Saving Detroit’s last Synagogue to help rebuild Detroit

Sep 13, 2013

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, begins this evening. Half a century ago, that would have meant thousands of Detroit’s Jews streaming into temples and synagogues in the city, but then the modern exodus began. 

Most Jews, like most other whites, fled the city. The last home of Temple Beth El, the city’s oldest congregation, is now the site of an African-American church. Other former synagogues have long since been converted to other uses or torn down.

There are few Jews left in the city itself. But one house of worship remains: The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Griswold, which once had hundreds of members and catered to Jewish businessmen who might end up in the city on Shabbat or during the High Holidays.

But gradually, businesses moved out. Noah Gamze, the legendary street-wise rabbi who kept the place going for decades, died a decade ago.

Five years ago, Detroit’s last synagogue was on the brink of closing. But it was saved by an odd coalition of idealistic young Jews and Larry Mongo, owner of the nearby Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy. Today, the downtown synagogue has three hundred members. 

Anna Kohn, an energetic 28-year-old from the Detroit suburbs, is the synagogue’s director.  Kohn went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where she designed her own major: Detroitology.

“The downtown synagogue is a microcosm, an example of the new spirit of Detroit,” she told me.  She never imagined she would end up running a synagogue, but became intrigued, managed to put together some grant funding, and today is the only paid employee -- though she soon hopes to hire an operations director. 

Though the synagogue itself is technically conservative, the way it functions is decidedly unorthodox, Members of most suburban congregations pay annual dues that can average thousands of dollars per family. Dues at the downtown synagogue run $75 a person; $100 dollars per family. If someone can’t pay, Anna will figure out a way they can pay in kind; providing janitorial services; stuffing envelopes, helping in other ways.

Some members belong to other temples as well.  Some are folks from the neighborhood, people not traditionally Jewish, who wander in and wonder “what is this place?” Indeed, from the outside it looks more like an old warehouse than a synagogue, except for the bright red door with a metal Star of David. 

Besides saving the temple itself, Anna Kohn sees what the synagogue does as having multiple purposes. One is “playing a part in the rebuilding efforts of downtown Detroit.” Another is helping educate people about Jews and Judaism. “You would be surprised at the misconceptions we hear,” she said.

The synagogue is a work in progress. Members are asking, “Do we want to be more of a synagogue or a community center?“ What is clear to her is that it needs to survive, as Detroit needs to survive. Someone told her, “Young people are not coming to Detroit to save the city. They are coming to be saved by it.”

And though tomorrow is the Day of Atonement, it’s hard not to feel that Anna and her merry band deserve to be a little bit proud.   

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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