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Reconnecting with their roots: The past, present, and future of Jewish life in the North End

Roger Robinson

Menorah in The Schvitz locker room

Temple Beth El

Members of Detroit Jews for Justice

Roger Robinson was first introduced to the North End in 1950 when he began attending Sunday school at Temple Beth El. After class, he would walk across the street to go swimming at the Jewish Community Center. His best friend's father owned a furniture store on Oakland Avenue and, over time, Robinson knew all the neighboring business owners by name.

"The money that came in went to the store and it paid for the people who lived here and spent their money here," he says.

But Robinson, a community leader and owner of Red Door Digital, a print shop and event space on Oakland Avenue, is one the last remaining members of the Jewish population who lives or works in the North End. Decades ago, the corridor was a thriving business district featuring a mixture of Black and Jewish-owned establishments that transformed into an entertainment epicenter at night.

Today the neighborhood is predominantly black and boasts over ten churches.
Art at Red Door Digital
At first glance, very little about the North End hints at its rich Jewish history. But if you take a closer look, several churches don't feature the traditional markings of the Christian faith—that's because they were originally synagogues.

Now, later generations of Jews and their institutions are returning to the city and reconnecting with their Detroit roots to consider what role they will play in the next chapter.

Retracing steps

The story of Detroit's Jewish population follows the path of others during the era of "white flight." Jews largely abandoned the city and headed north, taking their businesses and institutions with them. First to northwest Detroit, then Dexter Linwood, and finally suburbs like West Bloomfield.

"For a lot of people, the geographic distance was followed by a psychological distance, and there was the memory of this life that had been in Detroit," says Eleanor Gamalski, a community organizer with Detroit Jews for Justice. "Many people in older generations in the Jewish community feel an enormous sense of loss around that. A lot of people feel guilt and a lot of pain and a sense that something was taken from them, which can sometimes translate to racism or at least a lack of solidarity with Detroiters who are still here."

Detroit Jews for Justice was founded in 2014 by Rabbi Alana Alpert with the intention of bridging the gap between the Jewish community and Detroiters through social justice work. The core team works to develop leaders and supporters in the Jewish community through issue-based educational talks, social actions, and protests. The organization uses its power in numbers to rally around issues to support native Detroit organizers and increase visibility around causes with local legislators.

Meeting of Detroit Jews for Justice at Red Door Digital -- courtesy of DJJ

Gamalski, 24, was born and raised in Bloomfield Hills and currently lives in Hamtramck, but her work has brought her closer to the city. Although Gamalski's life had quietly orbited around the city, she didn't become intimately familiar with it or her Jewish faith until the loss of her grandmother a few years ago. In the presence of her grandparents' childhood friends who reminisced about their upbringing in northwest Detroit, she was immersed in traditional Jewish rituals and exposed to a Detroit-centric side of her history.

"I didn't know who my people were," she says. "And then I realized I actually do have a centuries-old history that I just hadn't engaged with at all."

Gamalski's spiritual and professional path has given her a more nuanced understanding of the region, and how history impacts its current state of affairs.

"So many Detroit struggles are truly regional struggles, and the suburbs are very implicated in that," Gamalski says. "So to be able to reach out to the majority suburban population of the Jewish community made a lot of sense."

The Jewish community took that intentional step into the community this year when the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, Detroit's last free-standing synagogue, hosted the High Holy Day services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the historic Temple Beth El. The temple was pivotal to the Jewish presence in the North End, but moved its congregation to Bloomfield Hills in 1973.

Because of its small sanctuary, the Downtown Synagogue has held high holy day services in the suburbs for the past 20 years. Pastor Aramis Hinds, who leads Sunday services of the Breakers Covenant Church International at Temple Beth El, welcomed the Jewish community back with open arms.

Remixing tradition

The Jewish community's imprint in the North End is being furthered in more subtle ways through reinvigorating traditions like those practiced at The Schvitz, currently co-owned by Patrick "Paddy" Lynch, an Arden Park resident of Irish heritage. Lynch was introduced to the North End by way of The Schvitz, a European bathhouse and centuries-old Jewish tradition that stands as one of the most visible relics of the neighborhood's past.

Lynch became an ardent fan of the ritual, visiting the bathhouse every week over a five-year period before purchasing it earlier this year.

Historically, men and boys would gather for a collective cleanse including a hot steam bath, cold plunge into the pool, and the opportunity to eat, relax, and engage in fellowship. Under Lynch's ownership, The Schvitz has incorporated co-ed days, brunches for women, and private events which hint that the space can become sacred for a range of people.

Steam room at The Schvitz

"We've seen areas of the city just continue in their divisive, segregated ways," Lynch says. "This place that was mostly white in a black neighborhood for so long has the opportunity to bring people together."

Even in its reinvention, The Schvitz is returning to an identity and function that past communities have enjoyed. The Schvitz shares history with another pivotal community-building hub, the Jewish Community Center, which was once on Woodward and Holbrook Avenues in the North End, then moved to the current Northwest Activities Center, and presently exists as West Bloomfield's Jewish Community Center on West Maple Road.

The Schvitz has not been without its faults. The bathhouse was a favorite of the infamous Jewish mafia group the Purple Gang, and some locals tell of exclusionary, or at least intimidating, practices from its membership. Lynch, who studied theology at Boston College is hopeful that this time around, The Schvitz will be a place of harmony instead of divisiveness.

"Historical institutions and establishments always need to be thinking about how to become more open and how to become more universal," says Lynch.

Staying power

And then there's the few like Robinson who never left.

Robinson expresses a sense of pride in the people and communities that he's been a part of over the years. As a young child, he remembers his grandfather, who was a carpenter, saying in Yiddish, "Young one, the Jews and the workers are oppressed."

Robinson has taken this belief one step further through his work in labor organizing and activism. He was also an elected member of the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Like many other spaces in the North End, his company serves multiple purposes, including being a meeting place for community groups like Detroit Jews for Justice and hosting artistic events. Due to the building's prominence and Robinson's vitality, he's involved in various North End endeavors including the American Riad, a project in collaboration with Ghana ThinkTank and Central Detroit Christian CDC that was just awarded a $135,000 grant.

Robinson, a longtime presence in the North End, has a bit of advice for newcomers: "Check your attitude at the door and understand that you're participating and becoming a member in a political geography which is changing, but is basically a community of black folks. If you don't have an elementary respect for people of color and people in general, you probably shouldn't be here now."

This article is part of the "On the Ground" series, where a journalist is embedded in a neighborhood for three months to provide regular coverage. 

Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation


All photos, except where mentioned, by Bree Gant. 

Read more articles by Imani Mixon.

Imani Mixon is a freelance writer from Detroit whose works have appeared in Complex, Condé Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, The Billfold, and WeTheUrban. She's Model D's "On the Ground" editor for the North End. 
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