Jewish Life in the Benton Harbor / St. Joseph, Michigan Area - Past & Present
Growing up in Benton Harbor, or elsewhere in Southwest Michigan, was like growing up Jewish elsewhere in small city/small town America – Jews were in the minority, but with a few differences. Bob Yampolsky, who graduated from Benton Harbor High School in 1953, said there were “quite a few Jewish students” there. But in comparison, “When I started at the University of Michigan, I was amazed at the number of Jewish kids who came from one high school.” “My mother told me at one time there were 250 Jewish families in the area,” he said.
Benjamin Yampolsky operated Ben’s Grocery and Market, selling meat and groceries, on East Main Street in Benton Harbor from 1940 to 1959, according to his son, Robert. Prior to then, he and a partner operated a market in downtown Benton Harbor. This photo was taken in about 1956 by another son, Edward.
Benton Harbor once had three synagogues, and belonging to more than one was common. Children of Israel Synagogue, started as Orthodox in 1895 (it later became Conservative). Ohava Sholom Synagogue, which was Orthodox, started in 1911. But as the number of members declined, the congregations merged in 1959 under the name Congregation B’nai Sholom, with about 160 member families. It used what was the Children of Israel building on Lake Street, near downtown. In 1963, the merged congregation moved from there to a new building at the corner of Broadway and Delaware streets in the Fairplain area of Benton Township, which it still occupies. Temple Beth-El, which was Reform, was formed in 1934 and merged with B’nai Sholom in 1971, taking the new name of Temple B’nai Shalom. At the time of the merger, Beth-El had about 80 member families and B’nai Sholom had 115, according to the history written for Temple B’nai Shalom’s 1995 centennial celebration book. Temple B’nai Shalom’s current membership is about 80 units (families, couples and single people), of which 12 no longer live in this area. It’s safe to say the most common occupation of current members is “retired.” Sunday school enrollment in 2017-18 was four (it’s now up to nine) and the last bar mitzvah was held there in 2016 (and prior to that, in 2012). But in the days when Jews were a much bigger minority in the Benton Harbor area, they played a prominent role in the community because they operated many retail stores, groceries and other businesses. David Kirshenbaum, 79, grew up on Thresher Avenue on the east side of town. He said many Jews lived in the neighborhood, where there was a kosher butcher, a kosher bakery and a fish store. “As a 10-year-old, I would ride (my bicycle) to the drug store on Main Street and get a Jewish Forward (Yiddish newspaper). But Jews were still a minority in what he said was a “wonderful neighborhood.” A list of Jewish merchants and business people in and near Benton Harbor during the past 100 years, compiled for Temple B’nai Shalom’s 1995 centennial, counted 18 clothing stores, six women’s clothing stores, four shoe stores, 26 food stores, six “general” stores, seven furniture stores, seven auto-related businesses, 17 scrap metal dealers and 25 miscellaneous. There also were Jewish doctors, dentists, accountants and lawyers, but they were not included in the compilation. “There were no Jewish stores in downtown St. Joseph whatsoever,” Kirshenbaum said, before he thought of one, a combination restaurant and pool hall. That reflected the fact that Jews lived in Benton Harbor, and when the city started going downhill in the 1960s and 1970s, many Jews moved to Fairplain, south of the city limits, part of which is in Benton Township and part in St. Joseph Township. The Fairplain area has a Benton Harbor address and is in the Benton Harbor school district. “Jews were red-lined in those days. No question about it,” said Kirshenbaum, that is, dissuaded from buying houses in St. Joseph. He and his wife, Elaine, live in Fairplain. In addition to Benton Harbor, many stores in small towns in southwest Michigan were owned by Jews, including at various times Cassopolis, Decatur, Dowagiac, Hartford, Millburg, Bainbridge Center, Lawton, Paw Paw and Stevensville. (Note: To keep this article from becoming even longer, I’m not including South Haven, which had a significant Jewish population, still has the First Hebrew Congregation, and was known throughout the Midwest for its Jewish resorts.) There were some Jewish resorts and rooming houses for summer visitors in the Benton Harbor area, Kirshenbaum said. However, the most prominent resort locally for vacationing Jews, most from the Chicago area, was operated by Mary’s City of David (a Christian denomination) along Britain Avenue in Benton Township. Part of the appeal to its kosher-keeping guests was its vegetarian restaurant. So many Jews stayed in the cottages on the grounds that the Gate of Prayer Synagogue functioned there during the summer months from 1938 until apparently 1976. There was even a house adjacent to the synagogue for the rabbi. Southwest Michigan was unique in that there were Jewish farmers, so many that there once was a Berrien County Jewish Farmers Association. Membership apparently peaked with about 50 families in the 1930s, according to its records. Dues were last collected in 1973. The last Jewish farmers were brothers Irving and Sheldon Rosenberg – third generation farmers – and their wives, Alice and Vicki respectively, who conducted their last harvest on their Sodus Township farm in 2004.
Sheldon Rosenberg, seen here during cherry harvesting, and his brother, Irving, and their wives were the last Jewish farmers in Berrien County. The last harvest on their Sodus Township farm was in 2004. They were third generation farmers, starting with their grandfather, Samuel, originally from Lithuania, in 1911, followed by their father Ben. There once was a Berrien County Jewish Farmers Association; membership peaked with about 50 farm families in the 1930s.
