The Last Synagogue Standing
Jewish life in Detroit isn’t dead.
In fact, it’s having a hipster rebirth.
We’re across the street from a strip club called Cobras advertising something called “The Grind Downtown,” and we’re dancing with the Torah. Through downtown Detroit, a group of 100 or so is parading down the sidewalks of Griswold Street and Grand River Avenue, hoisting the scrolls and chanting Hebrew songs in honor of Simchat Torah. The celebration began a few hours ago, inside the 1960s-era wood-paneled walls of Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue’s sanctuary, where, in between Torah readings, the congregation’s director, 28-year-old Anna Kohn, and its president, 33-year-old Leor Barak, plied worshippers with shots of vodka and whiskey. (Later, perhaps at the request of a weak-stomached congregant, orange juice was gamely added to some of the vodka.)
The last synagogue in Detroit attracts an eclectic crowd, a mix of young and old, hip and staid, black and white. During the service, the young man with the trendy haircut who acts as leader dangles a prayer shawl and calls out from the bima, “Anyone want a tallit? We’ve got a great tallit.” One worshipper, wearing rings on his fingers and a jean jacket, thumbs through a siddur, a kippah precariously perched on his mass of untamed curls. A middle-aged woman clad in black, lips carefully lined, claps as celebrants dance around the Torah. Outside, a 20-something African-American man with dreadlocks and a tallit wrapped around his shoulders blows a shofar. Hebrew songs carry through the still-warm September evening. An African-American boy is raised above the crowd on a folding chair as his mother snaps pictures with her cell phone and points to her other children. “I want them to remember these days for their children,” she says.
Besides the revelers, the streets are quiet; several people comment that such a celebration would be impossible in the traffic of a city like Chicago. Capitol Park, a downtown Detroit business district with a few residences, is largely deserted by night. Although there are skyscrapers and an enormous banner on the side of one nearby building exhorting business owners to “Outsource to Detroit,” there’s a muted quality to the area. Kohn describes it as a neighborhood “on the verge of revitalization.”
Just about a mile away, the Gatsby-esque Gilded Age mansions of the city’s Brush Park neighborhood sit mostly abandoned, their grand turrets marred by boarded-up windows. Large empty lots are occasionally dotted with signs advertising allegedly forthcoming condominiums. Gawkers take photos in front of the grandly decrepit Michigan Central Station, the 18-story structure that was the tallest rail station in the world when its construction was completed in 1913. It ceased functioning when the last train left the station in 1988; today, its windows are mostly empty of glass, and you can see through all 18 of its floors.
Detroit—which earlier this year filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history—has seen its population decline from a peak of 1.86 million in 1950 to 700,000 in 2012, according to U.S. Census figures. Much of the population is poor. The city’s future weighs on the consciences of many synagogue-goers now dancing in the streets, says Kohn. “Some people are totally committed to the identity of Detroit, and saying, ‘We’re here and we’re not going anywhere, and this place is stronger than ever.’”
Detroit’s first Jewish settler, Chapman Abraham, arrived by canoe in 1762. A fur trader from Montreal, Abraham paddled between the two cities annually on the St. Lawrence Seaway, a voyage that took 75 days each way. Jews settled in Detroit, establishing the first congregation—the Orthodox Bet El, later Beth El—in 1850. Within a few decades, the synagogue became Reform, spurring an Orthodox offshoot, called Shaarey Zedek. The two congregations became the grande dames of Detroit Jewish life.
Detroit attracted a massive number of Jews as Eastern European pogroms worsened and immigration to the United States swelled in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “That was the time when you saw the big proliferation of congregations and large communities,” says Wendy Rose Bice, director of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. Jews settled in an area known as Hastings Street, eventually moving further north as the city expanded. “There were many, many synagogues, especially, in those years, very small, block-based synagogues where observant Jews would walk for their daily minyan or Shabbat services,” says Bice. Social service agencies sprang up, and many Jews worked as clothiers or other retailers, while others flocked to the thriving auto industry.
It was in the midst of this, in 1921, that the Isaac Agree Memorial Society was established. Agree was a Russian immigrant who came to Detroit in 1904, after spending time in New York. Two of Agree’s sons—along with members of four other families—created the memorial society, a socially conscious organization dedicated to creating an Orthodox house of worship with no membership fees. At first the congregation met in a house in the North End, then the center of the city’s Jewish life; for some decades, the synagogue was peripatetic, finally moving downtown in 1937. In the 1940s it switched affiliations from Orthodox to Conservative and was renamed Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. The move accommodated “a need for a synagogue in the hub of the downtown business district,” says Bice. Kohn concurs, saying that the synagogue functioned as a sort of “commuter synagogue” for businessmen who worked downtown and might need a place to say kaddish or attend services during the workday. In 1962, the synagogue purchased a Fintex Men’s Clothing store on the same street as its existing location—the building with mid-century color-blocked windows is still the congregation’s home.
