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Phyllis Wenig

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Interviewee:  PHYLLIS WENIG
Interviewer: Lawrence Boocker
Interview Date: January 18, 2018
Location: Troy, MI
Interview No.: 01.18.18-PhyllisW (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length 60 minutes)
Transcription: Yousaidit (DS), Fiverr

Themes: Jewish Identity, Doctrine, Observance, Upbringing

Summary: In this interview, Phyllis Wenig speaks of her upbringing in a Jewish community, affiliation with a Reform congregation, the influence of a respected Rabbi, and the importance of her involvement in Jewish youth and leadership groups. She has positive views on Orthodox Jewish practices, which were formed by her first marriage to an Orthodox Jewish man and more recently by her son’s marriage to an Orthodox woman.  As she talks about the early formation of Congregation Shir Tikvah in 1982, Phyllis recounts the early Hebrew school in Troy, her “parking lot” meeting with Pam Spitzer, the first group meetings, housing the early student rabbis, and her feeling that the group “invented it as it went along”.

Citation form
Boocker, L. (Interviewer) & Wenig, P. (Interviewee). (2018). Phyllis Wenig: Jewish Journeys [Interview transcropt]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah: /cstoralhistoryarchive

 

INTERVIEW Transcript

 

Note:  Counter index corresponds to track times when loaded into iTunes.

 [00:00:00]

Interviewer: The name of the interviewer is Larry Boocker. The name of the Phyllis is Phyllis Wenig. Today's date is January 18th, 2017. We are in the library of congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, Michigan, and the purpose of the interview is to discuss Jewish identity. You've signed an agreement allowing you to be interviewed and for the interview to be posted on our website. Is that correct?

Interviewee: Absolutely.

Interviewer: Okay. Let's get started. I'm going to start with a question that I've asked before, which is what did Jewish identity mean to you when you were a child?

Interviewee: It was absolutely central. I grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, which was analogous to like West Bloomfield in the Michigan area. It was a very wealthy community just outside of the city limits where a lot of people worked in the Wall Street and all kinds of industries in Manhattan, and there was a large Jewish population there. We had one street that had four synagogues. I don't remember the exact thing, but our family belonged to the largest Reform Synagogue. It was not a choice. We had to go to Sunday school every Sunday. This was the age of classical Reform Judaism, so, there was no Bat Mitzvah for girls, so I did not train for that.

I also got very active in the youth group. I was active in everything that went on. The public schools actually closed down for the high holidays because there were so many kids out of class that they couldn't get a census on those days.

Our rabbi was unbelievable. He was the head of the Jewish organization. What is it? American Hebrew Congregations or something. He looked like a lion and he was like a lion. He was an intellectual force, he was a physical force, he was a spiritual force in the days when Reformed Judaism was pretty cut and dry. He also had many political views and I remember sermons in my adolescence on Vietnam when nobody even knew where Vietnam was, and why we should not be there. It was just amazing.

Our school went through what they call confirmation in those days, and it was probably very much like a Christian confirmation. I've pictures of my class all in robes and, but then after that we had a seminar class with our rabbi as our high school program, and it was absolutely phenomenal. We would sit around a wonderful table in the library and we'd discuss all kinds of things and he'd discuss what the foundations of Judaism were and we'd read things and then we discuss them and we debate them, and it was just an incredibly stimulating youth as far as Judaism was concerned.

I was very active in the youth group, and so in the summers, at least one summer, possibly two, I went to Reform camps. Not the camps for kids, I went to the leadership conferences and so I was at one conference, I remember, and we were creating a chapel, we had to clear the tree of poison ivy, and I came back covered from head to toe with poison ivy. I had walked through poison ivy with my girl scout troop many times and never got it, but I got it that year. Another time, I had gone to a Jewish camp in the New York area. A lot of kids go away for the whole summer, just sleep away camp, and we went to a camp that was owned by several Jewish families, and then one day I showed up and it was owned by a Catholic family, with it had 50 men, 12 kids. I showed up as a camp counselor. I was a swimming and horseback riding counselor and nobody was in camp and I said, “What's going on here?” I followed the noise and ended up at the stables. As I'm approaching, I hear everybody yelling, “Come on father. Come on father,” and I'm thinking he can't be everybody's father. That was my first introduction to Father Vejon, who was a teacher at Fairfield Prep in Connecticut, which is a big Catholic Prep School. We would sit up, the chutzpah I had, we'd sit up at night and debate spirituality and the essence of what you have to be to be a Jew and the essence of what you have to be, to be a catholic.

Interviewer: Well, there's so much there that I really want to ask some more about. Let me start with your parents. It was important to them that you have a Jewish upbringing and also formal Jewish education?

[00:05:00]

Interviewee: Yes, absolutely.

Interviewer: Did they just push you into it or are they practicing also?

Interviewee: No, my parents really weren't practicing religion very much. My father was raised by immigrants and he educated himself and but he was proud of his Jewish identity, I think at a time when it wasn't always easy. My mother was raised on the Lower East Side and they were a very poor family. I think her father was handicapped for most of her life, and so, they really didn't have any formal education as far as Jews were concerned.

I think it was part of the package when we moved to the suburbs and we were Jewish. They wanted their children have the education and maybe it also was being part of a community and it may have been like, I don't want to say keeping up with the Joneses, but may have been they wanted to fit in because it was a large Jewish community there, so, having an affiliation was kind of the norm.

Interviewer: Would you say the social aspect of going to synagogue and also a Jewish education was important? They wanted you to have that social experience?

