Workmen’s Circle Cemetery

In the early 1920s, my grandfather Isadore came to Detroit from what is now Belarus. My great-grandfather Yehuda was already here, building houses on the east side for the rapidly expanding community of other European immigrants settling at the boundaries the city.

Yehuda died in 1954. He was 86 years old. (If you want to skip the mental math, he was born in 1868. Time marches on.)

He’s buried at Workmen’s Circle.

I never would have known this had a reader not pointed out to me (at a really fun backyard party, after some champagne) that he’d noticed an out-of-place Orthodox Cemetery near Roseville, nestled between Wal-Mart and a Hampton Inn, or something. I forgot about it for a few days. (Thanks a lot, champagne.) Then I asked my dad where his parents were buried. He said they were at Beth El, at 6 Mile and Middlebelt, but that he thought his grandfather was somewhere around Mt. Clemens, at a Jewish Cemetery on Gratiot.

Let the games begin, right?

***

Detroit’s Jewish population in 1920 reached 35,000, a 10-year growth of almost 250%. In the city and all over the country, the climate was right for new congregations, new community organizations, new social clubs and new political movements.

Workmen’s Circle, a progressive Jewish fraternal organization dedicated to social justice and (at least today) a “big tent approach” to Jewish culture and community (see their website), was founded in New York in 1900. Rooted in the labor movement, progressive socialist politics and the Eastern European Jewish tradition, Workmen’s Circle was a big hit in Detroit. By 1917, the Detroit branch of Workmen’s Circle was the largest branch of the fraternity in North America and, by far, Detroit’s most popular Jewish organization. (See the Jewish Virtual Library’s entry on Detroit.)

Workmen’s Circle Cemetery was established in Clinton Township in 1919, with separate sections designated for member organizations, including several local congregations, Jewish lodges and friendship societies.

It’s one of the most distinctive (and well-kept!) cemeteries I have ever seen. Many of the burial sections have their own signs and gateways:

The search for my great-grandfather had barely begun when I found the Irwin I. Cohn Michigan Jewish Cemetery Index, a digitized and searchable database of over 64,000 burial records from the mid-1800s to 1999 for almost all of the Jewish Cemeteries in Southeastern Michigan. My dad cross-referenced, and within a week I knew that Yehuda was at rest at Workmen’s Circle, buried with his congregation in the Beth Schmuel section of the cemetery.

Dad casually mentioned that Yehuda had helped build, literally, Beth Schmuel. Founded in 1926, the congregation operated out of a rented hall for a few years before buying a house at Blaine and Twelfth from a bank for $2500 cash. Yehuda, a charter member of the congregation, helped convert the home into a synagogue, with apartments upstairs for the rabbi and his family. (More on the 40-year history of Beth Schmuel here. The congregation, which had grown wildly to a membership of more than 400 families, built a new synagogue at Dexter and Buena Vista in 1948, where they stayed until the congregation disbanded in 1959.)

Standing at Yehuda’s grave — lightning from a receding thunderstorm flickering in the sky — I felt an unusual chill. Readers of the blog will know that I’ve been visiting relative strangers at cemeteries since this project began. Why would Yehuda be different? He’s a relative. But a stranger. I know more about most of the dead people I’ve written about here than I know about him. If we were to meet, I’m not sure he’d feel much of a connection to me — an agnostic ethnic mutt, decidedly not Jewish (or anything else), a child of the comfortable suburbs.

But I am the daughter of his grandson. Our lives, and our experiences of the world, are completely removed from each other, but that fact remains.

It’s a funny feeling. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

In the Jewish tradition, I left a small stone on his grave marker. Like a hard, ancient, uncorruptable calling card:

Someone was here to see you.

#beth schmuel#detroit jews#family#workmen's circle#workmen's circle cemetery

Comments

  1. Christina - August 19, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    You are great and I loved reading this. I just wanted you to know.

  2. Joan Ginsberg - August 19, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  3. A_Dubs - August 30, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    My Grandfather is buried there. I wasn’t able to locate his grave the last time I was there though.

  4. Brian - September 1, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

    My great grandmother is buried there, but I can’t seem to find a working phone number to contact.

    This was very interesting to read though!

  5. amy - September 7, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    A. and Brian: Have you tried searching the database?

    http://www.thisisfederation.org/cemetery/details.asp?ID=71

    This was so helpful for me — since Workmen’s Circle is organized by congregation or fraternal organization, you may be able to use it to find out where, within the cemetery, your relatives are.

    Good luck!

  6. Dave - December 11, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    This was a neat story. It moved me actually.

  7. Teri - August 16, 2012 @ 9:39 am

    This cemetery is also where Annie Cohen was buried. She is the Annie of “Annie’s Ghosts” and the aunt the author never knew he had – the family secret. Steve Luxemburg, the author, shares his very thorough research into poor houses and treatment of the mentally ill (Eloise Hospital) and of social services in the State of Michigan and the Wayne County Probate Court that in some important ways, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much.

    If you use this link and scroll to a photograph at the bottom, “No longer anonymous,” you can see the new marker the author chose to replace Annie’s unmarked grave. But, as outlined in the book, this is the cemetery where the author’s mother secretly buried her sister in the 70’s.

    http://steveluxenberg.com/content/book.asp?id=behind

  8. Leslie - February 13, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

    The old saying, “good things come to those who wait” certainly strikes home thanks to this story! I was in the Mt. Clemens area a couple of years ago–probably only the second or third time in my life–and happened to see this cemetery. I was intrigued by the name and wondered about its origin. After (sadly) minimal effort on my part to learn more, it slipped to the back of my mind.

    Imagine my surprise to find the answers to the questions I had pondered conveyed, unsolicited, in such a personal and eloquent way.

    In this case, “good things come to those who procrastinate” may be a more appropriate saying.

    Thanks for sharing some of your personal history!

  9. Ellen Usher Rancilio - May 16, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

    My Fathers family Grandparents , Aunts, Uncles and my baby sister Mary are buried here . All total we have eight family members buried here .
    My paternal Grandfather Charles Usher was from the Ukraine and settled in Detroit to work in the Automotive industry around 1914 ,he was a member of the Workman’s Circle .
    They were from the Dexter Davison neighborhood and are all buried on the far Eastside of town , I guess the land was cheap there back then .
    It is a well kept little treasure ” Workman’s Circle ” .

  10. Ms Randi Dombecke - June 11, 2013 @ 6:36 am

    What a wonderful story, very interesting to read. I pass these cemeteries daily as I drive to work on Gratiot. It seems to be a peaceful and orderly place with the exception of the house that stands on the property. I think about it everytime I pass it, I do think that if I had the funds, I would volunteer to refurbish it. For the first time in 15 years of traveling past this, I saw a group of men there, I imagine for a burial. I was interested in what the “Workmen’s Circle” was, that’s how I happened to fall on this page.
    My daughter has a friends parents buried in the Beth El part of the property, so I always say a prayer as I pass daily. Thanks for the great posting of your story, God Bless !

  11. Susan Friedman - January 27, 2017 @ 9:05 am

    Thank you for the wonderful information, my family is burried here and I did have trouble locating their grave. Many are located in one area but it seems we ran out of room in the family “plot” and needed to begin another location of family members.

    I can remember as a child, the very long procession to the cemetary. It was so far away! When my grandmother passed, we lead the group of cars in the limosine, friends and relatives following behind. The procesion seemed to take forever. It was no surprize that someone actually crashed into several cars in the procession! I am grateful for the recent trend to forgo the procession and simply meet at the cemetary!

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