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Our History

Since its establishment in 1916, Beth Israel Congregation has had a decisive influence on Jewish life in Washtenaw County. For a long time, it was the only Jewish congregation in Ann Arbor.

The congregation began informally by celebrating the Jewish High Holidays in the home of furrier Osias Zwerdling. For the next 40 years Mr. Zwerdling served as President of the congregation. Over the course of that time, Beth Israel functioned as the sole Jewish congregation in Ann Arbor, serving a diverse congregation in a traditional fashion.

The congregation, like many in smaller towns, continued without a Rabbi, hiring various functionaries who wore several hats at the same time: very often that of the Hebrew teacher, the schochet (kosher slaughterer), and the cantor. The first employee, Reverend Pincus Gropstein was paid a salary of $18 (Chai) per week to serve the 30 families of the congregation.

The congregation’s first ordained Rabbi was Rabbi Joshua Sperka who served from 1932 – 1934. Afterwards, the congregation occasionally had a Rabbi, and at times the congregation made do without one, sustained by a wonderful spirit of volunteerism.

Beth Israel’s Many Firsts

Beth Israel was one of the first conservative congregations in southeast Michigan to become an egalitarian congregation, and the first congregation in the country to choose a woman president. Participation in leading or chanting the service is an important part of the culture of the congregation. Its relaxed and comfortable services reflect Ann Arbor’s diversity.


Beth Israel keeping the pace of growth alongside Ann Arbor has successfully met the challenges of expansion and change, always seeking to meet the needs of its diverse membership. Prior to moving to its current location in 1978, the congregation met in different homes, and at one time shared a building with the Hillel Foundation. The longest serving rabbis were:

  • Rabbi Julius Weinberg (*1952-1961)
  • Rabbi Allan Kensky (*1971-1988)
  • Rabbi Robert Dobrusin (*1988 – 2018)
  • Rabbi Nadav Caine (*2018 - present)

Beth Israel Congregation is proud of its past and looks confidently to the future as a strong and proactive Conservative congregation.

For more information on the history of Ann Arbor's Jewish Community, please visit the Celebrating Our Stories: Jewish Life in Ann Arbor website which can be found by clicking here.

*years of rabbinical service at Beth Israel

Thu, May 23 2024 15 Iyyar 5784