The history of Congregation Beth Israel dates back to the 1880’s and is the first permanent Jewish community in Flint. At that time religious services were held in private homes, then for many years above various storefronts downtown.
By 1918 the community was holding regular religious services in a rented downtown hall and had launched a fundraising drive to build a synagogue. In 1920 they hired their first full-time religious leader. Two years later they founded Flint’s first Jewish religious institution, Congregation Beth Israel (CBI), on McFarlan Street on the city’s industrial north side.
As the only synagogue in the city, CBI attempted to be home to all three branches of Judaism, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. Though the synagogue prospered, within five years some of its congregants left to form Temple Beth El (TBE), a Reform congregation. Others, devoutly Orthodox, continued to meet privately. Even with separate congregations, CBI remained the communal center of the Flint Jewish community.
Membership grew dramatically. By the late 1940s CBI had outgrown its building and began a serious fundraising effort to build a new one. In 1952, numbering nearly five hundred families, CBI moved into its new synagogue on the corner of Hamilton and Oren Avenues, just one mile northwest of the original shul.
By 1970, businesses and people had moved to the suburbs. CBI’s leadership decided to build a new synagogue closer to suburban members and easily accessible by a newly completed expressway. In 1972, fifty years after the founding of the congregation, CBI moved to its present location on Calkins and Dye Roads in Flint Township.
Though once a thriving industrial community, today Flint suffers from the decline of its automobile manufacturing foundation. As a result, our congregation has experienced declining numbers and we now serve approximately 100 families. Though previously we employed a full-time rabbi and cantor, today we have neither. Nevertheless, as a lay-led congregation CBI is a vibrant, cohesive and extremely active synagogue with a warm and welcoming spirit. Because of the significant decline in membership, as noted above, and a building which was much too large, the congregation was able to sell its building on Calkins Road in May, 2016. We downsized and moved into a smaller building, an office building, and that building now houses our synagogue chapel and a meeting room for the time being. Much of the contents from our previous building has been placed in storage as the Flint area Jewish community consisting of Congregation Beth Israel, Temple Beth El, and the Flint Jewish Federation/Jewish Community Services explores the possibility of sharing facilities.
We also enjoy the favor of a very close-knit Jewish community. There are two other Jewish congregations in Flint: Temple Beth El of the Reform movement; and Chabad House of Eastern Michigan, an Orthodox congregation. TBE and Chabad remain on Calkins Road. We share a combined religious school with TBE. The three congregations often come together to share communal celebrations and community events.
Note: To learn more about the history of Congregation Beth Israel and the Flint Jewish Community, refer to the book Jewish Life in the Industrial Promised Land 1855-2005 by Nora Faires and Nancy Hanflik, Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, Michigan, 2005.