How many of you out there remember the Jewish businessmen of Oceana County? If it’s a relatively small show of hands, that’s not surprising. There were only a handful, and they were prominent many years ago.
But there are still Oceana residents out there who are old enough to recall these men—and not too old to share them. And so, at the Feb. 18 meeting of the Oceana County Historical and Genealogical Society’s SOS—Share Our Stories—get together at the Ladder Community Center in Shelby, where the topic was “Jewish Businessmen in Oceana County,” the room was packed with participants eager to share their memories of Joseph Singer, Max Field, Jack Lebovitz and Abe Rafelson, four men who were born before the turn of the 20th century, emigrated to the United States from distant lands, and ended up in our woods to make new lives, new friends and an indelible mark on a community where Jews were, to put it mildly, a rarity.
Led by the historical society’s indefatigable Esther Moul, perhaps our county’s most avid history buff, the meeting took off with an overview of the life of Mr. Singer, who was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1899, came with his parents to Chicago in 1902, and ended up in Hart, where he purchased 58 acres east of the city on Walkerville Road in 1948 and raised cherries. He was also the owner of the Sta-Pocket Pants Manufacturing Company, on State Street, the site of the current West Michigan Carpet Center.
Singer was a fascinating addition to the Hart landscape—an orthodox Jew who kept kosher—observing strict Jewish dietary rules—and kept the equally strict rules of the ‘Shabat,” or Sabbath, which forbade any form of working from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday—including driving. Attendees remembered Singer walking to his pants company from his home on Saturdays, a rather hefty jaunt. Former county probate Judge Walt Urick in particular had many memories of Singer, the Urick’s next door neighbor.
“We knew the Singers well,” Urick recalled. “My dad was hired by Joe Singer as a pants presser in 1943, when he had to close his own dry cleaning operation because it was wartime and the solvents he needed weren’t available. Joe built a beautiful house next to us, and I often went over there. His wife, Evelyn, was an accomplished pianist and a fabulous cook. I remember her telling us that the secret to her pie crust, which was so delicious and flaky, was corn flakes!”
But perhaps the most important impact Joe Singer had on young Walt was to point him in the direction of his destiny.
“Joe went to law school, and he’d talk to me about law when I was in the fourth grade,” Urick said. “And maybe that’s why I ended up in law. The Singers made me see the world in a bigger way. They were very talented people.”
Esther Moul had her own memories of the Singers.
“I went to Hart High School with Joe and Evelyn’s daughter, Judy,” she noted. “We were dear friends and graduated together in 1948, the year Israel became a state, and Judy was so excited. It was a great moment in history.”
Then there was Jack Lebovitz, alias,“Jack the Jew.”
“You could never use that term today,” Urick observed. “It would be considered the worst ethnic slur. But back then, it was a completely affectionate nickname. Nobody meant anything bad by it. And not only was that how Jack was known—it was what he called himself! It was even in his obituary!”
Indeed, when Lebovitz died in 1984, his obituary began: “Jack Lebovitz of Hart, affectionately known as ‘Jack the Jew,’ by friends throughout the county, passed away at Mercy Hospital on October 9…”
Lebovitz escaped from Russia in 1918 during the Bolshevik Revolution, hidden in his uncle’s cattle truck. Later he worked buying cattle in the Detroit area “until he discovered Oceana County in 1930,” the obit continues. “He fell in love with this area and its people and carried on a produce business here for some 50 years while living in Shelby and Hart townships.”
Lebovitz owned a pickle station at Twin Bridges. Although he was the most congenial of men, he never married—a fact not lost on Evelyn Singer.
“Evelyn was always playing matchmaker,” laughed Urick. “She tried to pair Jack up with a lovely gal named Lucille. It didn’t work out, but Evelyn’s brother, who was a doctor in Cleveland, met Lucille and ended up marrying her! So Lucille became Evelyn’s sister-in-law!”
Esther Moul attested to Lebovitz’s good nature.
“My cousin’s daughter wrote to me about him. ‘Jack the Jew was us kids’ favorite place to go trick or treating. Not only was he so generous to us. But he wanted us to sit and talk with him.’”
“I remember him as a happy person,” nodded Marge Peterson. “Very friendly with the kids. So friendly.”
Charles Jensen had equally fond memories of Lebovitz. “I knew Jack the Jew. I grew up a few miles north of his pickle station. We never had pop as kids, and he’d go to his cooler and give us bottles of pop. And I worked for him when, for a brief period, he had his Christmas trees.”
Longtime Hart attorney Cliff Prince shared a special memory of Lebovitz.
“Jack was a client of mine. I drafted a will for him. Since he had no relatives in the area, I became his personal representative, and I ended up with his cremains.
“But in the Jewish religion, cremation is not allowed. His family finally decided to bury him in the Jewish cemetery in Chicago. My wife and I drove down for the burial. During the ceremony, his family handed me a shovel, even though I wasn’t Jewish, and I was quite honored to throw a little dirt on his grave.”
Max Field, the county’s most personable junkman, was known for a similarly kind nature.
“My mother had a cheese business,” said Walt Urick’s brother, John. “She made this wonderful farmer’s cheese, and Max would come to the house to buy it. But on one of his visits, she had run out. When he asked why, she replied, ‘You buy me another cow and I’ll have more cheese.’ So he gave her the money and said, ‘Buy the cow!’”
