In the beginning . . .
In the early 1960s, a small group of people, almost all social scientists at the University of Michigan, met to consider what they might do for their children’s Jewish education.
At that time, there was only a very small Jewish community in a city which had not yet come to embrace any form of diversity or intercultural awareness. There was no recognition of Jewish holidays in the public schools (indeed, there were almost no Jewish teachers in the system), Christian prayers were led by teachers to thank God for mid-mornng snacks in the lower grades, schools all conducted Christmas pageants, and tests were scheduled without regard to Jewish holidays. There was only one Conservative congregation in town.
One of the members of this small group had grown up in the Jewish Parents Institute (JPI) in Detroit, a secular Sunday School that was run along co-op lines - very likely a remnant of the Jewish socialism that characterized much of the Ashkenazic emigrants to America in the earlier years of the century. These sociologists, social workers and psychologists, all children of the same cultural heritage, adopted the JPI vision of a school in which their children could develop an informed Jewish identity, but without prayers, obeisance to God, or adherence to Jewish religious custom. Like many modern liberals of the day, they rejected a God-and-ritual-centered approach and the authoritarianism that several of them remembered from their own “Hebrew-school” days.
The small group enlarged itself by inviting friends to participate in the concrete planning, once the general direction had been set, and they enlarged the concept to include adult fellowship as a feature of what they called the Jewish Cultural School.
A small grant was obtained from the predecessor of today’s Detroit Jewish Federation, and JCS set up shop in space rented from a Division Street church. It was run in true co-op fashion: the parents painted and furnished the space, elected the School principal, and volunteered as teachers. Classes were held on Sunday mornings and while the children were in class, their parents met in a University seminar room on Huron Street. Historians, sociologists, policitical scientists and others (many of them scholars whose visits to the university were taken advantage of by those hosts who were members of JCS) met with the parents in an adult education program. Bar mitzvahs (there were no bat mitzvahs in Ann Arbor at that time) were privately arranged by those families who wanted that much tradition for their children.
JCS has come a long way since that time, and many changes came about through adaptations to changing circumstances, but some of the roots still show: we continue to appeal particularly to people in the healing arts, we still rely on members to carry on much of the work of the organization, and we strive to maintain a non-heirarchical structure.
Changing circumstances created crises . . .
The first two decades of JCS’ existence were characterized by frequent housing crises. The church-owned space became unsatisfactory as the church enlarged its drug and alcohol program and participants in that program wandered into classrooms and acted out in the hallways. JCS moved to rented public school facilities, but couldn’t keep supplies and bulletin boards in them. Space was then rented in the old Hillel building (which also housed the synagogue), but the mixture of college students and rambunctious children in the old and rather limited building was a problem. There were other locations, all proving temporary for one reason or another, until JCS participated in the core group that established the Jewish Community Center. As a result of that active participation, especially in the fund-raising for the purchase of the JCC building, JCS became an established constituent of the JCC and obtained JCC’s commitment to providing space for us.
JCS’ peripatetic existence prior to becoming established in the JCC severely limited its ability to attract and retain members, and it remained a small organization of 40 or so families. Two other problems arose in the course of time: it became untenable for JCS to operate strictly as a co-op, and its small size, low fees and unusual nature as a secular school gave it a reputation within the local Jewish community as a rather strange fringe group of people who cared more about saving money than about being “real Jews”.
The problem of being a co-op had two aspects: it was difficult for rather ideologically committed people to be critical about their children’s education when their teachers and administrators were also their friends. It was divisive for the parents to modify school policies when those policies were important to the school principal who was also an intrinsic part of the friendship circle. Secondly, as was typical of the era, the JCS officers (Board of Directors, President, etc.) were almost all fathers, while the day-to-day work of teaching in the school and doing the work of keeping the school running fell to mothers, very few of whom were in the paid workforce at the time. But that changed, and as women went back to school, began professional careers or took jobs, there were fewer and fewer to take the kids on field trips, run the rummage sales, organize the bake sales (and bake the cakes). In short, JCS needed to and did make a philosophically difficult transition from a co-op to an organization with a professional (but non-rabbinic) staff and leadership.
Transformations . . .
Our reputation in the community changed as a result of the solutions to the permanent home and the co-op problems. Professional leaders of an organization in a permanent location at the literal center of the Jewish community provided organizational and social stability, and JCS members and staff became active and recognized leaders in the larger Jewish community. Several members have served as presidents and vice-presidents of the JCC, and JCS members have been elected to the boards of the local Jewish Federation and the JCC. We participate in various community-wide organizations and programs, such as Keshet, the Apples and Honey fair, the Black-Jewish Coalition, Inter-Faith Council, etc. We joined the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, and JCS members have been active in leadership roles in that national organization. We have already hosted two of CSJO’s national convocations. Our role in the community is now well established as a secular and humanistic organization. Our nature as a non-religious organization has made us a particularly welcoming place for children and parents in inter-faith relationships. Our reputation in the community has changed from “not-quite-real-Jews” to recognition as the port of entry to the Jewish community for many people who would not otherwise join a religious organization. And we have grown in membership.
These changes over the years are reflected in the change of our name to the Jewish Cultural Society, of which the Sunday School is a part. As a Society, we have become a full-service congregation with popular and well-attended holiday observances, Shabbat services, an extraordinary and much admired b’nai mitzvah program, adult education and the kinds of social events one would expect in any congregation.
JCS is still a membership-controlled organization, and all member families are expected to participate in its governance by serving on the Board of Directors and committees. We work hard to retain the sense of camaraderie and fellowship that characterized our earlier days, even while using an employed staff and growing large enough to be economically viable. Balancing our traditions while adapting to changes in our surround is an on-going challenge.