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Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue

1457 Griswold
Detroit, Michigan 48226

Leor Barak

By Tunde Wey
January 23, 2013

Somewhere in the opening lines of this story is a joke with a not-so-obvious punch line. In downtown Detroit, on an interesting strip of street hedged by impressive old buildings and the long-casting shadows of new gleaming ones, sit a bar, a strip club and a synagogue. That’s the joke; the punch line is that the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue is more relevant than most communal spaces because its mission is to connect people, Jew and non-Jew alike, to each other and to the city.
The synagogue is an impressive four-story former department store. Its bright red doors, with handles fashioned in the Star of David, are framed by a black granite entrance. Like a huge Connect Four game board, yellow, red, blue and green windowpanes in two parallel rows run across the building, giving it a whimsical appeal. This appeal is not divorced from its connected history with the city, where disrepair runs in tandem with optimism.
As the chronicle of Detroit’s revivification unfolds from a past generally considered dismal into a present and future more hopeful, the synagogue stands as dynamic testimony. It is the only remaining conservative synagogue in a city where there are a lot of "only" institutions. Its physical structure, though beautiful, is in need of serious repair and its congregation, similar to Detroit’s population as a whole, has been declining since the 1960s. And much like Detroit as a whole, interesting things are afoot here.
Leor Barak is 32 years old. Youthful in appearance and outlook, he is currently the president of the board at the synagogue. What Barak represents seems to be a vigorous enthusiasm set loose on an institution that might need it. If everything is a metaphor for Detroit, then Barak's role in the synagogue does not veer from this motif.
"This place is maybe one of the most unique Jewish institutions; we are almost one of a kind in the country," says Barak. "I don’t think there is any other place where a 32-year-old person with little knowledge of Judaism can…" Barak trails off and it becomes evident that the ability he speaks of is contagious throughout the city. The hope that springs eternal in Detroit is that everyone with ability is allowed a chance to contribute.
In 2007, Barak was walking by the synagogue after a downtown work meeting was abruptly cancelled. Entering a conversation with the proprietor of the bar next door he learned the synagogue was under threat of closure. Barak says, "I found out this place was going to close down and a couple of people and I decided we needed to do something about. I found it really randomly … This is all volunteer. I am the board member; I am the president."
There is a new vigor and spirit emanating from the synagogue, often literally. Sidewalk dinners are held in the front of the building, with the congregants and guests becoming indistinguishable from the spill-over bar patrons next door. Dance parties, community discussions and potlucks occur alongside religious services at the synagogue. Shabbat services, Bar Mitzvahs and Yiddish lessons are some of the varying offerings. This diversity of programs has created a diversity of congregants.
"One of the beautiful things about this place is that we are exposing the Jewish community to the Detroit community and the Detroit community to the Jewish community," observes Barak. "We have such a diversity of peoples; we have older and younger Jews, blacks and whites, we even have a Muslim guys who brings his kids in here on Friday."
Patently different in trend than most other religious congregations, the synagogue boasts a roster of active young members; progressive leaders, like Barak, who are reshaping the role of religious institutions in communities.
And what is this role? For Barak it might be something recently forgotten but always important: a shared space that creates shared experiences. "The downtown synagogue is a conduit and a beacon of education for Jews and non-Jews in Detroit. It is a multifaceted organization that fulfills a number of roles; for the non-Jewish community we serve as a point of education for who Jews are and what Judaism is; for the Jewish for the community we are an entry into Detroit."

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.

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