“Everybody knew we were Jewish because of the store and everyone knew my father was Jewish,” said Al Levin, whose parents, Samuel and Ida Levin, opened a dry goods/general clothing store in Lawton (where Al was born) in the early 1930s. They moved their business to Decatur about 1940. “We were the only Jewish family in Decatur when I was growing up,” said Levin, who was born in 1937. He said there was no visible antisemitism, but his parents had few close non-Jewish friends. Their social life centered on Ida’s three brothers and their families, two from Paw Paw and one from Hartford, all of whom also owned general dry goods stores. Samuel and Ida retired in 1971. Al’s older brother, Bob, who had operated the store with his parents, continued it for about 15 more years. After that, Bob Levin made a living helping merchants conduct going-out-of-business sales. Al and Sondra Gelder met in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization at Children of Israel, but didn’t become a couple until both were attending the University of Michigan. They were married in 1961 and live in Fairplain. After graduating from U-M, Al worked in sales and retail, then was a purchasing agent for a Benton Harbor area manufacturer for more than 25 years before retiring. Sondra, also a U-M graduate, worked at then Mercy Hospital in Benton Harbor, then Whirlpool Corp. and finally at a local advertising agency. She grew up in Benton Harbor, but her family operated Louis Gelder and Sons in tiny Millburg, about 4.5 miles east of the east edge of Benton Harbor. The company sold farm equipment. Her father, Maurice, his brother, Irvin, and their cousin, Louis, were the third generation of the business, started in 1910. The brothers retired in 1980 and sold their share of the business to Louis and his wife, who were not Jewish.
Louis Gelder moved from Chicago to Millburg, east of Benton Harbor in 1910, and bought a hardware company, which he renamed and sold wagons, buggies, harnesses, farm implements, hardware, and household goods. 118 years later, Lous Gelder and Sons Co. is still in business, selling and servicing farm, construction and landscaping equipment Now in Benton Township, with a second location in Hart, in northern Michigan, the business is run by the fourth and fifth generations of the family, though no longer Jewish. (Photo courtesy Lous Gelder and Sons)
Louis Gelder and Sons is still in business, now operated by the fourth and fifth generation of Gelders, none Jewish. It moved 6 miles from Millburg to Benton Township in 2000. “I think there were nine Jewish kids in my (senior) class” of about 300 students, said Sondra, who graduated from Benton Harbor High School in 1956. She said she believes her daughter, Beth, was the last Jewish graduate at Benton Harbor, in 1981. The family lived in Fairplain, which was in the Benton Harbor school district, but their two youngest children graduated from Lake Michigan Catholic High School in St. Joseph. “The quality of education (in the Benton Harbor district) was declining,” Sondra explained, hence the change in high schools. At that time, LM Catholic was one of the few options other than moving to another school district, and made accommodations for Jewish students.
What Changed? The shrinking of the Jewish community in southwest Michigan emulates what has happened elsewhere, of course. “The generation that came before me, a lot came back,” said Yampolsky, 83. “They either married women locally or from elsewhere, but they stayed here.” But, he speculated, things started changing with the end of World War II in 1945. Returning members of the military had the opportunity to go to college through the GI Bill, which paid their tuition and living expenses. Attending college gave them the opportunity to choose a career path different from their parents and after graduating, they often chose to live elsewhere. Yampolsky’s father, Benjamin, owned a small grocery in Benton Harbor, but he and his older brother, Ed, both became lawyers. Ed spent part of his career locally, before becoming a Social Security referee, while Bob stayed local, ultimately retiring as attorney referee for the Family Division of Berrien County Trial Court. Bob and his wife, Diane, live in south St. Joseph. But even if young Jews wanted to take over the family business, if the business was retailing, changing times made that difficult. There was the rise of big box stores and chain stores, and the construction of I-94, completed in Michigan in 1960, made it easy for residents of small towns to travel to Benton Harbor or Kalamazoo to shop at such stores. “I don’t think it’s unique that Jews leave,” Kirshenbaum said. “If you live in a small town, kids leave.” But, he added, “We notice it as Jews. We look at our numbers differently than other religions.” Kirshenbaum is the retired president of Southshore Companies, which can trace its history back to when his father, Abe, and Abe’s brother, Herman, developed what had been the family farm along M-139 in Benton Township into commercial property with numerous stores and other enterprises. M-139 runs through the main shopping district for the Benton Harbor-St. Joseph area. Southshore, based in St. Joseph, is now run by Kirshenbaum’s nephew, Jordan Kirshenbaum. It controls a total of approximately 2 million square feet of commercial warehouse and office space at nine locations in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa and specializes in supply chain logistics. Jordan, the son of Ted and Judy Kirshenbaum, who live in St. Joseph, did return to run the family business, but that’s an exception. An unscientific statistic: Of the people interviewed for this article, none of their seven children still live here. (Note: The wives of Bob Yampolsky and David Kirshenbaum did not grow up in southwest Michigan, so were not interviewed for this article.) Michael Eliasohn is member of Temple B’nai Shalom. He was a newspaper reporter for about 35 years, the last 23-1/2 for The Herald-Palladium in St. Joseph. He retired in March 2008, but still occasionally writes for the newspaper. He grew up in Lansing, Mich.