A beloved rabbi, Noah Gamze, led the congregation from 1963 to 2001. “From what I understand, he was just a mensch in every way,” says Kohn. During his tenure, the neighborhood fell upon difficult times. Locally famous raconteur Larry Mongo, owner of the well-known Detroit nightspot Café D’Mongo’s, next door to the synagogue, knew Gamze during that era. It was a time when, especially during the crack epidemic of the 1980s, “the pigeons left. There was no food. It was that bad,” says Mongo. Despite the neighborhood’s reputation for roughness, Gamze was a respected presence—and unafraid of Detroit’s seedier side. “In the heyday of that club, it was known for nothing but black gangsters and politicians,” says Mongo. “I had the power brokers of the black underworld. I knew these guys personally—they had no caring for anything. We’re talking about people who stole from their mothers. But [Gamze] would disarm them. They had respect for him.”
Still, the rabbi’s reputation wasn’t enough to overcome the exodus of Jews from the city to the suburbs. After the riots of 1967, the community fled north to suburbs such as West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills and Southfield. Today, West Bloomfield is home to the area’s Jewish Community Center, an expansive complex of rolling hills that encompasses an art gallery, day school and elderly living facilities—the kind of Jewish hub with an area called the “Soviet Jewry Freedom Grove,” and a Holocaust memorial sculpture named “The Last Kaddish.” Synagogues with sprawling grounds line streets with names such as Walnut Lake Road and Orchard Lake Road.
Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue stayed put. The other synagogues within city limits had morphed in the wake of dwindling Jewish communities. The grand-looking Beth El on Detroit’s main street, Woodward Avenue, became a church, as did the similarly impressive Shaarey Zedek (once attended by baseball icon and legendary Yom Kippur observer Hank Greenberg), though the congregations still exist in the suburbs. A small number of Jewish organizations stayed, and occasionally, a new one even popped up—in 2000, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit started holding services, and continues to do so in a space shared with a church.
Gamze retired in 2001, two years before his death—and congregant Martin Herman, a retired university professor, became the de facto ritual director. Services were regularly held only on Saturday mornings, and even then, rustling up a quorum of 10 Jews could prove problematic. The building quietly went on the market after Gamze’s death—and here’s where a bit of urban legend comes in. Mongo, the bar owner, says that the owner of the strip club across the street and another local businessman approached him to go in on the building together. Mongo, who felt a loyalty to Gamze and to the synagogue, threatened to notify the synagogue of the plans to turn it into a restaurant. “I told them, ‘You don’t have enough money with all the free lawyers that’s gonna keep you in court,’” Mongo says. The building remained for sale, on and off, until 2007.
That’s when current synagogue president Leor Barak and some friends stumbled upon the largely neglected building—though the story of how this occurred varies. “I was drinking next door at D’Mongo’s, and the waitress came up and asked if I was Jewish,” says Oren Goldenberg, a 30-year-old video artist and synagogue board member, who has made a number of documentaries about Detroit, plus a satiric web series called “Detroit (Blank) City.” “She told me there was a synagogue next door. It’s hard to tell when the lights are out.”
Barak’s story differs. “I was walking down the street,” he says. “My meeting was canceled. I saw this building. I saw Larry Mongo, the club owner next door,” who told Barak it was a synagogue. Either way, Barak and Goldenberg—both Detroit-area natives—and a few others found the building’s door unlocked, and DaVid Powell, a board member who also serves as caretaker, inside. Powell told them that it was the last synagogue in Detroit—and that it was for sale. “I thought there should be a synagogue in the city of Detroit,” says Goldenberg. “A few of us got together and got excited about saving the synagogue,” Barak says. Some call what followed a revitalization. Others didn’t see it so favorably.
Barak, a compact man with a gleaming shaved head who is a real estate and business lawyer, makes no bones about the improbability of his role as synagogue president—or about the tensions surrounding the administrative changes. Some board members, he says, wanted to know what gave him the authority to run a synagogue. “They were right—I can barely read Hebrew.” The board was in disagreement over whether or not to sell the building, says Barak. Instead, Barak and some friends—intent that the Downtown Synagogue should stay both downtown and a synagogue—managed to wrest control of the board. “A number of board members were pretty upset,” says Barak. “They thought we were young, know-it-all idiots who came in and thought they can save the building. Those board members left.” Kohn says that the older generation of board members “wanted things to stay as they were. The new generation wanted things to progress to a community that was reflective of the new Jewish activity in Detroit.”
