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My recollections of Genesis’ beginnings by Rabbi Bruce Warshal

If you are reading this, you may know that Clare Kinberg is the publisher and editor of the Washtenaw Jewish News. Clare reached out to me to reflect on the origin of Genesis of Ann Arbor on this 50th anniversary of its founding. As I was the first rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth, I do have some history to contribute. Clare sent me a reprint of the history of Genesis published for its 20th anniversary in 1994 in the Ann Arbor Observer, which was [recently reprinted in the Genesis Journal]. I will refer to that in a moment.

My relationship with Temple Beth Emeth began in the summer of 1968. The Temple, which was founded and run by lay leadership a few years before, had grown to 60 families but was not financially ready to hire a full-time rabbi. I became its student rabbi and travelled from Cincinnati to Ann Arbor on a biweekly basis. Upon my ordination in June of 1969, I moved to Ann Arbor and assumed the position as “spiritual leader” of the Temple. (I don’t like that description. As the Hebrew word “rabbi” translates as “teacher,” I would say I became the head teacher of the congregation.)

It was during that first year of 1969 that, according to my recollection, the Temple moved from the Unitarian Church to Saint Clare’s. We were warmly accepted as their tenants. Most importantly, Doug Evett became rector of Saint Clare’s in 1972. That was a blessing for their congregation and for me personally.

He was a social action minister, and I was a social action rabbi. We shared the same ethical beliefs but expressed them through our own traditions. I felt closer to Doug than to many of my fellow rabbis.

Doug and I became close colleagues. He was a social action minister, and I was a social action rabbi. We shared the same ethical beliefs but expressed them through our own traditions. I felt closer to Doug than to many of my fellow rabbis.

There was a long hall in the middle of which a secretary would sit at a desk. Doug’s office was at one end and mine at the other. There were two phones on the secretary/receptionist’s desk. At any one moment you could hear her answer “Temple Beth Emeth” or “Saint Clare’s Episcopal Church.” It was a good symbiotic relationship between the two congregations on a lay level as well. Saint Clare’s and Temple Beth Emeth both practiced a liberal form of their respective religions. The majority of members in both congregations were academics from the University of Michigan.

However, by 1974, the Temple had gown to almost 200 families and there was a feeling that we should discuss the possibility of looking for a physical presence of our own, a traditional freestanding synagogue building. At that moment Doug turned to me and said, “Why don’t you stay?” Let history record that the idea of co-owning a religious structure between Jews and Christians (a revolutionary idea at that time, and maybe even now) was the brainchild of Doug Evett. When Doug died from cancer at the young age of 74, his obituary noted that “he felt that his greatest accomplishment during his 28-year tenure at St. Clare’s was the creation of Genesis of Ann Arbor.”

Bob Creal, Mayor Albert Wheeler, Rabbi Bruce Warshal, Rev. Douglas Evett

We immediately took this idea to our respective lay leadership. I am proud of having played a part in making that an eventual reality, but I take no credit for having initiated the concept, nor bringing it to fruition. I fully supported it, but lay leadership made it happen. There was a year of gestation and presenting it to our respective congregations. After much discussion and contemplation on both sides, it was almost unanimously approved by the members of the Temple and Saint Clare’s. Genesis of Ann Arbor became a legal entity in the early summer of 1975.

I cannot overstate the excellence of the lay leadership that founded Beth Emeth a few years before my arrival, and those with whom I interacted during my seven years serving as rabbi. The list would be extensive, but in particular I want to mention two presidents with whom I served. The first was Paul Vanek. He was a Canadian who practiced dentistry in Ann Arbor and eventually returned to Toronto to open a fine arts gallery. The second was Allyn Kantor, who practiced law and who led Beth Emeth with a steady hand. A rabbi needs a strong presidential partner, and I was fortunate to have both of these leaders as I began my rabbinic career. (I apologize to those I left out and are still alive to read this.)