Field was born in Russia in 1884. He had a tough life. His parents died when he was young, and he went to work as a farmer. When he came to Hart, he went into the salvage business, and owned a junkyard for 30 years. He died in 1954 at the age of 70.
Abe Rafelson was known for his pickle station on East Main Street. A successful businessman with offices as far away as Chicago, Rafelson was beloved by the community for, among other things, his charitable works. The Rafelson Building was a welcome gathering place for the kids in the area, offering them a great way to make good money in their spare time.
“You’d go downtown and a truck would pick you up and take you to the farm to pick pickles,” remembered Marge Peterson. “It was a good way for us kids to make money.”
“I got paid so much for a bushel,” Walt Urick nodded. “From the sixth through ninth grades it was the most money I ever made.”
An obvious question one could ask is, how accepted were these Jews by a firmly rooted Christian community? Were they considered strange in any way? Was there any sort of prejudice towards them?
And the answer is an unequivocal “No.”
Moul recalled how welcoming the Christian community was to their Jewish brothers and sisters.
“I remember my pastor telling me, ‘You be good friends with Judy Singer. Because the Jews are God’s chosen people.”
That, by all accounts, was the prevailing attitude in Oceana towards the Jewish members of the community. Despite the fact that America had fought to defeat the Nazis and their world-wide scourge of anti-Semitism in WWII, many parts of our own country were not immune to this sad and appalling phenomenon. But in Oceana, Jews apparently were held in high regard, and accepted with genuine warmth.
“Neighbors were neighbors,” observed Moul.
“In Oceana County, I don’t think your religion or nationality mattered,” reflected Peterson. “We were neighbors. That’s what it was all about.”
Oceana’s seasonal weight restrictions will begin Monday, March 2 at 6 a.m.
Earlier this week, the Oceana County Road Commission was working with Mason and Lake county road commissions along with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to implement seasonal weight and speed restrictions in the respective counties and region. Oceana Road Commission Manager Mark Timmer said they were checking frost depths under the roadways and would reevaluate.
Timmer also expects the summer road work picture to become more clear in the next week. He said the road commission has some commitment from townships right now, but will know more later on.
MDOT has a few projects on tap for Oceana County this summer. According to MDOT spokesman John Richard, MDOT has a $1.4 million culvert replacement project planned on BR-31 (Polk Road) over Russell Creek in Hart just of the northbound expressway on/off ramps. The project is slated for Sept. 14 to Nov. 2.
Also in Hart, MDOT plans to do pin and hanger replacement and full bridge painting on the Oceana Drive bridge over the Pentwater River near John Gurney Park. The project is estimated at $1.4 million and is scheduled for April 13 to Aug. 10. Finally, the southbound US-31 bridge over the north branch of the Pentwater River north of the Monroe Road interchange is scheduled for joint and deck patching. The project is estimated at $328,000 and likely will take place after Labor Day.
Spectrum Health informed its patients of the Pentwater clinic that it is consolidating its care with its family medicine office in Hart late last month.
A letter to patients signed by Helen Johnson, chief operating officer and interim president of Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, explained that Dr. Allan Nelson; Renita Diehlman, nurse practitioner; and Jordan Maccoux, physician’s assistant; are all seeing patients in the Hart office.
“Many of the staff have been going back-and-forth between the two offices for a few years,” Johnson said. “They would meet with some patients in the morning in one location and then have appointments with patients in the other location.”
None of the employees at the Pentwater clinic will lose their positions. Some will transition to either the Hart medical office or to other Spectrum Health offices in Ludington, Johnson said.
The Pentwater office, at 500 N. Hancock St. in Pentwater, has seen a decline over the past few years in patients being seen, Johnson said. She was unsure if the problems with Longbridge Road south of the Village of Pentwater also played a role in the fewer number of patients being seen at the Pentwater office that was north of the village. Overall, roughly 1,000 patients will be affected by the change, Johnson said, with many of those people actually calling Mason County home.
The Pentwater office was limited in some of the services offered, where the Hart location has more services available for patients, Johnson said.
“The Hart office has a bigger footprint. There is a full service lab, radiology and behavioral health services there,” she said of the location at 2481 N. 72nd Ave. in Hart. “They can have it all integrated in one site.”
In the letter to patients, Johnson wrote the medical records of the patients are already in Spectrum Health’s system, and the patients won’t need to worry about transferring those records to the new location.
The office hours for Hart location will also be expanded on Wednesdays and Thursdays with an additional hour at the end of the day. The Hart location those days, after the consolidation, will be from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. The hours on Mondays (7 a.m. until 6 p.m.), Tuesdays (7 a.m. until 7 p.m.) and Fridays (7 a.m. until 5 p.m.) will remain the same.
The building in Pentwater was being leased by Spectrum Health from Nelson. Johnson said once the consolidation of the office is complete April 9, the building will not sit vacant long-term. Rather, it was sold to Pentwater Township. The township will take possession of the building in July.
Pentwater Township Clerk Sue Ann Johnson said the township closed on the property, and confirmed the township taking ownership of the building in July.