Religious minorities in the U.P.
As Christians worldwide celebrate the Christmas season, for most other religions its business as usual. Steve Keene visited a town in northern Michigan to ask two religious minorities how they worship in rural America.
Houghton is tucked away on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the northern arm of the U.P. It’s usually known for a couple things. Copper, and Michigan Tech University...well, and snow.
“I was only seeing snow everywhere - like, so, where is this plane gonna land? Is it gonna land in the snow?”
That’s Mujeeb Shittu. He’s the President of the Muslim Student Association at Michigan Tech.
We met with him at a small preschool near the university. His student organization is using it as a prayer room until enough money can be raised for a mosque.
“I was surprised when I got to know that I could, y’know, practice my religion the same way I was practicing it in my country. We pray five times daily.”
Tech has brought students like Mujeeb from all over the world. They’re often from big cities..Mujeeb is from Lagos, Nigeria, the largest city in Africa.
“I checked the profile of the university, where the university is, the town, everything. So I Googled, I saw a lot about Houghton..Then, I was like “okay, it’s a very small town”.
Still, he said he hasn’t been disappointed by the community he’s found. Houghton felt like home his first summer here, when he celebrated the Islamic month of fasting.
“It was really amazing, the first Ramadan I had here. Because Ramadan is, like, very special. It’s a very special month for Muslims and in my country we take it so seriously and it’s really something we look forward to every year. So when I got here, I didn’t know it would be that great also. So we gather together to have iftar - iftar is the breaking of the fast - so the Muslim community gathers together to break the fast together. This is something that I really like so much and it’s something that’s really, really, amazing and it’s something that I like so much here.”
While the Muslim community is one of the largest religious minority groups in Houghton, the Jewish community is one of the oldest.
The one-hundred-year-old Temple Jacob sits on a hill above the Keweenaw River. It’s striking: the red-brick building is adorned with immaculate stained glass windows. It’s topped with a massive copper dome, a reminder of the region’s copper boom. It’s the oldest synagogue in the U.P.
“Have you ever seen a Torah? They’re scrolls, they’re written in Hebrew - on sheepskin, by hand.
Susan Burak (boo-rock) is the president of Temple Jacob. She said the temple history runs deep.
Unfortunately, Temple Jacob was completed right as the cooper boom was winding down. When the mining industry fell, so did the success of the Jewish merchants. Today, there’s only a small community left in the region served by the temple.
“It’s the size of Massachusetts. Approximately 40 families have a Jewish member.”
Burak said the congregation at Temple Jacob is tight-knit and survives with the influx of Jewish students and faculty at the university.
“Israelis, Russian immigrants, secular Jews, couple of Orthodox families. Little bit of everything. And as a community we have to be all things to all people.”
Copper helped make Houghton a community for all people. It might be gone, but the university continues in its place - bringing people of all religious and ethnic backgrounds to this tiny corner of Michigan.