Interviewee: Arnie Sleutelberg
Interviewer: Dena Scher
Interview Date: November 12, 2015
Location: Troy, MI
Interview No.: 11.12.15-AS (audio digital file)
(Approximate total length: 49 minutes)
Themes: Jewish Identity, Anti-Semitism, Doctrine, Holocaust, Jewish Gentile Relations, Observance, Upbringing
Summary: Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg’s upbringing in Hudson, MI featured a reverence for Judaism observed in secret from the rest of the community. Sleutelberg reflects on this as a he examines his parent’s flight from the Holocaust, the path to rabbinical school, and his own sexuality in this interview.
Example of proper citation/attribution:
Scher, D. (Interviewer) & Sleutelberg, A. (Interviewee). (2015). Arnie Sleutelberg: Jewish Journeys [Interview Index]. Retrieved from Jewish Journeys Oral History Collection of Congregation Shir Tikvah: https://shirtikvah.org/cstoralhistoryarchive
Note: Counter index corresponds to track times when loaded into iTunes.
00:50 Grandparents hail from the Netherlands, mother’s family originally from Germany and mother born in southern part of Holland, Father’s family from northern part of Holland
2:39 Paternal grandparents had family in Germany, heard what was happening with Kristallnacht, were worried that Germany would come through Holland if there were another war, sold everything and caught the last boat to America, settling in Quincy, MI where a relative lived. Relative had intermarried some decades before and moved to America.
4:13 Mother’s side went into hiding, mother hid in attic of a farmhouse for two years. Grandmother, grandfather, and mother’s two siblings survived but extended family, some 70 extended family members were killed. Mother’s story is detailed in Shoah collection. Mother and father were put together as pen pals in 1953, fell in love, were married in Indiana and then held a chuppah in Holland. Were married 50 years.
6:56 Grandfather had had a kosher meat market in Holland but opted to get into clothing business in America, were living in Quincy with relative’s family and saw that nearby Hudson had a storefront opening up and decided to settle there in mid-1940. Sister born in 1955, Arnie born in 1958 - grew up in Hudson as the only Jewish family in town.
8:22 Grandparents didn’t know how war was going to turn out in 1939, wanted to play it safe by settling in a small town and never admit to being Jewish, were very Jewish in the home but were not to speak about it outside the home. Had stock answers to questions about where they attended church, would attend church dinners as well as Christmas eve at the Methodist church and the Catholic midnight mass. Within house very Jewish.
12:26 Clothing business booming with three clothing stores in Hudson
12:54 When Arnie was in fifth grade, 1968, family joined a synagogue, had not wanted their name on any Jewish lists before that. Reason for hiding Judaism had morphed over time from one of safety to one of store patronage, family was worried that if people knew they were Jewish they wouldn’t shop there but Arnie feels this was erroneous thinking as everyone knew they were Jewish anyway.
14:53 One incident of anti-Semitism, cousin saw anti-Semitic sentiment painted on store and was washed off quickly. Five or so Catholic school kids pushed Arnie around and yelled epithets at him. Hiding Judaism was relaxed as Arnie grew into a teenager
17:31 Bar Mitzvah in Jackson a poignant moment in Arnie’s upbringing - being excited about Bar Mitzvah in school but not being able to tell classmates about what was happening that night. Later, in High School the band director selected the March for Israel in New York as the parade the school would participate in, leading to the band playing Hava Nagila and carrying the Israeli flag next to the American flag for a whole year at football games as they raised money for the trip.
19:49 By 9th or 10th grade family was not shying away from Jewish identity - had a powerful moment in New York as part of the parade - singing of Hatikvah was a pivotal moment for Arnie as he felt all of the Hudson band looking at him and he didn’t know the words “I realized at that moment that if I was going to be a jew and recognized as a Jew I needed to know what that meant” - felt terribly embarrassed by this.
23:16 Found other Jewish friends at Albion college, went on to lead Jewish student organization on campus, able to build on love for Judaism instilled by parents even with not talking about it publicly during upbringing
25:41 Started path to Jewish leadership at Albion College, was thinking about teaching, law, or business as a career though - couldn’t decide which so ended up taking a year off during which he did recruitment for Albion College from outside of Michigan - also sought career counseling at this time, brought out the choice of Rabbinical studies
29:33 Traits of being a Rabbi - counseling, public speaking, public relations all appealed - also intrigued by the variety of the work. Went on to apply to Hebrew Union College
30:45 Was aware of sexual orientation but Hebrew Union not accepting gay applicants, convinced himself that he wasn’t gay at that time as he had passed orientation tests. Did not deal personally with sexual orientation until the age of 25, attributes ability to stay in the closet to growing up keeping Judaism a secret. Started telling friends and family
34:52 “I had sort of convinced myself, so stupidly, that everything I held dear would be taken away if anybody knew (about my sexuality), and I’ve had almost no issues at all with anybody.” - the world has seemed to change as he has come out, Hebrew Union changed ordainment policy, US recognized gay marriage at a time when he needed to get married
36:17 Really took to Rabbinical studies, enjoyed serving underserved Jewish populations, started in Traverse City, served there half time while at Shir Tikvah as well. Also served in Sandusky, OH and Huntington County, NJ - Also enjoyed living in Israel as part of the program at Hebrew Union.
38:10 Ordained in 1988 in New York at Temple Emanuel on 5th Avenue - parents asked if he wanted anyone from Holland at ordination, asked that family that saved his mother from holocaust be present, widow of man who took mother into hiding and individuals from family who housed mother came to ordination, was a highlight of the ordination
40:46 Met some Shir Tikvah leaders while at Traverse City, loved the “something from nothing” feel of Shir Tikvah - excitement was infectious - started with half time arrangement - Shir Tikvah grew and he became full time Rabbi.
41:09 Reflections on being a gay rabbinical student, at the time in New York the gay students were worried they would not be ordained if found to be gay - on the whole they did not come out. Felt at the time that his sexuality was irrelevant to him being a Rabbi. As he came to know the congregation better, worries about being in the closet faded
46:11 28 years of service as a Rabbi - has inspired him through the depth of learning involved, has loved the teaching, has enjoyed the spiritual uplift of Renewal movement, feels enriched by the experience.
48:11 Shir Tikvah is special across the United States as a pioneer in LGBT, spirituality and interfaith arenas and feels incredibly fortunate to have been the Rabbi