Interviewee: Yeah, they did. They wanted us to know what it meant to be Jewish, even though they weren't doing too much at home. We did the holidays, but we were pretty reliable about Shabbos and things like that. It was interesting because they weren't spiritual Jews, they were more cultural Jews, but when I got into, I keep wanting to say a Atidah because that's what we called it, Atidah, the confirmation class.

I led that class for many years, but when I got into confirmation, I was required to go to services on a regular basis. I had to go X number of services a month. My dad started going. He actually wanted to go more than I wanted to go. I found out he had a spiritual side that he'd never explored. So we'd never took it too far, but he really enjoyed going to services, but it was not usual.

Interviewer: What about your spiritual side, were you feeling the spirituality or was it a lot of well, just socialization as well as ritual?

Interviewee: No, the side of it that really appealed to me was the intellectual side, the learning, knowing what my heritage was, it wasn't emphasized, but whatever opportunities there were to be spiritual, I was right there. I felt comfortable and I wanted to be a part of it. It was more likely to come up at a youth conclave with our youth group things, our youth group experiences than it was, but I wasn't around the synagogue that much. Come to think of it, if I'd gone to services more, I would have had more spirituality, but when there was opportunities to be spiritual during services, I was very open to that. I had no problems.

Interviewer: How do you think that, or rather, what was it that drew you to leadership positions?

Interviewee: I don't know. It was a friendship group, and I was comfortable, and I guess I had leadership qualities, I don't know. It was more like taking responsibility. I was willing to take responsibility rather than feeling like I wanted to run everything.

Interviewer: Okay. Well, but I mean I just found out that you became a psychotherapist, which is a way of helping other people. Did you feel that as a youth leader that you wanted to help other people your age or younger?

Interviewee: Yeah, I guess I've always been a flaming co-dependent. I wanted the youth group to survive, and to be attractive to other kids, and to have a good programming and things like that. Same thing we've done at Shir Tikvah, same thing when I started the youth group here, I started the Atidah program. I wanted it to be appealing, so I was willing to put the work in to make it so that people would get involved and they enjoy themselves.

Interviewer: Okay. Well, let's go back to, before I get there though, it sounds like you were into certain sports, horseback riding and-

Interviewee: Not too much. I did a minimal amount of stuff. I wasn't really very good or very competitive.

Interviewer: What I'm wondering about though is whether the time that you have to put in to all of the Jewish studies and leadership was in conflict with other things that you wanted to do in the secular world?

Interviewee: No, it was pretty compartmentalized. It was done during the times that, like anything else, you integrate it into your life.  it was done mainly on weekends,

[00:10:00]

but if you were planning something special, like a youth group activity, you might have a committee meeting, on a weekday evening or some other time, but these people were also my friends, so we would get together sometimes and plan things.

The high school in my town was outstanding. I didn't realize it at the time, but years later when I was in adult in Detroit, the New York Times published a list of the top 10 or 12 high schools in the entire country, and mine was one of two public high schools on that list, and the rest of them were like Stuyvesant where my husband went, Bronx High School of Science, some specialized schools in California, things like that. I went to a very good school and I was a good student. I didn't break my neck, but, you know.

Interviewer: Do you think you were inspired at all by the rabbi? He was kind of modeling leadership to you.

Interviewee: Yeah, he was a tremendous influence.

Interviewer: Did you ever feel like you wanted some of what he had?

Interviewee: Yeah, he really inspired us to be proud to be Jews, to look into our heritage. He was bigger than life. He actually married Paul and I. He came out of retirement and drove down from Connecticut to marry us in my parents' home. It was my second marriage, and it was a small wedding, and it was just a very nice thing for him to do. Yeah, he was larger than life, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, he was the head of it for years and years. It wasn't like a term where you-

Interviewer: Sorry, what was his name?

Interviewee: Rabbi Jacob Rupp.

Interviewer: Okay.

Interviewee: I think even now, I don't know if it's a term or you just serve in that position until you've had it, but the whole time that I was growing up and we were a member of that synagogue, he was the leader of the Reform Movement in the country.

Interviewer: I think it's changed from UAHC to CCAR, but it's the same thing.

Interviewee: Yeah, exactly.

Interviewer: Okay. I want to go back to the incident where you had to discuss religion with-

Interviewee: The priest.

Interviewer: -and a Catholic group. Girls your age or younger perhaps?

Interviewee: No, it wasn't religion. This was a camp and everybody was doing their thing and I got a job as a counselor. This was like at 11:00 at night when everybody was asleep, and Father Vejon and I would have these philosophical talks.

Interviewer: Was it eye opening to you?

Interviewee: Oh yeah. Well, I learned a good deal about Catholicism. I learned that no matter how many things you do, what do they call them? The rituals.

Interviewer: Sacraments.

Interviewee: Yeah, sacraments. No matter how many sacraments you do, and how good at Catholic you are, that if you don't believe in Christ in your heart, then you are not a catholic. You literally are not a Catholic. That was his way of explaining it. You may look like a Catholic to the outside world and hopefully you'll do good things, but it is required to be a true believer.

Interviewer: Did it help shine any light on your own Jewish belief to have these discussions?

Interviewee: I explained to him in my chutzpah.

Interviewer: How old were you at the time?

Interviewee: Maybe 16, that a Jew does not need to believe anything, but my rabbi had taught us that by practicing, and by learning, and by observing, you will come to believe so that you are Jewish if you say you're Jewish, you're Jewish if the community says you're Jewish, and you're Jewish, if you're born of a Jewish mother, and beyond that there are no other requirements and that the more you learn and the more you observe, the more you will come to believe.

