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Congregation Beth Jacob

A shul in Union Pier, Lakeside (Michigan)

by Michael Eliasohn

This home on Lakeshore Road in Union Pier, minus additions, was originally Congregation Beth Jacob, which closed in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The entrance to the synagogue was where the pillars are.

Union Pier, population 609, is a small summer resort town in the southwest corner of Michigan, on the shore of Lake Michigan. But it once had two synagogues, two or three kosher butchers, a Jewish-owned bakery and a Jewish-owned grocery, according to Union Pier resident Martin Schaffner. It also had a general store, post office, bowling alley, arcade with pinball machines, an ice cream and soda fountain, a beautiful beach, and lots of activities, including sometimes showing movies. The synagogues, one Orthodox and the other Conservative, both operated only during the summer months and through the high holidays. Toward the end of the Depression, lots of Jewish people came from their Chicago apartments to spend the summer in the Union Pier-Lakeside area and attended the synagogues. (Lakeside is the community to the north.) Among them was Schaffner, born in 1936, and his family, who lived the rest of the year in the Rogers Park neighborhood in Chicago. Half of the house on Lakeshore Road they stayed in Union Pier during summers and weekends has been the year-round residence for Schaffner and his wife, Marge, for about 25 years. The couple was married in 1961. The other half is occupied by his cousin, Louis Price, and his wife, Barbara. Congregation Beth Jacob, which was Conservative, was built in 1940 on the main street, what is now Lakeshore Road. The shul seated about 150 people and had a daily minyan.

Congregation Beth Jacob in Union Pier started in the 1930s in the home of Hershel “Harry” Schaffner and his wife, Shana, before moving to a building constructed to be a shul.

Prior to its construction, Schaffner said he heard from various relatives that worshippers gathered at what was then the home of his grandfather, Hershel “Harry” Schaffner, for Friday evening and Saturday services. (It’s now where the Schaffners and Prices live.) But a relative, arriving Friday for the weekend and wanting to sleep, was kept awake by the service, which led to building of Beth Jacob. “He used to say he was president and janitor,” Martin Schaffner said, referring to his grandfather. Price said he was told that Beth Jacob was built because it was a closer walk than the Orthodox synagogue, which was to the south. Beth Jacob was a few blocks north of the Schaffner/Price home. Neither man remembers the name of the Orthodox shul and couldn’t find anyone who did. Price said men and women sat separately in both synagogues and services were conducted in Hebrew. English was rarely spoken. “Services were conducted by members, except for the high holidays, when a cantor was hired. “The place was packed on the High Holidays.” Beth Jacob had a Hebrew school, which met on Sundays, Schaffner recalled.

What is now a house, minus additions, was originally the Orthodox synagogue. The house faces Lakeshore Road, about a block southwest of the intersection with Townline Road, which is the dividing line between New Buffalo and Chikaming townships. For those familiar with Union Pier, it’s close to the Gordon Beach Inn, built in the 1920s. Congregation Beth Jacob was to the northeast; a supposed factor for its construction was it was a much closer walk for its members than going to the Orthodox shul. (Louis Price photo)

Price celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Jacob in 1956 and said he is aware of only one other bar mitzvah conducted there. Since it was only open during summers, only boys celebrating their 13th birthdays during those months had their bar mitzvahs there. But in the early 1960s, the Union Pier-Lakeside Jewish population began to shrink and it was almost impossible to get a minyan, Schaffner said, so the Beth Jacob building was sold and the furnishings were distributed. He believes the end came in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The building, with additions built since, is now a house. Price said the former Orthodox building, which had a similar life span, also is still standing and is now a house. The author, Michael Eliasohn, serves on the Michiana Jewish Historical Society board and is a member of Temple B’nai Shalom in Benton Harbor.


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