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Bloomfield Hills

Published September 25, 2013

Bloomfield Hills woman inducted into Mich. Hall of Fame

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Judith Levin Cantor doesn’t want to reveal her age, but between her five children and her happy marriage, her career as an author and archivist, and her distinguished position as a historian of Michigan’s Jewish community, she’s packed a lot of accomplishments into her years.

Next month, Cantor will be inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame as part of the 30th anniversary class for her ongoing efforts to promote awareness of Michigan’s Jewish heritage and the community’s history in the state.

Cantor is a fourth-generation Detroiter, stemming from an immigrant family that came to the area in 1891. Her father was one of the first 17 faculty members hired into the newly established Detroit Junior College, which later became Wayne State University. He worked for the university for more than 40 years, and Cantor herself later attended as a graduate student — among other institutions.

“I was a graduate of the University of Michigan and then George Washington University. I had been a history teacher, but when my children were on their way, I became a teacher of English as a Second Language in Bloomfield Hills adult education,” said Cantor. “I loved it, but when I realized my hearing was going, and it was becoming difficult in the classroom, I went to Wayne to become an archivist, where I figured I wouldn’t have many hearing situations. Little did I know, I ended up speaking all throughout the state.”

And talk, she did. Cantor shared her years of research into the history of Michigan’s Jewish community with thousands. She served as president of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, as well as the editor of the society’s journal. She lectured, and designed tours and exhibits at the Detroit Historical Museum and along the Detroit RiverWalk.

“It astonished me to research and to find out that, for example, our people were here as fur traders, traveling 75 days from Montreal by voyageur canoe before the American Revolution,” said Cantor. “Then, to read of their adventures — some were captured by natives and tied to stakes. Then, in the Civil War, when there were only 151 Jewish families in all of Michigan between the Upper and Lower Peninsula, there were 181 Jewish volunteers in the Union armies. That’s more than 1.1 per family.”

Her immense knowledge led her to pen a book on the topic called “Jews in Michigan” as part of the Discovering the Peoples of Michigan series, published by Michigan State University Press. The book sold thousands of copies and was so successful that it has recently been turned into a digital version for Kindle users.

Looking back, Cantor said it was timing and support that allowed her to undertake so much.

“I went back in my mid-50s for my work at the university. And I loved being at Wayne in my mid-50s. By then, you know, my youngest son was well on his way,” she said. “But since then, I’ve been working very hard. And I have terrific cooperation from my husband, who’s equally interested in the history of the American people and Jewish people.”

Over time, the popularity of Cantor’s work prompted historical organizations to do similar research into Michigan’s other ethnic groups, such as metro Detroit’s Polish and Arab populations. Even still, it came as something of a surprise to Cantor to learn she would be honored by the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

“I was very astonished and very humbled because I always felt that I work with a team, and these accomplishments are in the hands of a team now,” she said. “The Jewish Historical Society has a great team, and the Detroit Historical Museum has a great team, and so does the Hall of Fame and the Historical Society of Michigan. I was just a cog in the wheel, I think, of these wonderful organizations.”

Every year, the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame inducts historical, or deceased, women, along with contemporary, or living, women into the Hall of Fame. This year, there are six contemporary and 13 historical women being inducted.

Executive Director Sandy Soifer said the center received about 100 nominations this year, which had to be looked through by two panels of judges before the Michigan Women’s Studies Association board voted on the final inductees.

The 30th anniversary class will join nearly 270 women already in the Hall of Fame, which is located in Lansing, as they are honored during a dinner Oct. 17 at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing.

“These women are tremendous role models for women coming after them, and they set examples in many different areas of achievement,” Soifer said. “People are familiar with the names they know, like Rosa Parks, but the women who you haven’t heard of have stories and accomplishments that are equally as remarkable.”

For Cantor, the honor is flattering, but the real reward for her work resides with those inspired by their own history. She didn’t write it; she simply revealed it.

“All of a sudden, these Jews, who might not realize this fascinating history, have a stronger sense of identity and pride. That brings a great satisfaction to me. I’m thrilled when I hear about that.”

C & G Staff Writer Josh Gordon contributed to this report.

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