Interviewer: Okay. You never had any discussions though that challenged your beliefs or forced you to change your beliefs?

Interviewee: Absolutely not.

Interviewer: Not that kind of discussion?

Interviewee: No.

Interviewer: Where did you go to college?

Interviewee: I went to the University of Buffalo, which later became State University of New York at Buffalo. I was there for two years when it was a private school and then the state took it over the following two years.

Interviewer: What was Jewish life like there? Was there not many or was there a lot?

Interviewee: No, there wasn't much of anything. They didn't have

[00:15:00]

much of a Greek society. I eventually joined a Jewish Sorority, SDT, but they didn't have houses, they were more like clubs, and there was no activities that I knew of. There was no Hillel. There was nothing that really tied me to my religion on campus.

Interviewer: Well, while you were there, did you do Jewish things? Did you maintain some sort of Jewish life? Did you observe holidays? Did you go to services?

Interviewee: Nope. There wasn't any synagogue near the campus that I knew of. I was part of the Jewish Sorority and so we did some observances occasionally when the holidays came up. I usually went home for holidays. I went home for Passover usually. The High Holidays, I must've gone home. It was a maybe a 12-hour drive, and we'd all carpool and head for home for the holidays.

Interviewer: Were you thinking of being a psychotherapist at the time? Is that what you were going for?

Interviewee: Yes.

Interviewer: You always knew what it was, is that you wanted to be?

Interviewee: Yeah. I wanted to be a social worker. I don't know how or why maybe working on family problems or whatever. Yes, I did. When I went to University of Buffalo, I actually applied for and got an opportunity to participate in psychological research and to do studies and everything. I was working with a professor, Dr. Gear, and my name was on the studies as well as his, and we were doing fear research and it was a lot of fun. I did it for three years and everybody in the psychology department, all the professors got to know me, and they were saying, “Oh, she's going to be psychology, she's going to go for a PhD. This social work thing is bull.” There was one social worker on the faculty and she said, “Nope, she's us.” She won. I stayed with social work.

Interviewer: Well, I can't help but occurred to me that Jews invented psychotherapy. Did that occur to you at the time that many people thought of psychotherapy as a Jewish thing?

Interviewee: I don't think so. I just thought it as a helping thing. It was something that interested me. I took a major in. Well, you couldn't take an exact-- Psychology it wasn't an area of major study. It was like, so like I did a major in psychology, but I also had to do other core classes, but that was just what interested me. I just felt people were fascinating and I’ve always wanted to find out more. So part it was helping and part of it was the fascination, purely an interest.

Interviewer: Okay, coming out of college, did you do graduate work for your career?

Interviewee: Well, yes I did. When I finished college, you have to do a master's degree in social work where you can major as an undergraduate, but if you wanted to do any professional work, you need to do a master's in social work. I started, I actually got married to an Orthodox man who I met in college. He was doing his PhD work.

Interviewer: In Buffalo?

Interviewee: Yes, he was doing his PhD at the University of Buffalo or it was Sunny B at the time. I was doing my undergraduate. He finished up his PhD and I finished up my bachelors at the same time, and then we couldn't quite decide what was going to happen, but we decided to get married the following year, which was my first year of graduate school and his first year of working on a job, and because he was Orthodox, we had to live in an Orthodox area. So, we lived in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey.

I've lived in all the wonderful cities, Buffalo, Detroit. We lived there and we observed an orthodox lifestyle and I went to Wurtzweiler School of Social Work, which was part of Yeshiva University to start out, and that was necessary. It was a good school anyway, but it was necessary because you got off early on Friday and you could get home in time and make Shabbos, so, that was it.

Interviewer: Feel free to change the subject if you want, but I want to ask what it was like coming from a Reform background and all of a sudden being thrust into an Orthodox world?

Interviewee: Right, right. I dated, gentleman's name was Murray. I dated Murray for most of my senior year in college,

[00:20:00]

and we weren't part of an Orthodox community. In fact, his closest friends were a Catholic couple. My introduction to Orthodoxy was very lovely. It was just the two of us.

Interviewer: Would you describe him as modern Orthodox then?

Interviewee: Not really, but he came from a very frum traditional family, but he was away, living on his own. He was doing his own thing.

Interviewer: But he wasn't Hasidic or any of those sorts of things?

Interviewee: No. Yeah, that's right. Yeah. He also, I'm trying to remember I think you're right because he might've met the, I didn't think at the time or know what modern orthodoxy was, but he would wear a hat a lot. He'd have a yarmulke under it, but I think during the week when he was in graduate classes, he wasn't wearing anything on his head, so, he probably was by current definition, modern orthodox. His family was extremely frum, not pe’ot, they weren't Hasidic, but they were extremely Orthodox and they lived in Borough Park. They had a big house on the corner in Borough Park, which is probably worth a fortune.

Interviewer: Would you know what his family thought about the marriage?

Interviewee: They hated it. Absolutely hated it. They wouldn't talk with me.

Interviewer: You weren’t frum enough for them.

Interviewee: Oh, absolutely not. They might as well have married somebody who was Christian. They were supposed to meet me. We were supposed to-- We sat around their dining room table and his father looked through a magazine, wouldn't even talk with me. His mother was making a little bit of polite talk, but it was a disaster, and my parents weren't happy either.

