Saving Detroit’s Last Synagogue

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Saving Detroit’s Last Synagogue

As Detroit has struggled over the past forty years to remake itself after deindustrialization and the decline of the car industry, it finds its struggles embodied in one segment of its population in particular: the Jewish community, which is presently facing the challenge of saving the city’s last place of Jewish worship, the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

Detroit was once home to a vibrant Jewish immigrant population, but after deinstrustialization and the race riots of the late 1960s, many Jews left the central city for the suburbs. Today, however, even while the metro area’s overall Jewish population is both aging and diminishing, an interesting countertrend has emerged, in which older empty nesters and young professionals – many members of Richard Florida’s “creative class” – are returning to the city they or their parents once abandoned.

So the main issue affecting the city’s Jewish congregations is no longer the overall loss of Jewish residents, explains Oren Goldenberg, one of the young, new members of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. Rather, he says, “The issue at hand is that a new population of Jews, younger, more secular, are beginning to inhabit this urban space.” The city’s old synagogues have all but disappeared, and those Jewish institutions that remain are increasingly secular, oriented toward social action rather than worship. The Downtown Synagogue is one of just two congregations left in the city, and is the sole Conservative congregation—as well as the only one with its own building.

So when this last bastion of Jewish traditionalism faced the threat of closing, it was a rather significant development for many Detroit residents, Jew and gentile alike. After all, the Synagogue not only seeks to provide traditional Jewish services, but, says the Synagogue’s current president, Martin Herman, it also sees as part of its philosophical mission to serve as a “symbolic link” between the Jewish community and the city of Detroit, continuing the Jewish legacy and representing the contemporary Jewish community’s commitment to supporting an urban renaissance.

Luckily for the Downtown Synagogue, the growth of the young Jewish population has its perks. Thanks to a small but dedicated group of young people, the Synagogue seems to stand a chance at survival. They organized themselves as the Detroit Action Council (DAC), and their ambition seems to have breathed new life into the Congregation, as they’ve collaborated with the owner of a neighboring nightclub to draw in young people and have launched an effort to raise enough funds to renovate the building and rent out the upper floors. The recent board elections on December 29th brought in several new faces, including four members of the former DAC (the organization has been dissolved since its success in the election), and for now, at least, the vote on whether or not to sell the building has been postponed.

A long road still lies ahead for the Downtown Synagogue. Since the death of Rabbi Noah Gamze in 2003, the congregation has been without a religious leader, and even as one of the only games in town, it has often had trouble reaching minyan—the quorum of ten men required to conduct services. Many of the older members are less than optimistic about the Synagogue’s future, and despite the renewed interest in saving it, some still express concern about being able to maintain it financially, especially given the current state of the economy. But if the Synagogue can survive—or even thrive—it will mark a significant symbolic victory not only for Detroit’s Jewish community but also for the future of the city as a whole.

Tags: detroit

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