Rebuilding the temple

Jul 14, 2010 at 12:00 am

When Martin Herman moved to Detroit to begin his academic career at Wayne State University in 1962, fresh from a year's study in Paris on a Fulbright research grant, the city offered six synagogues within walking distance of his home near Livernois and Curtis. 

Since Herman's arrival, however, the Jewish presence inside Detroit has dissipated. The '67 riots accelerated a suburban migration that began shortly after World War II. Tight-knit communities formed and remain in Oak Park and Southfield, although most of metro Detroit's 72,000 Jews are concentrated in north Oakland County.

By 1989, the year Herman lost his parents, there was only one temple within city limits where the Wayne State musicology professor could attend services and recite Kaddish, the traditional prayer of mourning. As it was then, it is now: Detroit's lone house of Jewish worship is the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

The Isaac Agree Memorial Society built the synagogue in 1926 to accommodate Jews living and working downtown, and those visiting the city. Two location changes and eight decades later, the Downtown Synagogue is in an unusual triangular structure on Griswold, a former Capitol Park department store the society purchased in the early '60s.

Mirroring Judaism in the city — and the city as a whole — its membership and, subsequently, its budget shrank. The synagogue has survived and kept its doors open for weekly shabbat services and high holy days. But as the congregation withered, the building came to look like another anonymous, abandoned downtown Detroit address.

Then the turnaround began. 

On a beautiful
summer day in 2007, Leor Barak, a young lawyer living in Detroit's West Village, found his afternoon free. So he rode his bike downtown and happened to meet and fall into conversation with Larry Mongo, who was tidying up outside Café D'Mongo's Speakeasy, the bar he owns and lives above. That's when Barak discovered that what looks like an abandoned building next door is, in fact, a synagogue. 

A Wayne State student and writer, Courtney Smith, who tends bar at D'Mongo's, also learned about the building next door through Larry. She was hipped to the vacant living space upstairs, and asked what he knew about getting in touch with the landlord.

"Until that point, I didn't even know the building was a synagogue, and I had certainly never been inside," she says. 

Smith also met Barak at D'Mongo's, and the talk, as Smith recounts it, went something like: "You're Jewish, I'm Jewish, we both live downtown. Let's save the synagogue." 

Through the next year, they met and mingled with other young Jews among the crowds frequenting D'Mongo's. A group of mostly twentysomethings who'd grown up in the burbs and lived or worked in the city formed the Detroit Synagogue Action Committee to save the place. They assembled a ragtag team of crusaders, including filmmaker Oren Goldenberg and nonprofit program officer Mitch Alexander, among others. Board member DaVid Powell, the synagogue's caretaker and a civil rights attorney, acted as a go-between, helping the committee find its way into the small synagogue community, while Wayne State academic Kathryn Lindberg assisted with strategizing. Eventually, the committee members bought memberships, recruited friends and campaigned for officer positions on the platform of preservation. But as the renegade group fought to gain credibility, they encountered some resistance among the longtime board officers, a conflict Herman describes as "a breakdown of communication."

The Griswold facility requires extensive repairs and renovations. While the board explored relocating — or even dissolving the synagogue entirely, since a formal consecrated space isn't required for worship — the committee saw preservation of the building as pivotal for a fledging downtown community, perhaps even the key to the future of the congregation.

Barak casts the issue of the synagogue in both a spiritual and social context. The Jewish concept of tikkun olam translates from Hebrew as "repair the world," emphasizing social activism as an expression of faith. Barak applies tikkun olam to the inner city; he visualizes a rebirth of the synagogue as an egalitarian, socially conscious institution that can maintain at least somewhat traditional services. Whereas most American Jews identify as reform, conservative or varying degrees of orthodox, the conventionally conservative Downtown Synagogue is taking on a less dogmatic and more communally oriented character. Whether it's reform or conservative might be an individual question rather than one posited to the entire congregation. 

"We're a younger, more secular generation," Barak says, "We saw this as an opportunity to revitalize Detroit and reconnect with Judaism." 

After what Smith described as a "tumultuous" election in December 2008, and the huffy resignation of some older board members, several committee members took power as newly elected officers, with only Powell and Herman staying on. 

Though still financially strapped, the reinvented Downtown Synagogue has seen increased membership in recent years, expanded social and educational programming, including dance parties and lunch-and-learn torah study, as well as the establishment of a new administrative structure, complete with a system of dedicated committees for fundraising, facilities, public relations, and social events. With more than 400 addresses on their mailing list, Herman says the synagogue has somewhere around 150 to 175 paid members. "Generally, 15 or so worshippers regularly attend shabbat services. On occasion, as few as 10 or as many as 25 may be present," Herman says. "Interestingly, a number of our regular attendees are not Jewish. Since several of them have been coming regularly for a number of years, they apparently find something meaningful in the services."

The House committee, headed by midtown property manager Jay Bassin, oversees the building. Since getting involved last year, Bassin and his family have established a youth community service program. "Kids come in one Sunday per month to help clean up the synagogue," Bassin explains. The group is made up mostly of teenage boys from a local chapter of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. "Our collective efforts are getting things on a positive track," he says.

Fundraising continues to be the biggest challenge, says Barak, now board secretary, who remains optimistic as he plans for a capital campaign. "We're calling up every Jew in Detroit," he says. He'll also reach out to suburban synagogues and even non-Jewish communities, maintaining that everyone's lots are cast together these days.

"What happens in the city affects the suburbs, and we're building a positive community downtown," Barak says. "All Detroiters should support the synagogue."

"I'm impressed with the commitment these young people have shown," Herman says of the new board, but he remains pragmatic. A contractor estimated that it would take $450,000 to completely update the facility and finish the vacant upper floors. Herman isn't sure where that money is coming from. And with regard to the "renaissance of sorts" happening downtown these days, he's not sure the city's Jewish population has the income to support the synagogue as part of the regional revival. 

"But," he adds with a smile, "I hope I'm wrong and they're right."

And they just might be. Collaborations with other local organizations are harnessing resources and enthusiasm from the city's Jewish population. Last fall, for instance, the synagogue collaborated with the Burton Theatre to host a concert showcasing local bands the Earwhigs and Illy Mack. New events are always being planned.

Smith hopes that the synagogue's programming will contribute to a sidewalk culture during the warmer months. It's a real possibility with the renovation of Capitol Park underway, the opening of new businesses along Woodward, and foot traffic spilling over from D'Mongo's and the nearby Westin Book Cadillac.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Barak says, but momentum is building. Says Larry Mongo, "Looking at these kids, you can see why Judaism's been around for 3,000 years."

For more information

Block Party!

LOVELAND Micro-Real Estate is a unique organization that sells virtual space in an online "micro-hood" for $1 per square-inch as a fundraiser for real places in Detroit. On July 17, LOVELAND and the Downtown Synagogue will host an "Inch-vestors" party at both the synagogue and Cafe D'Mongo's. Attractions include Dan Land and Gabe Hall's trippy video projections, musical provocateur Greg Baise spinning records and local bands, including the Reelers and Lightning Love, to name a few. Local artist Marianne Audrey Burrows will paint a giant mural.  See

Sallyann Price is a Metro Times intern. Send comments to [email protected]