My parents were glad I was marrying somebody Jewish, but they saw marrying somebody Orthodox as a major problem for my entire future with my family, because we'd never be able to be together on holidays. We'd never be able to be together on weekends. They saw I couldn't travel. I wouldn't be able to eat their food, and they really saw it as a major barrier to our future as a family, and my being included in everything.

I'm one of four girls. The four of us are within four years of each other. I'm the oldest. The next one is 18 months younger and then twins came 18 months after that, so, we were a pretty close family. It doesn’t mean we always got along, and so, my parents almost saw my marrying somebody orthodox as I was going to have to drop out of the family. It was a disaster.

Interviewer: Were there issues like that where you became separated from your family more?

Interviewee: Well, we weren't married for that long, so that solved that problem.

Interviewer: How long were you married?

Interviewee: We were married for about two years maybe, two years. We relocated to Detroit together.

Interviewer: Why did you come to Detroit?

Interviewee: He got a job here. The school of social work, I had a horrible supervisor who was giving me a really hard time and they acted like they were going along with her and then they said, “Oh, discard everything she said,” but I've been put through so much crap. I was ready to transfer schools. We moved here together and lived in Southfield, Oak Park, I think, I'm sorry. Being near a synagogue and I had a wonderful experience. The experience in Buffalo was wonderful. We made Shabbos and we had kugel and it was very relaxing and it was not stifling in any way.

When we moved to Detroit together, it was very nice. We were part of an Orthodox community and the Rabbi and the Rebbetzin were around the corner. Were wonderful people who were very bright. Summa cum laude from Wayne State University, were very welcoming, and so, I was not made to do anything I didn't want. I did have to go to the Mikvah in the beginning, but just once, I didn't have to go regularly. He didn't make me go. I didn't have to wear Sheitel. I didn't have to go to services. I didn't have to do anything that I wasn't comfortable with or didn't want to do.

Interviewer: Were there things that you were introduced to in terms of Orthodox practice that you found yourself enjoying?

Interviewee: Oh yes. I loved Shabbos. I absolutely love it. Now that we're talking about it, this experience, even though it was a brief period of my life, really reflected in what I've done with this congregation because when we started the high school program, and we had a 3-year rotating program, and one of the segment, each one of the years programs,

[00:25:00]

was divided into three or four parts.

One of the parts of one of the years was comparative Judaism and one of the segments was on orthodoxy. We took the entire class to Machon L'torah, which was in Southfield, and we spent Shabba’s in people's homes, having home hospitality, and walking to synagogue, and going to lectures, and having Shabbos meals, and having the kids worry about whether they could tear the toilet paper and accidentally putting lights on. I felt this was an incredibly important part of that. They went to Simchat Torah in an Orthodox synagogue and they were actually allowed to carry the Torah, which was very generous. That's it.

I felt that learning about orthodoxy was an important part of a Jewish education. Whether you were that observant or not, and I incorporated in everything that we did with the kids.

Interviewer: How did you feel when you were attending orthodox services which must've been dramatically different than the services that you were used to?

Interviewee: I very seldom attended. I really very seldom attended. I was allowed to stay home, and to sleep, and to move things up and down on the block.

Interviewer: You didn’t think you’d enjoy them or get much out of them?

Interviewee: No, I didn't know much Hebrew. I did have Hebrew. I've always been a lousy language student. I've tried to learn Hebrew several times in my life, not too successfully.

Interviewer: At the time when you were growing up, Reformed Service was mostly English.

Interviewee: Yes, except for the standard prayers, which I pretty much knew by heart and there was transliteration like we have here, much more English though, exactly. My, parenthetically, my son has married a modern Orthodox woman, and so now when we go to visit with them, we have a totally Orthodox household that's totally observant, and I have the option of going to services there, and I am sitting in the women's section, and I'm still not able to follow the service, and so I usually go when I'm there with my grandkids or my daughter in law, and there's usually some event or a holiday going on, my grandkids naming’s and things like that. My son's aufruf, but it's uncomfortable to be in a service where you don't know what's going on, but on the other hand, when you're with people who understand and who are not negative about you and are loving, then you settle in and do the best you can.

Interviewer: It’s never made you feel like, “Oh, this is for me. I should become orthodox.”

Interviewee: No, I actually enjoy and do not object to any of the rituals that are involved in your life and in your living your life. The services are uncomfortable for somebody who doesn't know Hebrew very well.

Interviewer: Would you also have objections to the women's sitting separately?

Interviewee: No, not really. If that's what feels comfortable for them that's fine for me. I don't feel lower. I know that, again, my introduction to orthodoxy through my daughter-in-law and her family has been incredible. They have been the most wonderful welcoming people. Unfortunately, her mother died several years ago, but we would sit at their table on Shabbat and holidays, and there would always be the blessing for over the children and there would always be, and my daughter-in-law's father would bless his wife and sing her praises at every single event.

Interviewer: There's much to admire in this lifestyle for you?

Interviewee: Yes, yes. It was warm. It was welcoming. We were not looked down on. My son was not looked down on because he didn't have the same background. He was allowed to do whatever he wanted, not do whatever he didn't want. I remember when his father-in-law took him to Borough Park to buy tefillin and he said, “You don't have to wear it, but I just want you to have it in case.” That's a very wonderful way to be.

Interviewer: Because it's an echo of your own experience, I do have to ask. As a parent, were you a little apprehensive before the marriage that it would cause a separation in your family?

Interviewee: No, I don't think so because I met Naomi first, and she was wonderful and we can eat out. Obviously, we can't travel on Shabbat, since we'll all have to be together one place or the other, but she will eat fish and she will eat vegetarian. She does observe the dietary rules in terms of absolutely wanting kosher meat if she's going to have meat, and the amount of time between dairy and meat is observed.

[00:30:00]

She won't turn lights off and on, but if you do, nobody's going to bat an eyelash. If they're benshing if you want to join them, that's fine. If you don’t want to that’s fine.

Interviewer: They’re okay eating at your house?

Interviewee: Yes, we have worked it out so that everything's on paper or plastic. There are separate utensils for either one. The pots have been toiveled or they've been koshered. The food is all kosher or it's acceptable. It's dairy. There are some Orthodox people who would not make those things, but like she's apparently should be kosher, but she doesn't make a deal about that in their own home. When I shop for them, I buy kosher cheese. I do a lot of shopping for them. I've got my daughter in Florida is married to an Ecuadorian, so down there we shop organic and in New Jersey we shop kosher so, it gets a little confusing.

Interviewer: Let’s talk about when you're, before we get to that, let's get to your second marriage, which was how long after your first one ended?

Interviewee: Years and years after, eight five years.

Interviewer: That’s many years after.

Interviewee: Yeah, right.

Interviewer: How did you meet Paul?

Interviewee: I met Paul through mutual friends. After my divorce I needed a roommate and so I went through one roommate and then I was looking for another roommate, and I found this girl from New York, and so we roomed together. I got to know her boyfriend and she and her boyfriend were very close friends of Paul's. So we met through them.

Interviewer: You came to the Detroit area because your husband got a job here, but then after that marriage ended, you stayed in Detroit?

Interviewee: I stayed in Detroit. Right, absolutely.

Interviewer: Any reason why?

Interviewee: Yeah. I liked Detroit. New York was a bit much and I had made some friends here even among the Orthodox community, and I felt like it was more manageable. The lifestyle and just in general I felt like it would be easier to make my way in Detroit than it would be to do it in New York.

Interviewer: You mentioned that your parents were a little apprehensive with your first marriage, but were still, it was important to them that you marry somebody Jewish?

Interviewee: Yes.

Interviewer: You think they got worried after that marriage ended and what did they think about Paul?

Interviewee: They like Paul. He was a little stiff and they-

Interviewer: Were they relieved though that he was Jewish?

Interviewee: Yeah, and his mom was really relieved. He had dated some girls that weren't Jewish. Yeah. Yes, of course. They were delighted, but Paul and I dated for like four years. He was going through his residency. I met him during his internship and then we started dating when he started his residency. We just dated and we had a great time and we were exclusive, but we never really discussed it, and towards the end of that four years, I said, “I don't mean to be rude, but are you thinking about marriage at any point?” He said, “Oh yeah,” and I said, maybe this is too personal, but I said, “What did you have in mind?” He said, “Oh, when I finish my residency.” I said, “That's about four months away,” and he said, “Yeah, it is.” He said, “What was going to happen here? We’re going to ask me or we’re going to have a wedding?” Well, I figured we figure it out, so, we went from there, but my parents did like Paul and they were very happy.

Interviewer: With Judaism, before you had children together, but after you got marriage, was Judaism a significant part of your life then?

Interviewee: Yeah, I think Judaism was always an important part of my life. I just really identified as being Jewish and I realized that there isn't a time in my life when it wasn't important. I didn't observe much in college, but then in the last year of college, I was with somebody that was Orthodox and then I got married and I was Orthodox for two years, and then when I got divorced, I think I-- I don't remember what I did is as far as observance, I don't think we did very much, but I think I was always-

Interviewer: Did you change when you had children, did you feel responsibility for Jewish upbringing?

Interviewee: Yes. Oh my God. First of all, that bris was a trauma, but it had to happen, so we had to hire a Mohel, and we had to have a bris in our apartment at Somerset

[00:35:00]

and I stood as far back as possible, and then, because I guess-

Interviewer: You hadn't observed a bris before in any capacity?

Interviewee: I don't think so. I don't think so. Yeah, and we also had a pidyon ha ben which was, I forget what the criteria is.

Interviewer: Well, he was the first born son. That's the redeeming of the first born son.

Interviewee: That was it, so we had that. Yeah. Thank you for that, and so we got involved, but-

Interviewer: But you said you had to have a bris, but you didn't, you chose?

Interviewee: Oh, absolutely. No, there was no question. We were Jewish, Paul was raised Orthodox, which is one of the reasons he doesn't want to go to synagogue, but no, it was very important. This congregation exists because I had children. I really believe that. The whole thing happened because I had to have a place to go for my kids on high holidays.

Interviewer: Well, we'll get there in a minute, but even before that though, so you have children and you feel a responsibility that they be raised with Jewish?

Interviewee: Some identity and some knowledge about Judaism, yup. We did holidays when the kids were little.

Interviewer: Would you say you were being more observant because of your children because you wanted to show them what it was like?

Interviewee: Yes, absolutely.

Interviewer: What kind of things were you doing that you hadn't done before?

Interviewee: I don't know if there weren't things we hadn't done before, we just did them with more emphasis and put more time and energy into it. The problem was high holidays, we were away from my family and we needed to find a place to go. When they were little, it wasn't that much of an issue, but as they got older, I think for a couple of years, Paul and I went to, there was a congregation that was held in, I think it was Ford Auditorium where you could go and you didn't have to join a congregation. I think we went down there for holidays. We certainly did Passover. I think we tried to get home to our families and do Passover with them or made our own Passover and people came here, but then when the kids came-

Interviewer: Before, you had children, you were doing the Seder?

Interviewee: Yes, oh, absolutely. There was always a Seder and there was always like holidays and let's see what else was there. There wasn't that much more, but that was, yeah. Sukkah, if we were invited someplace.

Interviewer: Your children are getting a little older now and it's time for them to get more formal Jewish education?

Interviewee: Right. It wasn't so much the education. Oh yeah, it was actually, because before we even started thinking about a congregation, they were actually being educated. United Hebrew School had opened a little branch here.

Interviewer: Well, besides the fact that you wanted them to have a Jewish education, were there also a social issue or you wanted them to be around other Jewish children?

Interviewee: Absolutely. We lived in Troy. There were no Jews.

Interviewer: You were worried that they weren't being exposed to that?

Interviewee: Exactly, and I didn't want to move. We liked living in Troy, but we definitely wanted to create some contact with other Jewish people.

Interviewer: What was your objection to United Hebrew School?

Interviewee: I had no objection. I was delighted. I was absolutely delighted. United Hebrew School was actually a conservative organization, and I was delighted. I felt that whatever they could give my kids, I absolutely loved it. I felt that I got a great education, but I got shortchanged in terms of spirituality and the concept of God, and my kids were in this little kindergarten, it was in a storefront dance school, and there were four kids, and then there were six kids, and they were coming home singing songs about a shemesh here, shemesh there, shemesh everywhere, and I thought that was absolutely wonderful.

Interviewer: You decided that you wanted to start a different school?

Interviewee: No, United Hebrew School was the start of our congregation and they were our school for many, many years. They were the Troy Jewish Congregation School.

Interviewer: Oh, I see.

Interviewee: Yeah, we contracted with them. They were just our school. I don't know if there was any formal contraction. They were the core that started us.

Interviewer: What made you want to start an actual congregation?

Interviewee: It got to the point where I think my son was six years old. I did not want them going to school on the high holidays, so we went to Beth Jacob and I was not pleased with our experience there. We went for Rosh Hashanah-

Interviewer: You’re going to get Pontiac with them?

Interviewee: It was in Pontiac, right.

[00:40:00]

We went for Rosh Hashanah and we went for Yom Kippur, and it just wasn't right. The facility was lovely. The people were not very friendly. The rabbi was a real problem for me, and so, United Hebrew School was meeting, and so, I guess the story is, I'm sure you've heard it from other sources, that Pam and I had just dropped our kids off for midweek Hebrew. They were starting to go more often to get ready for B'nai Mitzvah, and she wasn't pleased with her arrangements. She came from a more traditional background and had been to a conservative synagogue.

I wasn't pleased with what I did and so, we had this group now of families that was a little bit larger, maybe 12 or 15 families, I don’t remember that we're going to United Hebrew School, this little school in the Bemis school, but they rented space in a public school. We said, “Why don't we try and start something? Maybe just a Chavurah and we’ll have it in place.” This was in the end of October, November, and we said maybe-

Interviewer: Would you remember the year?

Interviewee: It was 82 I think, yeah. So we said, why don't we try and start like a Chavurah, meet in somebody's basement or get something going, like a small congregation sort of thing, and then by the next year when we have high holidays, we'll have our own group to celebrate with.

Interviewer: You knew Pam just because you both had kids going to school-

Interviewee: Exactly. Exactly. Yap.

Interviewer: Did you have to have a similar vision of what you were trying to create? You had a Reform background and an Orthodox background and she had a conservative background?

Interviewee: We wanted a small group of families that could worship together. We figured we could get maybe a Chavurah together. We didn't want to be going to Southfield, Bloomfield Hills or Pontiac, we wanted something in Troy and we figured maybe we could put something together where we could meet in somebody's basement. I knew from the Orthodox tradition and she knew also that there were small congregations all over the place, so, we might be able to do something that would meet our needs. Whatever our needs were, however often or infrequent they were, we might be able to do it.

Interviewer: I just want to get clear on this. Was the issue more about the geography of having something close or was it trying to get something there was in tune to your spiritual and educational needs?

Interviewee: It was a little bit of both, but maybe something that was our own, that this core group had begun to get a little bit close through United Hebrew School, but we were coming and going, dropping kids off and we weren't doing anything else, and Pam and I had a need for a group that did something other than educate our kids in terms of our contact. We felt we had a core group that was geographically close, that was Jewish, so we could have a community in our community. We're going to the Jewish community in our community. I think that was mostly the impetus.

Interviewer: You had grown up in a Jewish community and so you felt what you had growing up was lacking in Troy?

Interviewee: Troy was never going to be like where I grew up, where I grew up was very-

Interviewer: But you miss some of the community aspect?

Interviewee: Your kids are going to school without Jewish kids all week long, and then they come once or twice on Sunday and on Wednesday afternoon, and they're with Jewish kids, and so, as parents kept running into each other also, and we also were appreciating the contact with other Jews. We could go over to Bloomfield Hills and sit in a synagogue over there, but this was nice that we had a core of something here. Gertrude, Mrs.Stein was wonderful. She was the principal and she really encouraged us to meld as a community. She was just wonderful.

That day, we’re standing on the sidewalk and so we're saying, “We weren't pleased with our high holiday experiences, we should start something if we can just with this little group of people.” So Pam said, “Well I can put an announcement the in the local papers for free, like the Troy Community Paper,” and I said, “Well, we can have it in my house,” and so we set a date and she contacted the local Freebie handout papers and got a little announcement in there, and I bought some refreshments, I don't remember, and people called those days, my official phone number.

Interviewer: Like how many people?

