Interfaith effort aims to revive iconic Temple Beth El building
On a recent Friday night, the majestic sanctuary of a 95-year-old Detroit synagogue came alive with music, song and Sabbath prayers. It was a momentous occasion. It has been decades since a Jewish congregation called the Temple Beth El building on Woodward Avenue “home.”
The stunning 1922 Albert Kahn structure is noted for its grand entrance-way and Corinthian columns on the outside and cavernous walls and ornate domed ceiling inside. In the 1970s, following the 1967 riot, Temple Beth El moved to its current location on Telegraph Road in West Bloomfield. A non-denominational Christian church, Breakers Covenant Church International, owns the building today.
“The evening was beautiful, with the sunlight slowly fading in the space,” says Justin Wedes of Huntington Woods, a lifelong Temple Beth El member who will marry his fiance, Rachel Rudman, in the sanctuary next month. Two rabbis, Dan Horwitz of The Well and Ben Shalva of Tamarack Camps, led a group of about 100 attendees.
“We sat in a circle surrounded by concentric circles,” Wedes says. “We were right under the dome in the center of the room.”
Wedes is also part of a growing interfaith group working hard to breathe new life into the historic synagogue, now called the Bethel Community Transformation Center. A Kickstarter campaign will go through Friday, April 28; donations for the next $20,000 will be matched dollar for dollar, thanks to generous donors. The goal is to raise $100,000 and begin what will ultimately be a multiyear, multi-million dollar restoration and renovation project.
Emblazoned on the outer wall:
“My House Shall Be Called a House of Prayer for All People.”
In a nutshell, organizers want to create a modern performing arts space, worship space and community center that “will create jobs, unite our fractured faith and racial communities, and inspire hope for a better day for Detroit.”
“Entering the building brought a flood of memories and emotions,” said Jamie Feldman of Southfield, a photographer and one of the service participants. “Walking through the halls and into the sanctuary, the beauty reached way beyond what I remembered as a child. The magnificence is there despite the disrepair and fallen plaster. I was thrilled to have my camera in hand to capture the splendor.”
A House of Healing
Pastor Aramis Hinds of Breakers Covenant Church International is also quite taken with the old temple. He describes the sanctuary as “holy” and “peaceful” and says he has “fallen in love” with the space.
While his church holds weekly Sunday services in an adjacent auditorium, restoration plans include keeping Jewish symbols intact and preserving imagery painted on the walls and ceiling around the sanctuary. There will also be displays honoring Metro Detroit’s Jewish heritage, along with ongoing Jewish Historical Society of Michigan tours and more.
“We see this building as a community center that houses our church along with other community programming,” Hinds says. “I can see lectures taking place in here, concerts, graduations, musicals. I see this place as a house of healing for everybody and for me — that’s the vision.”
When Hinds first approached the building at the corner of Woodward and Gladstone, he was struck by the words emblazoned on the outer wall: “My House Shall Be Called a House of Prayer for All People.”
“When I saw that,” he recalls, “I said this is going to be a place of reconciliation.”
While it is in need of significant repairs, the 55,000-square-foot structure is already serving the community. The building features numerous classrooms, offices, a large kitchen, social hall and more. Several organizations utilize the space, including a youth performing arts guild, a computer-learning center and a resource center for homeless youth. Lodging is also provided for volunteers and organizations that take part in local community service projects.
A Sacred Task
Restoring the temple is a “massive task and a sacred task,” says Rabbi Ariana Silverman of Detroit’s only active, free-standing synagogue, the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Griswold. Silverman also serves on the Bethel Community Transformation Center board of directors. She has lived in Detroit for seven years.
“We need money to rebuild both the building and to rebuild relationships,” she says.
If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, initial funds will be used to repair the sanctuary roof and an elevator, renovate restrooms, cover maintenance and operating costs, and retain an architecture firm specializing in historic building preservation.
Later, the building will be renovated in four phases: the sanctuary, social hall and gymnasium, auditorium and community center. Reconstructing relationships may be a more complicated process.
“I think a lot about the history of the Jews in the city and about our future,” Silverman says. “That future has to be told in partnership with other communities. Part of what I’m hoping can happen in the space of the Bethel Community Transformation Center is that we figure out how to write that future together. A space that symbolizes the past can also symbolize the future of relationships between people of different racial, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
In that spirit, an interfaith Passover seder called “Freedom Feast” is taking place in the building Thursday, April 13, led by Silverman, Temple Beth El Rabbi Mark Miller and Pastor Hinds. All proceeds go to the Kickstarter campaign.
Recently, up to 550 people attended the Downtown Synagogue’s High Holiday services at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, but this fall, the congregation plans to hold High Holiday services in the old temple’s main sanctuary.
While some look at the building and see the future, others are drawn to the temple because of its rich history. Carefully laid-out blueprints, film and photos from the early days of Temple Beth El can be found in local archives. The images of a packed 1,600-seat sanctuary, cars lined up outside and crowds spilling onto Woodward harken back to a time of growth, prosperity and community pride.
“There are many historical reasons to cherish this building,” says Wendy Rose Bice, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. “It was built very deliberately where it is. Woodward Avenue was and remains the primary thoroughfare to and from Detroit. In an era when there was terrible anti-Semitism, here was this Jewish congregation saying, ‘We’re here, we’re permanent, we’re part of the community and we’re proud of it.’”
Miller adds, “This was a sanctuary that saw events for 50 years that were lifecycle moments and major events in the life of the city and people. It’s a place that had so much life in it for so long, and we’re trying to bring it back to life as a place that isn’t just a place to tour, but a place to engage with — a place to enjoy.
“We have an opportunity today to go back to Woodward and Gladstone and rebuild our connection to the city, meet new people and forge friendships.”
That’s exactly what happened during the recent Friday night service in the sanctuary. As photographer Jamie Feldman packed up his camera equipment and reflected on the evening, he took one last look around.
“Here was a spectacular facility with a meaningful history and people who wanted to come together and connect,” he said. “The promise, the possibilities are there for the taking. This can happen.”
Robin Schwartz JN Contributing Writer
To learn more about the Bethel Community Transformation Center or to donate to the Kickstarter campaign, visit BCTCDetroit.org.
The exterior today of the old Temple Beth El building at Woodward and Gladstone in Detroit. Built in 1921 and designed by Albert Kahn. The building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1982.