Jewish Center Orchestra

Focus of musical achievement for greater Detroit

The Jewish Center Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Julius Chajes, earned national prestige for its success in attracting world-renowned figures in composition and performances, mentoring and developing young talent, bringing a new level of music appreciation to the Detroit metropolitan area, and extending its influence as a first-class symphony around the world.

The Jewish Community Center in the 1940s became the focus of musical achievement for the greater Detroit community. The Jewish Community Center at Woodward and Holbrook was the first Jewish Center in Detroit, dedicated in 1933 and enlarged in 1939. A fledgling Jewish Center Orchestra began there under the direction of Valter Poole, a violist and assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Poole was given the directorship under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), designed in 1939 to offer work to the unemployed. Musicians, artists, and writers were offered employment under the Federal Arts Project, a division of the WPA, to provide art in non-federal government buildings.

In 1940, prominent New York pianist Julius Chajes was hired as musical director of the Jewish Community Center in Detroit, where he would remain a leading member of Detroit’s musical community for the next 45 years. Under Chajes, the Jewish Center Orchestra evolved into a semi-professional ensemble comprised of both adults and young performers. Among the many notable Chajes disciples are Joseph Silverstein, concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Joseph Gingold, one-time director of the Jewish Center Orchestra, who became concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony and subsequently, director of the Cleveland Symphony.

Perhaps because of the uncertain situation of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra during the WWII years, the Jewish Center Orchestra became a repository of musical life for the entire city of Detroit and its surrounding communities, adding Detroit Symphony musicians to its ranks of amateurs. The performances were highly acclaimed in numerous Detroit News articles in the 1950s.

Chajes’ forward thinking was also evident throughout the 1950s, in awarding a majority of the first chair positions to women, long before the women’s liberation movement.

Detroit Mayor Louis Miriani proclaimed February 7, 1961 as Julius Chajes Day, noting that Chajes “has contributed to the cultural development of this city, raising the Center Symphony Orchestra to a position of eminence among community orchestras in Michigan.”

Chajes remained as head of the orchestra until shortly before his death in early 1985. In those last years, the orchestra performed at the newly built Jewish Community Center on Maple and Drake in West Bloomfield. In March 1985, a long-scheduled concert featuring Chajes on the piano became, instead, a memorial to the beloved leader. When Chajes passed away before the concert, orchestra members dedicated the program to his career.

Photo: JCC Orchestra, circa 1941. Courtesy of the Jewish Community Archives, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

For more information: Shapiro, Marilyn. “The Jewish Center Orchestra.” Michigan Jewish History (Fall 2011): 12-20.

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