Getting back to the summer of 1975 … A legal contract to establish joint ownership requires a plethora of legalese, but the following paragraph is included in the birth certificate of Genesis: “Although the world has always been torn by distrust, suspicion, waste, prejudice, and the threat of economic upheaval and war, its citizens are today becoming more aware of the absolute need to trust, conserve, believe, give, and love if we and our heirs are to survive as children of God.” Today, I say Amen. At the time I was quoted as saying the birth of Genesis of Ann Arbor was “one act of sanity in a sea of xenophobia.”

As a footnote, I believe there is one historical error in the Ann Arbor Observer article written for the 20th anniversary of Genesis. Linda Vanek, Paul’s wife, who was a leader in her own right as well as being the part-time school principal of our religious school, remembered that the move from the Unitarian Church to Saint Clare’s occurred in 1970, and she attributed the “Charles Thomas incident” to one of the reasons that the Unitarians asked us to leave. My memory is that we moved to Saint Clare’s in mid-1969, at least six months before the Charles Thomas incident, which was covered by the Ann Arbor News. Either way, the story is worth telling in that it reflects the tumultuous communal and political life in Ann Arbor in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Before discussing the actual Charles Thomas incident, I must recount my background in the civil rights movement. While still in law school in 1961, my wife and I sat-in in the south. After graduation, I practiced law in Cleveland, Ohio, where I served as vice president of the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the leftist, cutting edge of the civil rights movement. (I am amused to think that we thought that the Rev. Martin Luther King was an Uncle Tom. Nevertheless, one of the highlights of my life was being at the March on Washington on August 28,1963, when Dr. King delivered his “I have a Dream” speech.) We in CORE made lots of “good trouble,” in the words of the legendary John Lewis. Everything we did was shadowed by the Cleveland Police Anti-Subversive Squad. Remember that J. Edgar Hoover believed that King was a communist, and we were looked upon in the same way.

Now back to Charles Thomas, who was doing his own “good trouble” in Ann Arbor. Thomas, who was a member of the Black Economic Development League, would with very short notice interrupt church services to read the Black Manifesto that demanded that the church community raise money for what today we call restitution, supporting Black universities, Black publishing houses, etc. It highlighted a need and was creative activism.

And then came our turn at Temple Beth Emeth! As reported by the Ann Arbor News on January 10, 1970, on the previous Friday Thomas called me in the morning to tell me in no uncertain terms that he would invade our services that evening. That was unacceptable to me since I had scheduled an important guest speaker for that evening. (55 years later, I have no recollection who he was.) I do remember clearly that I told him I would gladly invite him to my pulpit on next Friday evening’s Kabbalat Shabbat service. Thomas refused my offer and responded that whether I liked it or not he was coming. (He was a good activist!)

At that point, I answered, “I’m on your side, but I’m a tougher son of a bitch than you are.” In the Ann Arbor Observer article, in reflection on this whole affair, Doug Evett commented that I “was a wonderfully aggressive guy.” I guess I was. Hey, I paid my dues. I had my life threatened a couple of times during my involvement in the civil rights movement. I never flinched, and by nature I don’t like being pushed around. Dignity was very important to me. I told Charles that if he attempted to interrupt our services, there would be an injunction facing him. This did not stop him. With the help of Allyn Kantor, we obtained a preliminary injunction that afternoon. When Thomas arrived, he abruptly left, saying, “I don’t want to spend the night in (then-sheriff Doug) Harvey’s hotel so I’ll leave.” (As quoted in the Observer article)

Charles never accepted my offer for the following Shabbat. That was the end of the affair, and Temple Beth Emeth remained a bastion of liberal thought and action at a time of quickly changing mores and political upheaval in the general life of Ann Arbor. The year that I began serving the Temple (1968) marked the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; the year that I concluded my service (1975) witnessed a Marxist student-led party holding the balance of power on City Council. Amidst it all, the Temple grew from 60 families to 200 in those seven years. I am told that it is now the largest Jewish congregation in Washtenaw County. I was fortunate to being around during its infancy. I send my congratulations [on the occasion of] the 50th anniversary of Genesis of Ann Arbor.

Reprinted with minor copy edits with permission of the Washtenaw Jewish News.

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What a surprisingly vigorous origin story!

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