Motor City Synagogue

To some, it’s “off the beaten path,” the last synagogue standing downtown. For others, it’s just around the corner, close to home. It stands at the north point intersection of Griswold and Clifford, living proof that Jewish Detroit is returning to its roots and growing again in the heart of the city.

Whether you choose to drive, bike or walk to services on a Shabbat morning, you’re in for a warm welcome as you enter the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue through its bright red doors.

Opening doors, welcoming all

Dating back nearly 100 years, built to accommodate what was then a large Jewish population living and working downtown, the Downtown Synagogue is now situated in its third home, a unique four-story triangular building, formerly a department store. With a membership of nearly 200, the synagogue is open to all faiths and well integrated in the rich cultural life of the Capital Park Historic District, a neighborhood on the rebound.

Martin Herman, congregant since 1989

There are those who have come and stayed over the years, Detroiters and suburbanites alike, who remain dedicated to the tradition of worship and study. Many still serve the congregation as beacons for outreach, inclusion and Tikkun Olam.

And there are the newcomers – students, singles, couples – who have moved into the city because they believe that the time has come for a resurgence of its neighborhoods. These are the pioneers, entrepreneurs and visionaries, and their numbers are growing.

They meet and mingle at the popular Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy next door; they recruit friends and campaign for the preservation and renovation of the building; and together they’ve stemmed the tide and pulled the synagogue back from the brink of closure.

“Our mission is to rediscover Jewish life in Detroit. We offer Shabbat services every Saturday followed by a Kiddush and  free lunch as well as a range of events from film nights to Torah studies to dance parties.”

Film nights, yes!  Torah studies, Purim spiels, Hebrew classes and dance parties, yes, yes!  Let the rumpus begin, they say.



On a recent Saturday morning, parking is plentiful as we pull up to the synagogue at 9:00 a.m., just in time to join Torah Study in the social hall.  Coffee and pastry served.

“Come on in, don’t be strangers,” calls the voice from inside.

And so we sit down with the group of a dozen led by Rabbi Dorit Edut who engages us in a round-table discussion of the festival of Shavuot. At 10 we head up the marble staircase to the sanctuary, an intimate space bathed in light beaming through stained glass windows. Another two dozen people have gathered for services led by long-time congregant, Martin Herman, with cantorial soloist, Roger Skully.

Services at the Downtown Synagogue are casual. A community effort. Standing at the bimah, Herman checks his watch. Awaiting the arrival of Miriam Liebman and  Noam Kimelman who regularly assist with the Torah service, he quips, “This is truly the Motor City Synagogue. People come and go, but there’s always someone here to step up just in time to deliver.”

A Wayne State University professor, resident of Detroit, and former president of the congregation, Marty (as everyone calls him) has been a member since 1989.  In June he will celebrate his second bar mitzvah at the age of “three score and ten plus thirteen.”

At noon there’s the customary Kiddush, followed by a lunch prepared and served each week by volunteers, including board member, civil rights attorney and building caretaker, DaVid Powell.

Breaking bread

DaVid Powell, faithful congregant of the Downtown SynagogueBreaking bread

At our table we meet Leor Barak, President of the synagogue. A young lawyer, living in Detroit’s West Village, Leor discovered the synagogue in 2007. Leading a band of mostly twenty-something recruits, he quickly rose to leadership determined to turn the old shul into a Jewish Detroit cultural hub. “Coming to services doesn’t capture all that we do,” he tells us, “there’s so much more.”

And more

There’s Harry Reisig, who drops in Saturday afternoons to teach Hebrew prayer to eager learners.

There’s Ginger Hopkins and Chave Knox, working together with Blair Nosan on a grant proposal to support an urban farm. The “Eden Garden” will be ready next year to provide produce for the Synagogue and the East Detroit neighborhood in which the garden is located.

There’s the Book Club, a Lunch and Learn Program, Partners in Torah . . . an expanding list of social activities and educational programs each month.

There are dreams and prayers.  And there are plans. To secure the future of Jewish Detroit’s vibrant urban community, the Downtown Synagogue will soon launch a capital campaign.

Just imagine: an “old” Jewish Detroit. . . becoming new again. To learn more: drive, bike, walk and discover 1457 Griswold. (Can’t miss those red doors.)

Meet & Greet for Eden Gardens Block Club and the Issac Agree Downtown Synagogue

Sunday, June 24  2 – 7 pm.

Fun for children. Free food and drinks.

ConnerStone Farm, a collaboration between the IADS and Eden Gardens Block Club. For more