[00:45:00]

Interviewee: Well, that first meeting, which was around my pool table in my living room, dining room area, I don't remember exactly, it was 16 or 18 families represented. It was about 25 people, and it was amazing.

Interviewer: This was for a meeting or a service?

Interviewee: This was for a meeting. It was just a meeting to see who might be interested in forming a congregation. That's how it was listed in the paper, and my phone number was there and people called for directions. The phone was ringing often, and not only did these 16 or 18 families represented there, but I had a mailing list of 50 people by the time this little meeting was over. People called and said, “I can't make it that night, but would you let me know what's going on?”

Interviewer: Now, your target was Troy and Rochester, right?

Interviewee: Right.

Interviewer: Were you getting people from outside that area also or just that?

Interviewee: No.

Interviewer: Okay. Before we go on, I have to ask because one of the things we talked about earlier is from your childhood, you were interested in leadership and here you are creating a congregation from nothing.

Interviewee: I didn't realize I was doing that.

Interviewer: It’s in you.

Interviewee: I guess it was. I had this need to have a sense of attachment and for my kids to have the sense of attachment. I just had to find where and how.

Interviewer: Looking back on it, you think that your early life of being involved in organizations and leadership prepared you for this?

Interviewee: Absolutely, and that's why when we did get this congregation going, we have emphasized from the very beginning, the youth groups, and sending the kids to the camps, and sending them to Israel, and to have them network. My kids have the most incredible network of friends all around Michigan from their NIFTY days. They’re still close friends with these people. They're still there. They're lifetime friends and they're on Facebook and they're visiting each other when they're in their cities and their part of the country. They're all over the country now. This was a significant part of their life because I felt it was really important in my life and it's what creates the roots that the tree can grow.

Interviewer: So Pam was just as enthusiastic as you are about the project?

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: What about the other parents? Were there other people enthusiastic or?

Interviewee: Well, we didn't go back in the building and discuss it with everybody. We had fliers handed out and we put it in the paper, and then people called and said, “I'm coming, I'm coming, I'm coming,” and some of the people were people that had no children whatsoever. I think quite a few of the people who had children. Some of them had a conflict that night and couldn't make the first meeting, and so, it was amazing though.

Interviewer: As this developed or were there other people that were enthusiastic and willing to step up into leadership roles or was it you and Pam carried that?

Interviewee: No, the first night we said, “Okay, we need another meeting.” We needed a place we’re Jewish, so we needed refreshments, we needed publicity and so everybody, so Larry Lipman and Bruce Turbow, said they would find a place. Okay, that's great. They will call every church in the area and find out where we could go.

Interviewer: A place to hold services or just the meeting?

Interviewee: Meeting, we were just meeting. We were forming a congregation. Services weren’t a priority at this point. We just wanted to know if people were interested in making a congregation. What was the next thing that came up? The publicity. We said, “Okay, we've got to get the word out. We've got these 50 people on our list, we've got 18 families here, we've got to get the word out that we're doing this. We need to put a blurb in this paper and this paper, and this paper.”

So JoAnne Levy said, “I can do that,” and Cary turned to her and he said, “When can you do that?” She turned to him belligerently and said, “I’ll make time.” That's how that came about, and then refreshments were some other two or three people said, “We'll just get the refreshments, we'll buy them and bring them,” and that’s it.

Interviewer: How long from that first meeting until you could see this is really going to happen?

Interviewee: Well, the second meeting, we knew for sure it was going to happen because the second meeting was at the Lutheran Church of the, no, it wasn't at the Lutheran Church. It was the Presbyterian Church that we used for years later, but-

Interviewer: Northminister?

Interviewee: Yes, it was at Northminster. Northminster. I don't know if you know the physical facility, but has a very long driveway and no lighting. The meeting was there because Larry and Bruce called every church and we were turned down by almost every church in the community, but they said, “Okay.”

[00:50:00]

So, we were having the meeting there and it was this long driveway and no way of notifying people what it was. Paul put a sign on saying whatever the number of the place or the meeting is here or something, and he stood out at the end of the driveway with a flashlight on the sign on his chest, so, people knew where to turn in.

What happened at that meeting was unbelievable. We set up a ring of chairs. We ended up with about 160 people and a 100 families represented. We ended up with three rows of chairs. We just kept adding and adding and adding, and then when we wanted to introduce ourselves, it was no small task because we weren't a small group. We went around and we found out that there was like a Jew in every subdivision in Rochester and in Troy. There was like one family in almost every subdivision but almost no duplicates.

Interviewer: What about the second meeting?

Interviewee: When was it?

Interviewer: Yes.

Interviewee: The first meeting, it must have been in December, it was freezing cold. Paul was out there in his-

Interviewer: December of 82?

Interviewee: No, 83. No, then it must've been January. It was till January till we got together because 82, November was my house, and then it was thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. It must have been January. It was January of 83, that second meeting-

Interviewer: When did you start discussing finances?

Interviewee: At that first meeting. Oh yes. Okay. The other thing we had was the people from Beth Jacob came and they said, “Why are you starting a congregation? We have a congregation and we need members. How could you do this to us?” And then the people from, we got calls from the conservative and the reform movement, could they attend our meeting? We said, we don't even know if we have a congregation. “Well, we'd like to attend if we possibly can.” I said, we don't even know if our membership is Conservative, Reform or has no background whatsoever.

I think there was some representative from the Reform movement who just came and said, “You're welcome if you do form a congregation to join us,” and then there was a group from the congregation downtown that was, I forgot what they were. They were Sephardic or they were something, no, they weren't Sephardic, they were something else. Anyway, they came, they had started their congregation. They said, “If you need any help, we'll show you how to do it. This is a fantastic thing. Okay.”

