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 that 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-morning snacks in the lower grades, schools all conducted Christmas pageants, and tests were scheduled without regard to Jewish holidays. There was only one congregation in town, a Conservative synagogue.
One of the members of this small founding 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 cultural life of Ashkenazi 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 and progressives 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 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. The organization 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, political scientists, and others (many of them scholars visiting the university) 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 then. 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-hierarchical structure.
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, the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, 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. We are 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 interfaith relationships and for those who would not otherwise join a religious community.
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 are a full-service congregation with popular and well-attended holiday observances, Shabbat services, an extraordinary and much admired b’nei mitzvah program, adult education, and the kinds of social events one would expect in any congregation.
JCS remains a membership-based 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 and continue to balance traditions while adapting to changes in our surroundings.