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Jewish Country Clubs Still Alive and Well

Last night, I attended the Michigan Region of the Anti-Defamation League’s annual event at Knollwood Country Club in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Knollwood is one of three Jewish country clubs in the Metro Detroit area and the fact that this event is held at a country club every year wasn’t lost on me. There was a time in the not so distant past that local country clubs (including Oakland Hills Country Club just down the road from Knollwood) had unwritten rules barring Jews from membership. Thanks to the work of the ADL, such discrimination is virtually unheard of anymore.

As the ADL prepares to mark its centennial year, it is important to remember that the ADL is unique as a national Jewish communal organization in that it wants to be able to go out of business. Unfortunately, so long as anti-Semitism exists in the world — and sadly it still does — the ADL will have to stay in business. I first became involved with the ADL as a college student when, through the Jewish Student Union, I helped organize a one-day conference on anti-Semitism. Later that summer I served an internship at the Michigan regional office of the ADL and was directly mentored by Dick Lobenthal, a national legend in the fight against prejudice, racism, and intolerance. This year I am once again finding myself actively involved with the ADL as a Glass Leadership Program participant.

Augusta National didn’t admit its first Jewish members until the 1980s. Many local golf and country clubs in Michigan had unwritten rules restricting the members of Blacks and Jews.

Sitting in that Jewish country club last night with several hundred other supporters of the ADL’s important work, I considered the reasons that Jewish country clubs are still in existence. At a time when Jewish men and women are no longer restricted from membership at country clubs, these Jewish clubs remain throughout the country. While Jewish hospitals (Detroit’s Sinai Hospital closed several years ago) and universities (Brandeis is only about 60% Jewish today) are no longer in existence, Jewish country clubs have endured. In the Metro Detroit area there are three Jewish clubs within a five mile radius of each other.

This past summer I was asked to write an article for the Tam-O-Shanter Country Club’s newsletter about the importance of Jewish country clubs in the 21st century. Here is what I wrote:

I recently discovered that every episode of the 1980s TV sitcom “Family Ties” are available on Netflix. Growing up, I always enjoyed watching that show on Thursday nights and I thought my children might enjoy it too. So, I streamed the pilot episode which first aired 30 years ago in 1982. My 8 1/2-year-old son and I sat down and watched it together.

I was immediately reminded that the TV shows from the 80s were more values focused. This particular episode dealt with Alex Keaton’s girlfriend taking him to her family’s restricted country club for dinner. It was the first time my son had ever heard that clubs existed that restricted minorities from membership. He looked at me dumbfounded.

I pressed “Pause” on Netflix and began to explain bigotry and racism to my wonderfully innocent son. I pictured my own father explaining this to me some 30 years prior when I first viewed this episode of “Family Ties.” The first sentence I said to him was, “This is why Tam exists!”

The reason we have Jewish country clubs like Tam-O-Shanter, I explained, is because decades ago Jewish people were forbidden to join the existing golf clubs in our area. Not only did Jewish visionaries around the country build clubs for their own ranks, they created some of the most beautiful golf courses and luxurious country clubs.

Thankfully, times are much better today and local clubs are open to Jewish membership, but the Jewish clubs have endured. Not only is Tam still strong today, it has maintained its Jewish essence. Passover seders, Shabbat dinners, and break-the-fast meals are highlights of Tam’s annual calendar. Over the years, Tam has played host to several golf outings for Jewish organizations including Michigan State Hillel and the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation, in addition to hosting events for AIPAC, Jewish Senior Life, and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The locker room at Tam often sounds like a local version of the Broadway show “Old Men Telling Jewish Jokes” and it’s not uncommon to hear some chosen Yiddish expressions tossed around on the golf course.

As [club owner] Sheldon [Yellen] often remarks, “It’s important to keep Tam a Jewish club.” And it is. The “No Jews Allowed” policy at country clubs is a thing of the past, but Jewish clubs are still necessities for our community. After watching that episode of “Family Ties” with my son, I think he will feel a stronger connection to Tam. I know I will.

Jewish country clubs may not exist anymore in response to anti-Semitism, but their existence does remind us of a darker time in our country. I for one am glad that the Anti-Defamation League is strong and continues to serve our community to stop the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all. As the ADL approaches its centennial year, we should realize the importance of this organization and celebrate its successes.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |