History and Archives

Our History

Welcome to the fifth oldest Reform congregation in the United States! Temple Emanuel, first known as the Benevolent and Burial Society, was founded in 1857 and occupied two rented structures until 1881, when the congregation built its first home on the corner of Fountain and Ransom Streets in downtown Grand Rapids.

Organized by five German families who fled the restrictive laws of Europe, our membership remained largely Germanic until the 1890s, when Eastern European Jews began to move into the Grand Rapids area.

In 1952, the present Temple building was erected, designed by California architect Eric Mendelsohn. He visualized a different approach when designing our synagogue. The tall clerestory windows high in the sanctuary allow natural light to flow in, and the movable walls permit us to divide the space as needed. The 1000 square foot mural in our sanctuary is the creation of painter Lucienne Bloch Dimitroff, daughter of the American composer Ernest Bloch and protege of Diego Rivera.

In 1992, the Congregation initiated Atid, which funded a major renovation of the sanctuary and public spaces. The bima was lowered to make it more accessible to all congregants, and fixed seating was replaced with movable chairs, which enable us to create a number of different environments for worship. We also created the front lounge space to underscore our belief that the Temple should be a comfortable second home for all members. The second phase of Atid renovated and expanded the library and classrooms.

Peg & Mort Finkelstein Historical Archives

Temple Emanuel’s archives date back to the mid-1800s. They include the 500 volume personal library of Julius Houseman, one of our founders and the first Jewish mayor of Grand Rapids. A recent gift includes two scrap books from the Amberg family, a prominent family in the development of Grand Rapids, also a founding family of Temple Emanuel in 1857.

Since our 150th Anniversary year, 2006-2007, there have been many events featuring displays and information from the Peg and Mort Finkelstein Archives.

Displays of artifacts and articles from our archives are located prominently throughout our building. Two walls of our lobby have rotating exhibits from the archives. Additional displays fill the back entry hallway to the building and include a 350 + year old Torah that the Nazi’s confiscated from Czechoslovakia. Additional items on display include photos from our past, a letter to Temple from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise and many religious artifacts from the collection.

Tiffany Window