Today, the synagogue operates on a lay-led, egalitarian Conservative model. Membership—which has increased from 180 to more than 300 since Kohn came on as director in the fall of 2012—can only cover so much. “Membership pays to keep the doors open. Membership pays for our basic needs,” says Kohn. The cost to join—$75 a year for an individual, $100 for families—is intentionally low; the organization’s bylaws stipulate that the congregation is officially free. The operating budget for 2013 is $300,000, though it is more typically about $150,000—a well-publicized fundraising campaign this year brought in the additional revenue. Other financial support comes from local foundations and funds.
Some improvements have been made to the building—a second bathroom has doubled the number of restrooms. Many more refurbishments are on the wish list. An elevator, which would make the second-story sanctuary handicapped-accessible, would cost $200,000. A fire escape, too, is among the much-needed updates. “We can’t really do a lot until we get a fire escape,” says Kohn, whose voluminous curly hair and enthusiastic gesticulations match her outsize energy. “Everybody’s talking about, ‘Oh, siddur this, oh, walls that, oh, a bike rack,’ and I’m like, ‘Fire escape! We’re all gonna die!’” Only the first and second floors of the building are usable. The mostly empty rooms on the third and fourth floors of the building—which haven’t been operational in some decades—are barren and unpainted. An empty can of Pabst Blue Ribbon sits on the windowsill of one room that houses an enormous safe, which was, after much effort, finally wrenched open. “The contractor told me that if we hadn’t broken it, it would have been worth $20,000,” says Kohn. Inside were ornate silver crowns, which now adorn the Torah scrolls in the sanctuary.
Three times a week, congregants gather in the sanctuary for services—on Friday evening, Saturday morning and, recently added, Thursday morning. Kohn describes the Friday evening services as “somewhat radical” and the Saturday morning gathering as “somewhat conservative.” Both are followed by free meals, where, Kohn says, it is not uncommon for congregants to “walk into the alley and grab someone eating from the dumpster and say, ‘Come in, brother, let’s eat together.’” In the absence of a rabbi, Friday night services are “kind of just led by whoever shows up,” says Kohn. (Saturday morning services are still led by Martin Herman, now 84.) “Our congregation is pretty devoted to the lay-led model. We do have need for ritual guidance, but at this point we’re not in a place to hire a rabbi yet.”
The lay leaders and regular congregants comprise a crew that might be unconventional in other synagogue settings. A sizable contingent of black Jews makes up part of the core of frequent attendees. “You come on a Friday night, a third of us are African-American,” says Kohn. B’daren Payne, a recently converted 25-year-old Michigan native with dreadlocks and tattoos on his forearm and behind one ear, is introduced to me as Ariel. He notes that he is often asked at other congregations whether he is Jewish, an uncommon question at Downtown Synagogue. “Diversity is something we value a lot, we really do, but it’s not something we try to put a whole lot of attention around,” says Kohn.
The synagogue is at the center of many emerging socially conscious pursuits—both Jewish and not—in Detroit. As the city’s population has dwindled, a cluster of community-minded young folks has moved in. Members of the city’s two now-defunct Moishe Houses—an international network of residences intended to invigorate young Jewish communities—are also active in the synagogue. Josh Kanter, who was involved in the founding of Detroit’s Moishe House, says, “My point of engagement with the city was through the synagogue, through Jewishness.” (The Moishe Houses shuttered after disagreements between the houses and the umbrella organization.)
The hipsterization of the city’s food scene is also tied to the synagogue community. Avalon Bakery—which opened in the Midtown neighborhood in 1997—is owned by synagogue member Jackie Victor, and Suddenly Sauer, a pickled food vendor that wouldn’t be out of place in Brooklyn, is run by board member Blair Nosan. The cheekily named Detroit Institute of Bagels, invented by brothers Ben and Dan Newman, started as a fundraiser for the synagogue and soon transitioned into a business selling New York-style bagels. The synagogue has joined a growing trend of planting community gardens, intended to beautify empty lots, provide neighborhood meeting places, and encourage healthy eating and self-reliance.
Although the synagogue is flourishing in new ways, roadblocks remain. “It’s pretty obvious that the next few years are going to be really influential in terms of sustainability,” says Kanter, who has served on various synagogue committees. “There are big decisions to be made about its identity as an institution.” Solidifying membership and ensuring continued funding are priorities. The building, too, has its challenges. One Friday afternoon in September—the day after Simchat Torah—a message is posted on the synagogue’s Facebook page: “URGENT NOTICE: NO SERVICES TONIGHT OR TOMORROW—WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. We are working on a flooding/water main problem.”
For many, the synagogue is laden with symbolism. Is it a metaphor for Detroit itself—down on its luck, written off, all but abandoned, yet rising, phoenix-like, from its own ashes? When is a synagogue just a synagogue? “All synagogues go through a life cycle,” says Kohn. “We wax and we wane.” A few blocks away, the streetlights on Woodward Avenue are turned off at night, in the heart of a city that—depending on the telling—is either waxing or waning. Whether or not the two are on the same cycle remains to be seen.