Those were the people from the outside. Then we went around and introduced. One of the things we talked about, and I was running the meeting, I don't know why, but it would have been my house, so I was running the meeting.

Interviewer: Because of your leadership skills apparently.

Interviewee: Absolutely. Okay, so, what happened was, we decided to collect some money for everybody so we could start a newsletter, and so that everybody could keep in touch with everybody else. How much were we going to do while everybody was going to kick in $25 or something, and then we said, “What do we do with the money?” The attorney in the group, Ron [Buckholder] stood up and said, “Excuse me, you can't collect money unless you put it in a bank account. If you put it in a bank account, you need a name of your organization and you need officers.” Then we had to come up with a name and we had to come up with officers to open a bank account so we can keep in touch with one another.

Interviewer: That was it, and you chose the Troy Jewish Congregation?

Interviewee: Yes, and there was a debate and everybody talked, everybody was very respectful, congregation, shul, synagogue, temple, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We said, “Well, we don't know what we are yet, but we need to identify where we are because nobody would expect a Jewish group to be in Troy.” We wanted to get Troy in the name, so, it was Troy Jewish, and congregations seemed like the most neutral term. Everybody voted on it and that was it.

After that, we decided to proceed by having a series of meetings that would decide on like a board, and on bylaws, and on services, and find a facility that we could meet at and things like that. We actually had a series of what was like, and we also had things that were a little bit sticky, like, what would our dues be? Would we hire a rabbi or not who would run the congregation? What about dual membership? What if somebody belonged to another synagogue, would we charge them to come to our synagogue? These were all very, very tricky issues that everybody had opinions on, two Jews, 10 opinions.

We decided to have a series of meetings at which all of this stuff would be decided and we took down all the topics, and we sent out an agenda for each meeting, so that people could come who are interested. Anybody who showed up could vote. There was no criteria, and then at the end of about six months,

[00:55:00]

We finally had a board elected. We had bylaws, we had a facility, we were going to meet and which we needed to change because of some problems there, then everybody got upset because they couldn't vote on everything.

We said they were more than willing to come to board meetings, but we couldn't. We wanted to start having services and we couldn't keep having town meetings, you know, so.

Interviewer: When was the first service?

Interviewee: I think it was in April.

Interviewer: Of 83?

Interviewee: I think so, yeah, I think so.

Interviewer: How serious were the discussions about what denomination or what type of service to hold? The stories that I've heard is Shir Tikvah became reform because of sisterhood?

Interviewee: No.

Interviewer: That's not true?

Interviewee: No. Well, it's kind of true. I mean, sisterhood was in charge of our onegs and refreshments, but the deal was that there was no facility that we could be in that would have a kosher kitchen and we couldn't kasher it because we were going to be in a church, and so, the conservative movement required that you have as your food? So it was a nonstarter.

Interviewer: Reform was the only option?

Interviewee: Exactly. Now, we did have the option of not affiliating at all and for quite a while we didn't, but then we decided down the road apiece that we wanted student rabbis. We had already hired a rabbi for the High Holidays who was a teacher at Wayne State University, was a professor.

Interviewer: Do you remember his name?

Interviewee: Rabbi Guttman, and he had been in the area for a long time and he had considered or been considered by other congregations and really had never been hired, and so, he was delighted that we took him on for High Holidays and was looking very much to become our full time rabbi, but his personality and his way of going about things didn't quite match ours, and so, he was gracious, but he was not pleased when we decided to join the Reform Movement and start bringing in some student rabbis, and so we had maybe, I don't know how many student rabbis we had over the years. Well, it was consecutive years, maybe four or six, and they lived in my house. So, I really got to know them. That was fun. One of them had family locally, but the rest of them lived in my house and we mentored them and took care of them. They were young people, and then even when we hired Rabbi Arnie and he was here, he lived in my house until he got a house of his own. So that was kind of fun.

Interviewer: This is all fantastic but unfortunately we're running low on time. I just want to close by asking, how do you feel about it now starting the congregation when you look back on your achievements?

Interviewee: It's unbelievable. I think it's like anybody else who starts something, you don't realize you're starting something, you're just meeting your needs and your family's needs, and then your friendships groups needs, and then it just takes off. We would have new member things that we had no facility, so we'd have them in my backyard, and we'd have a picnic in the summer and people would go swimming and boating and bring food, and so, we just invented it as we went along, and then it became this amazing thing.

Interviewer: This was something that you're taking great pride in?

Interviewee: I'm grateful, but I don't feel I deserve any pride in it because I didn't do it all, everybody else who's here now is doing it, and everybody between when I was president and everybody has done it. It's everybody's baby, it's not just mine.

Interviewer: Do you think about it now when you're sitting in services?

Interviewee: Yeah, it just blows my mind, yeah. Absolutely blows my mind that this little Chavurah that we were going to get going in somebody's basement ended up being a real wonderful house of worship and place for Jews to gather and create a community, a Jewish community. Sander Levin came here to dedicate our building. I was so proud of the fact that there was some Jewish group in here, and the story of the Land is interesting too, but all of that, some other time.

Interviewer: There's so much more I'd like to discuss, but unfortunately, we are out of time. I want to thank you for telling your story and it's all very interesting, but I'm afraid we're going to have to stop now. Thank you very much.

Interviewee: Thank you.

 

End [00:56:56]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fri, November 15 2019 17 Cheshvan 5780