By BECKY KARK
Editor and general manager South Haven Tribune
“It costs a fortune to make this place look old,” Barry Fidelman quipped when members of the First Hebrew Congregation got together Tuesday to celebrate nearly $400,000 worth of improvements to the historic synagogue in South Haven.
The improvements, which have slowly but surely taken place over the past two decades, caught the eye of South Haven city officials who issued a proclamation honoring the synagogue and its members for their efforts.
“The landscaping here is probably the most beautiful in the city,” said Mayor Bob Burr, who issued the proclamation Tuesday. “It's just spectacular.”
The landscaping, which was donated and planted by Don and Carole Hodgman and Lawn Boys, is just one part of the renovations and improvements that have taken place over the past decade at the 89-year-old synagogue, at the corner of Broadway and Church street.
“The landscaping kicked off the renovation efforts,” Fidelman said. “We wanted to make the inside as beautiful as the exterior.”
The other improvements include a new heating and cooling system, tuck-pointing of the synagogue's exterior, installation of new drain pipes and copper gutters, foundation restoration, window repairs and replacements, new bathrooms, an extensive renovation of the synagogue's social hall, an upgraded electrical system, kitchen renovations, a new stained glass Star of David window and restoration of hardwood floors.
“The miracle is that a small amount of people in this town were able to pull this (fundraising) off,” Fidelman said. “Whereas in other communities synagogues are closing, ours is thriving.”
The First Hebrew Congregation formed during the heyday of the Jewish resorts in South Haven. The synagogue was constructed in 1928 and served as a house of worship for the town's Jewish population. But the resorts, like many throughout the country, closed by the 1960s due to Americans' changing vacation habits. As a result, many younger Jewish residents moved from South Haven and the synagogue's membership dwindled.
By the turn of the 21st century, the synagogue's small number of leaders knew something needed to be done to restore the historic synagogue. At first, members, like Steve Tolen and Fidelman volunteered to do the restoration work themselves, but there was simply too much that needed to be done.
“It is one of the most historic buildings in South Haven,” Fidelman said.
Organizers of the fundraising campaign not only tapped into the small number of Jewish families that have remained in South Haven, but other Jewish people who once called South Haven their home during the 1900s or who now visit regularly.
One of the biggest contributors was Tem Horwitz of Chicago, whose foundation gave the synagogue a $50,000 matching grant. The Ben and Harriett Teitel Charitable Trust of Chicago contributed an additional $30,000, which was used to renovate the social hall. Other major contributors included Mr. and Mrs. Miles Beermann, Mr and Mrs. Alvin Block, Gerald Morgan, Mr. and Mrs. Eric Rothner and Michael Rubenstein,
“We're real proud to accomplish this with the help of people throughout the United States who had an identity with South Haven. We received contributions from old resort families or people who met their husband or wife here,” Fidelman said. “Raising the funds was easier than I thought it would be.”
For more information on the First Hebrew Congregation, visit their website, http://firsthebrewcongregation.org or call (269) 637-1603.