01 June 2009

Detroit: Beth El archives hold Jewish history

The archives of Temple Beth El are like the local Smithsonian, according to a local volunteer. If your family had connections to that synagogue, founded in 1850 by 12 German immigrant families, you may find very personal information.

In addition to congregational history, the archives - today located in suburban Bloomfield Hills - also hold community history back to 1850.

Among the holdings are 800 family files, wedding invitations, photos, some 2,000 eulogies delivered 1953-1996 by Rabbi Richard Hertz, Great Depression-era letters by temple members asking for help, Jewish War Veterans records, synagogue architectural records, and congregational organization records (such as sisterhoods).

Additionally, the archives seeks family history files from other area congregations.

The archives is headed by director Jan Durecki, with the help of volunteers Joanie Schott and Marlene Lipman.
Joanie Schott sorts through photographs of her ancestors. The Livonia woman takes pride in the family whose association with Temple Beth El goes back to her mother's confirmation in 1914. At the time the synagogue was located in Detroit.

Today Schott sits in the second floor climate-controlled archive on the campus of the Bloomfield Hills location where she volunteers every Monday. The historical records tell a story not only of the temple but the Jewish community since 1850 when the congregation was founded by 12 German immigrant families who gathered in the home of Isaac and Sarah Cozens.
Once a week, volunteers spend hours cataloging the materials. Durecki works on her own the rest of the time. The archives is named after Rabbi Leo M. Franklin who headed Beth El from 1899-1941; he was a leader of the Reform movement.
The reason for the archives is to maintain and make accessible for the community administrative documents for auxiliaries like the sisterhood,” said Durecki. “Of special interest is families. We have over 800 family files from a complete history to a few documents. It's good to have one safe place instead of being dispersed to cousins.”

“I can always visit my aunt and uncle here,” added Schott. “I can visit this whenever I want. Someday my great grandchildren can come and look in the boxes and have access to all this information. My grandmother's wedding invitation, Emma Epstein, from 1891, pictures of me and my twin brother, my mother and father in the 1920s, poetry my grandmother wrote.”
Durecki is researching the Aron HaKodesh, the cabinet that holds the congregation's Torah scrolls, originally from the 1903 structure.
“It's an important part of our service to the community,” said Durecki. “We have history about Temple Beth El but also the community. We welcome family histories from all congregations. I like to think there's a story to be told.”
Schott found eulogies for her parents, and Lipman is preparing a spreadsheet of the 2,000+ eulogies. The rabbi wrote notes about the deceased on envelopes which sat in filing cabinets until Wayne State University intern Robbie Termin began to organize the material.
“This is history,” said Lipman, whose family background is traced back to Europe. Her father was the first to come to this country. “There's a sermon given after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. It's been interesting to look back at the death of Abraham Lincoln.”
Says Durecki, "Where do you go to retrieve history? ... You have to put things together for yourself, have to be a history detective."

Read the complete article here.

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