Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue Board President Samantha Woll moved to Detroit in 2012. She said she grew up hearing narratives that the city had seen its better days, but the spirit of Detroit today brings a new narrative. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

The breath of life is flowing again through Detroit’s one and only synagogue. 

August marks the final month in the Jewish calendar, a time for introspection and preparation before the High Holidays usher in a season of renewal. Rabbi Ariana Silverman said it also fittingly marks the grand reopening for the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, culminating a decades-long plan and two-year renovation to rejuvenate the Jewish community in Detroit. 

“It’s both beautifully symbolic and tremendously inconvenient for the rabbi to prepare,” Silverman said with a laugh.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue Rabbi Ariana Silverman taken August 23, 2023, in her office in Capitol Park. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Silverman slid a stack of religious texts across the faded grooves of a carved wooden desk overlooking the corner of Clifford and Griswold in Capitol Park. Her office is still mostly bare, save for a few chairs, two wine glasses from a recent wedding service and pages of building plans. The synagogue has been closed since 2020 but Silverman had not had an office for the last seven years.

Laborers were putting finishing touches with days left until the first service Friday evening. A larger ceremony and block party on Griswold is planned for Sunday. Silverman said all are welcome to gather for an open house and live music. 

In a downtown that has experienced much change, the synagogue is hard to miss. The iconic 93-year-old building is instantly recognizable by its colorful stained glass windows on one side and adorned on the other with symbols of love, luck and protection by a Jewish muralist.

Detroit was home to an estimated 50 synagogues in 1940 but today this is the only one. Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue was founded in 1921. The first services were held in a home on Rosedale Court, and the congregation moved several times before landing downtown in 1937. 

The synagogue moved into the landmark Griswold building in 1964, during a period of transition for Detroit’s Jewish community from the city into the suburbs.

“The downtown synagogue has experienced the ups and downs similar to the city of Detroit,” said IADS Executive Director Rachel Rudman. “We had some tough times in the end of the 20th century, and a resurgence of energy in the early mid 2000s, especially with younger millennials, creatives and entrepreneurs moving back to the city. There’s been an uptick in interest and engagement and involvement in the downtown synagogue since then.”

Declining attendance once threatened to close the synagogue. Larry Mongo, owner of Cafe d’Mongo’s Speakeasy next door, was often called on to help recruit patrons for a minyuan, a quorum of 10 needed for certain prayer services. Older members had even considered selling the building. 

“There were many moments when folks were encouraged to move on from the idea of having a synagogue in the city of Detroit,” said George Roberts, co-chair of the Building Renovation Committee. “If you were to just study the numbers of Jewish population in Detroit, the idea of having a synagogue within a four-story building at the heart of the Central Business District, was probably not something that made sense. But pure numbers of population do not tell the story of a community.”

(From left) IADS Board President Samantha Woll, IADS Rabbi Ariana Silverman and George Roberts, co-chair of the Building Renovation Committee. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Roberts remembers the distinctive building sparked curiosity in him as a child. He was raised in the suburbs hearing stories of a vibrant Jewish community that had largely moved away from Detroit. It stayed with him when Roberts returned to the city a decade ago. He lives a block away with his family. 

“Despite all the programming and community efforts the synagogue staff were pursuing at the time, the physical barriers of the brick wall on the ground floor and the opaque red steel doors created a level of resistance that I just didn’t get over,” Roberts said. “Once I got over that resistance and was invited by by friends to join in programs and services at the downtown synagogue, I was immediately convinced of the fact that this building being revitalized was key to revitalizing Jewish life in the city of Detroit, and key to strengthening Jewish life and in Metro Detroit more broadly.”

Building for the future 

A young group of board members laid out plans for revitalization in 2008, raising $120,000 to start repairs. A more recent capital campaign raised $5.75 million for an extensive renovation project marking the congregation’s 100th anniversary. Funders included 300 individual donors alongside nonprofit groups like the William Davidson Foundation, D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation, Max and Marjorie Fisher Foundation, the Jewish Fund and the Gilbert Family Foundation.

