Faithfully theirs: Young Jewish Detroiters engage community life, embrace urban identity

Just a few years ago, it seems, one of the primary narratives here was how the young and talented were leaving the region in search of a future some place else.

Now the story is seeing a shift. It goes something like this: many are looking at Detroit for their future. And not just because it is a so-called "cool city." Though that's part of the reason. For an increasing number of young Jewish men and women, home is where tradition meets the creative possibilities of Detroit, with one of the focal points being the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, the last continuously operating synagogue in the city.

When Hannah Lewis and Jon Koller left Ann Arbor in search of a place to settle, they ended their journey in Detroit's North Corktown neighborhood. Koller became president of the Friends of Spaulding Court, a North Corktown housing development, and Lewis started Detroit Massage and Wellness, a few blocks from their home. They live a quarter-mile from the synagogue.

The city is "compelling," Koller says. A synagogue board member, Koller appreciates the city's unique juxtaposition of space and density, of neighborhood villages in what remains one of the largest metropolitan population centers on the continent. "This is a common feature in Detroit: all around you is nothing. That's weird. There's huge potential."

"We looked at great cities that were really awesome," Lewis adds. "There was no city that compared with Detroit."

Harry Reisig also left Detroit on an odyssey that took him to Israel, New York and California's Sonoma Valley. But Reisig, a lawyer living in West Village, returned to Detroit to assist released prisoners in developing entrepreneurial skills through Replanting Roots, an urban farming program.

"When I graduated from high school, I wanted to move as far away as possible. I saw the writing on the wall," he says. "Coming back, there's so much good stuff going on. I've been blown away by what I've encountered in Detroit, in terms of community, networking, support -- it's an incredible place to be."

Others like Kate Bush and Leor Barak tried the suburban lifestyle, but felt called to Detroit. For Bush, who was raised in the University District, Detroit was already home. Barak was spending all of his work and leisure time in the city, so he figured it only made sense to live there.

"I moved here not for Jewish reasons" says Barak, the synagogue board secretary. A lawyer with Community Legal Services living in West Village, he envisions the synagogue eventually becoming a community development corporation. "I want to be part of the city's rebirth, part of the revolution to take Detroit back to make changes that create the renaissance." When he discovered the old synagogue, it opened him to the history of the Jewish tradition in Detroit. He also sees a social mission. "I view the synagogue not as just a religious institution; I view the synagogue as a change agent."

Bush, a past board member and current membership chair who lives in Palmer Park, says the religious and social programming of the synagogue appeals to local and suburban Jews. "People are interested in coming down because they hear about everything that's going on at the synagogue." About 130 people belong to the synagogue. At last December's Chanukah Party, a record crowd attended. "We haven't had numbers like that in a long time," she says. "You had some of our older members, some of our newer members, some people who aren't members but are curious about membership."
The growth in young members of the Downtown Synagogue is helping the historic sacred place evolve into a contemporary cultural center for urban Jews, as well as for the local community. A onetime clothing store in Capitol Park, the Downtown Synagogue reflects only a hint of its religious purpose from the street: stained glass windows, recently weatherized, and the Star of David on the door handles. It was meant to be a common man's place of worship, unlike Temple Beth El -- the oldest Jewish congregation in Michigan, established in 1850 on Woodward Avenue in what is now Brush Park, before moving up Woodward near Holbrook and eventually to Bloomfield Township. The allure of this synagogue spills over into the street, mixing Jewish ritual with Detroit culture.
Reisig recalls arriving late at the synagogue for his first Friday night Shabbat service. "I pulled up at 7:40 p.m. in my pick-up truck. I had my blue jeans, not dressed properly." He found the congregation standing on the side walk. "I thought they were waiting for somebody. They were actually having services outside." He was promptly invited to join the service. While he says the synagogue culture is "causal" and "warm," it's the community of "really smart, passionate" people involved in the city that struck him. "It was nice be able to go and have services, then sit around and have beers."

The Judaism practiced by the largely Reform congregation is less about the cultural aspects of the religion and more about the social aspects of the congregation's urban culture, says Koller.

"If something you really care about is kosher food, you'll live near a kosher grocery store. If something you really care about is the social justice idea, this is going to draw you."

Last summer the synagogue, together with adjacent Café d'Mongo's Speakeasy, sponsored a block party fundraiser for the creative neighborhood catalyst Loveland and Spaulding Court.

Two years ago, Bush was asked by a journalist if she thought a revived Downtown Synagogue will help persuade Jewish people to move into the city. She said, enthusiastically, "yes. There's so much going on in the city. Detroit's at a point where it's able to redefine itself and anybody is able to be involved. Why wouldn't you want to be down here and be a part of it?"

The synagogue has "started a bigger dialogue" among young Jewish people in the region regarding the vitality and possibilities of urban life, Bush says. Recently, CommunityNEXT, a web-based source of the Jewish federation, held a town hall meeting at the Compuware Building, hosted by Quicken Loans. At the program CommunityNEXT announced plans to establish a Moishe House in Detroit, which is part of a national network of houses intended to spur interest in urban living among young Jews. It operates like a fraternity house, with residents renting rooms in the house and hosting social events for others interested in urban living.

The synagogue, which celebrates its 90th anniversary this month, recently raised $23,000 to win a matching grant from DTE Energy to cover the cost of installing energy efficient stained glass windows, the first step in its restoration.

For the members of the Downtown Synagogue, it may not be as much about religion as it is about identity. "It's (Judaism) deeply ingrained in who I am, a big part of my life," Reisig says. He came to Detroit to start a program and help some people. In doing so, he may have come home. "It really does bring it all home."

The 90th Anniversary of the Downtown Synagogue will be celebrated on Sunday March 27, at the Gem Theatre. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. For information send an email here or call 313-962-4047.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit freelancer and a regular contributor to Model D.

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.
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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.