving $1,000.[35] The potato crop failed in 1893, and Butzel had to pay for some of the colony's debts. In 1894 the potato crop failed again, but they still made enough money to break even. They also built a small synagogue and a Talmud Torah building around this time.[36] During the Autumn of 1895, the colonists defaulted on their debts and escaped eviction only due to Butzel's efforts. In addition to late land payments, they collectively owed the Hubbards about $1,300 for various pieces of merchandise.[37]

The Hubbard Company sued the colonists, but Butzel successfully argued that the improvements they made to the land more than covered their debts, leading to contract re-negotiations. In 1897, the crop yet again failed.[38] To protect the colony, Butzel attempted to convince the Baron de Hirsch fund to purchase the land from the Hubbards, but they refused. In 1898, however, they sent $1,000 to prevent imminent eviction, but debt continued to fester.[39] Three families abandoned Palestine in the Autumn of 1899, followed by five more in 1900. The colony soon collapsed and reverted to the Hubbards.[40]



  1. Katz 1960, p. 6.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Graff 1970, p. 11.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Katz 1960, p. 7.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Katz 1960, p. 8.
  5. Cohen 2002, p. 7.
  6. Graff 1970, p. 10.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Heckewelder 1819, p. 257-258.
  8. Katz 1960, p. 9.
  9. Heineman 1905, p. 52.
  10. Heineman 1905, p. 53.
  11. Heineman 1905, p. 67.
  12. Heineman 1905, p. 69.
  13. Aminoff 1983, p. 4.
  14. Aminoff 1983, p. 5.
  15. Heineman 1905, p. 67-68.
  16. Aminoff 1983, p. 12.
  17. Aminoff 1983, p. 6.
  18. Aminoff 1983, p. 13.
  19. Rockaway 2015, p. 59.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Rockaway 2015, p. 60.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Katz 1961, p. 10.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Katz 1961, p. 11.
  23. Katz 1961, p. 15.
  24. Edgar 1963, p. 33.
  25. Wamsley 2002, p. 41.
  26. Wamsley 2002, p. 42.
  27. Heineman 1905, p. 58.
  28. Heineman 1905, p. 61-62.
  29. Davidson 1925, p. 62.
  30. Davidson 1925, p. 61.
  31. Davidson 1925, p. 63.
  32. Davidson 1925, p. 64.
  33. Davidson 1925, p. 65.
  34. Davidson 1925, p. 66.
  35. Davidson, p. 67-68.
  36. Davidson 1925, p. 69.
  37. Davidson 1925, p. 70.
  38. Davidson 1925, p. 71.
  39. Davidson 1925, p. 72.
  40. Davidson 1925, p. 73.


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