“There was a transition of the old guard to a younger group of people,” Rudman said. “They started programming, showing up for services, getting their friends involved, raising money and brought it back from what could have been a really difficult moment.” 

Exterior of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue at 1457 Griswold in Detroit. The synagogue will host its first service Friday since completing renovations. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

The synagogue installed air conditioning, replaced a defunct service elevator and is reopening two floors that had been previously condemned. A co-working space will house Jewish community organizations, religious classes and events. The building also includes a first-floor community gathering space and a newly renovated sanctuary with a dedicated play area for children. A commercial kitchen is being built in the basement for kosher food caterers. 

Silverman said another fundraiser is being planned to open the rooftop for outdoor weddings and events, start an endowment and purchase a parking lot.

“I like to say we’re 101-year-old startup,” Silverman said. “While the actual renovation itself has been a project of the last 15 years or so, the dreaming about how you bridge keeping a community in this traditional space and also building for the future is not new. One of the things we’ve realized is that we’re not done yet.”

Silverman says younger generations are finding their way back to Detroit and the synagogue is ready to receive them. Membership has grown from roughly 150 families to 425 in the last decade. Silverman raised her children in the city, where they attend Detroit Public Schools. 

“My spouse and I moved to Detroit in 2010 and when we did I was the only rabbi living in Detroit, which I did not realize would be the case when we moved here,” said Silverman, who is originally from Chicago. “I was one of very few Jews in our neighborhood, and all this has changed … Our community includes people who are living in the city, who are working in the city, and who consider Detroit to be home.”

IADS Board President Samantha Woll was raised in West Bloomfield after her father left the northwest Detroit neighborhood he grew up in. She moved to Detroit in 2012 after working in California, Pennsylvania and Ohio. 

“I grew up (hearing) narratives that the city had seen its better days and it was not going to turn around,” Woll said. “Being here and seeing all of the energy and spirit of people, there’s a new narrative in town.” 

‘A sense of belonging’

Isaac Agree, the synagogue’s namesake, immigrated to Detroit from Russia in 1904. Two of his sons founded a group which later would become the downtown synagogue. The late Rabbi Noah Gamze described the history in a 1998 Detroit Free Press article, saying Charles and Nathan Agree wanted to create a place for Jews to worship regardless of their financial situation. 

The ethos remains a central part of the synagogue’s mission. Members are not required to pay dues, which is historically uncommon. 

“Being accessible is a core value of ours, and also having community and creating beloved community across all of these lines of difference,” Woll said. “We’re able to make people feel a sense of belonging. You’re meeting people and learning stories from people across all different walks and stages of life.” 

Silverman credits Gamze with ensuring the longevity of the synagogue, and instilling a commitment to stay in Detroit. 

“We are intentionally crossing lines of race and faith and class, that is deeply a part of who we are and what makes up our community,” Silverman said. “To be in the city of Detroit is incredibly important to us. To be committed to racial justice is incredibly important to us. It’s important that people who have partners who aren’t Jewish feel like this is still a home for them.”

IADS Rabbi Ariana Silverman says younger generations are finding their way back to Detroit and the synagogue is ready to receive them. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Rudman said Synagogue has been reimagined as a hub for Jewish life in Detroit. That requires strong relationships with partner organizations. Brittany Begun is associate director of Hillel of Metro Detroit, where she works to connect college students to Jewish life in the city. Begun said the revitalization of the downtown synagogue presents an incredible opportunity for young people to experience the city. 

“I think Jewish people are just finding their place in (Detroit) and they want a city space the way they do in any other place,” Begun said. “Students can come and be who they are and don’t have to explain what it means to be Jewish.”

Synagogue leaders say they want to be involved in the broader downtown ecosystem and build partnerships with small businesses and neighboring institutions. 

“We really hope that having a downtown synagogue as an anchor in a growing residential downtown will attract new people to live downtown and retain people; encourage them to stay even as they go through life changes like getting married and starting a family,” Roberts said. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *