When Jay Hack and his wife moved 10 years ago to a long devastated but revitalizing section of Detroit, they joined the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. It is the last free-standing shul in the city and is named after its great-great-grandfather.

The building, with its two bold rows of brightly colored stained-glass windows, both charms and repels them.

“The first services we went to, I brought my oldest son and he was literally crawling on the floor and we had to guide him away from the broken glass,” said Mack, a 45-year-old financial planner who grew up in Detroit. . suburb.

One of the halls inside the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue is in particular need of renovation. Courtesy of Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue

But now Hack and the growing congregation are weeks away from the start of a $5 million Isaac Agree renovation necessitated by a recent large influx of young Jewish residents and their growing families. Construction is set to begin in early June on the synagogue, which was once one of at least 40 in Detroit before a mid-century mass exodus to the suburbs doomed them.

The plan is to transform it from a decrepit structure into a gleaming, modern center of Jewish life in southeast Michigan — a stunning turnaround for a century-old congregation too small to afford a rabbi or staff a few years ago. barely years. It’s a rare but not unheard of revival for an urban synagogue; in Washington, D.C., one sold to a mid-century church became part of the downtown revival in 2004 when it was repurposed as the historic 6th&I Synagogue.

Once completed, several major Jewish groups in the Detroit metro area are expected to rent office space in the building as they resettle in the city after decades in the suburbs. They will join a reverse migration that has transformed much of Detroit. Around Isaac Agree over the past 10 years, dozens of companies have located or relocated tens of thousands of finance and technology jobs to the city. Simultaneously, developers renovated or converted dozens of apartment buildings for the growing workforce of young professionals.

Representation of what the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue will look like after its renovation. Courtesy of Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue

“I like to call us a century-old startup,” said Rabbi Ariana Silverman, who was hired in 2016. “In many ways, we’re both a synagogue that’s been around for 100 years and we’re an organization that’s grow incredibly fast and try to do new and daring things at the same time.

Back to the future

The ambitious building plan includes a remodeled sanctuary; a renovated social room and dining area; offices on the third and fourth floors that are currently boarded up and unusable; and a rooftop space for weddings and other events. The renovation will accommodate a congregation that has grown from less than 100 homes a decade ago to more than 400 today, and from just 10 children under 18 to more than 100. While Silverman has only welcomed two b’nai mitzvah so far in its six-year tenure, the temple’s new religious school has already enrolled 10 students.

“A lot of congregations struggle to involve and certainly reach people in their 20s and 30s, and that’s actually one of our key demographics, which is pretty cool,” Silverman said. “The call is to build a space that will engage future generations of Jews.”

The project was expected to cost the $4.5 million raised in a fundraising campaign launched in 2020, but Silverman said the cost had ballooned to around $5.9 million thanks to the recent spike in inflation and construction industry supply chain issues.

They look to their biggest donors — Jewish-oriented groups based in Michigan, including the William Davidson Foundation, the Gilbert Family Foundation, the Fisher Foundation and the Kahn Foundation — to ask for larger donations, but for the At the moment, construction has been scaled back somewhat – no rooftop space or fourth-floor offices, for example – as work is due to begin on June 7. They should be completed in January.

“We’re going to do the fourth floor floors and walls and get the elevator up to the roof so the full vision can be done at some point,” Silverman said.

Rise and fall

Isaac Agree was founded in December 1921 by Nathan and Charles Agree, sons of the namesake, as a nonprofit family charity in honor of their patriarch, a Russian émigré who came to Detroit in 1904. The The association endowed an Orthodox religious school that became a synagogue in the northern quarter of the city and moved in 1937 to a rented building in the downtown business district. In 1964, the synagogue bought its current location, a former men’s clothing store.

At the time, the shul – the only one in the city center – served as a place of prayer for observant Jews on their way to work or on their way back. “It’s always been a convenient synagogue for business people or whatever to come and say Kaddish,” board member Hack said.

As the Jewish population — and big business — fled to suburbs like Southfield and West Bloomfield, the city’s synagogues closed or moved and membership numbers plummeted to Isaac Agree. Rabbi Noah Gamze led the congregation from 1963 until his retirement in 2001, when the declining congregation became unaffiliated and run by lay people. It remains unaffiliated, but now focuses on social justice work and embraces a theology similar to that of the Reform movement, into which Silverman was ordained.

A second chance

A decade later, however, a Detroit revival has begun in earnest with the move of mortgage giant Quicken Loans headquarters — and some 1,500 jobs — from the suburbs to downtown. Dan Gilbert, CEO of what is now the Rocket family of companies that includes Quicken, went on to purchase and remodel more than 20 downtown buildings and lead a major influx of thousands of jobs and living spaces.

Silverman, 45, was part of this migration. She moved from New York to Detroit in 2010 with her husband when he was hired as a law professor at Wayne State University. She first worked as an assistant rabbi at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield and later as a rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, Michigan, 80 miles west of Detroit. She became involved with Isaac Agree as a member doing unpaid ministry work; When the council felt he had the means, he hired her in 2016 to lead his congregation.

The renovation project began, said synagogue president Samantha Woll, with a desire to repair an inoperable elevator that made the second floor, where the shrine is located, inaccessible to attendees with reduced mobility. It turned into loftier dreams, she said, as the membership grew.

The original renovation plans for the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue included the rooftop, where the congregation hopes to hold weddings and other events, with the Detroit skyline as a backdrop. But rising construction costs have put roof renovations on hold. Courtesy of Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue

“We started gathering more support to achieve a bigger vision so that we can be a synagogue and also a hub for Jewish life, Jewish organizations, community organizations and the city itself,” Woll said. . Cost increases make the effort more expensive and can take longer, she said, but the congregation is buoyed by the enthusiasm of the Jewish community inside and outside the city.

“The building itself is a really special and unique place and holds a lot of meaning and memory,” she said.

Groups that have announced plans to lease office space include the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Jewish Community Center, Hazon and the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit, which now holds its services near Christ Church Detroit. (Isaac Agree services are also held here during renovations.)

Hack, the financial planner, who sits on the fundraising campaign committee and served for a year as chair of the Jewish Federation’s NextGen initiative, said Isaac Agree has evolved far beyond the days when, as a young father, he viewed the decrepit building as “unviable”. .”

“I selfishly look forward to having a place to take my family that is both beautiful and safe,” he said.

Silverman is disappointed that delays in starting construction due to material shortages mean Isaac Agree is unlikely to meet its goal of reopening by Hanukkah or during the synagogue’s centennial year. Other than that, though, she’s proud that the shul preserves its deep Detroit roots in a booming area where gentrification regularly paves the way for history.

“We are not a community of Jews who come to the city of Detroit and buy land, but we are a community of Jews who have not left,” she said. “We are not going to move. We’re going to be here, and we’re going to develop it into something big.