In this photo from October, it’s easy to see areas in Phase I construction that will include classrooms for children ages 2-5 that will feature a greenhouse, a functioning kitchen and a music room; “The Bridge,” a connecting space to the existing building, will offer a mini gym with a climbing wall and reading pit.

Temple Israel expands its West Bloomfield campus and continues to search for a new hub for families in eastern Oakland County.

Featured photo courtesy of Sachse Construction/Oxblue.com/Temple Israel

Temple Israel, Michigan’s largest Jewish congregation, is undergoing a major expansion to enhance and enlarge its education, prayer and social facilities. The two-phase expansion will add approximately 24,000 square feet to its West Bloomfield location.

At the same time, the congregation continues its search for a building in the eastern part of Oakland County potentially for early childhood education, child care, religious school and some other programs to accommodate families in Huntington Woods, Royal Oak and other nearby areas, according to Rabbi Paul Yedwab, who says, “We want to serve our members on that side of town.”

The expansion at the temple, built in 1980, is planned not only to add more room but also to create spaces that will transform educational programs and congregational gatherings of all kinds.

Phase I, now under way and expected to be complete this spring, is a 12,000-square-foot addition to provide eight specialized state-of-the art classrooms for children ages 2-5, according to David Tisdale, Temple Israel’s CEO. The new classrooms will be needed because some of the area currently used as classroom space will be reconfigured for other purposes in the temple’s second expansion phase.

The new classrooms will feature a greenhouse for planting and harvesting produce as well as a learning kitchen with lower counters to facilitate cooking and baking sessions with children, their parents and grandparents. A dedicated children’s music room is designed for dancing and choirs. Children will enjoy a new mini gym space with a climbing wall and a reading pit, which will be in “The Bridge” — a connecting component between the new classrooms and the existing temple structure.

“The school is growing. It’s innovative and forward-thinking, and we want to keep up with that. It’s a great facility and this will make it better and worth the drive,” says Hilary King of Bloomfield Hills, Temple Israel president. “Our preschool is very robust and, of course, this is to attract future growth. We want to keep people engaged in being Jewish.”

Social Hall Exterior. Courtesy of Stuart J. Fine & Associates.

According to Tisdale, the Early Childhood Center (ECC) is currently at capacity with 250 students. The temple’s summer camp serves 150 children. “Our goal is to see families affiliate,” he adds.

Temple Israel is the largest Reform synagogue in the country, according to the Union for Reform Judaism, with 3,400 members. Its existing building is 120,000 square feet.

The new classrooms and related enhancements are being funded through donations, primarily from the Sarah and Harry Gottlieb Endowment Fund. The Joseph J. and Deanna I. Bittker Foundation is the major donor for The Bridge. The $4.5 million project was designed by architectural firm Stuart J. Fine + Associates. Sachse Construction is the contractor.

The second phase will create a much-needed additional dedicated prayer space and social hall, a gathering area to be called The Heart, an innovative educational room and a splash pad for young children.

“The second phase is where the real changes come — the new prayer space, The Heart and a place for learning through movement,” Yedwab explains. “Kinetic learning will revolutionize how Jewish education is taught. The Heart came out of the future planning committee — that a shul should be a gathering place. It will be a place to hang out, play mahj or cards, or have coffee — modeled after Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield.”

The temple has been using Korman Hall as a multipurpose room for religious services and a children’s play area, which requires frequent set-up and removal of large play equipment. Yedwab points out an ark installed in a wall with sliding doors so that it is out of the way of playing children and others when not used for religious services. “It doesn’t have the acoustics for a prayer space,” he notes.

In addition to the main sanctuary, the temple has a small chapel that seats only 180, which is too few for many events.

Yedwab is especially excited about redesigning Korman Hall to become a place for immersive Jewish learning. “Children learn through kinetic movement and tactile learning. The pioneer for this was the Friendship Circle. Imagine if you were climbing the ladder of Maimonides’ eight levels of charity,” he says.

A splash pad will be another attraction for young children and something different than what is available at other synagogues, Yedwab says.

The new prayer space will be named in honor of major donors Sandy and the late Bill Lefkofsky. Major donors for The Heart are Stephanie and the late Fred Keywell.

The final component of Phase II is a new security entrance that will encompass the newest and best safety provisions, such as the ability to lock classrooms from a distance. Yedwab says high-level consultants are advising on security upgrades, which are under way throughout the campus. The main donors for the new security entrance are Earl and Renée Ishbia.

Tisdale anticipates additional philanthropic support for Phase II. He says Phase II will be somewhat less than 12,000 square feet and cost $7 to $8 million. The architect will be announced shortly and Sachse will be the contractor for this phase as well.

King says Temple Israel’s physical expansion as well as other enhancements reflect “one goal in mind: to show this community how we strive to keep Judaism relevant and offer a place where our members feel connected to our faith and one another.”

While expansion is under way at the Temple Israel facility in West Bloomfield, the temple has provided off-site locations and programs for years. Tisdale says the temple has used Seaholm High School in Birmingham as a more convenient location for Sunday school for at least 10 years.

The temple’s Tyner Religious School also holds classes at Conant Elementary on Quarton in the Bloomfield Hills School District and at Derby Middle School in Birmingham. West Hills Middle School, also in the Bloomfield Hills district, where many Temple Israel students attend public school, provides a mid-week Hebrew school location.

Recently, the temple considered acquiring a former Detroit Country Day School building in Bloomfield Township but was unable to reach a satisfactory purchase agreement due to building issues. Yedwab says the temple has looked at multiple buildings in eastern Oakland County including a mortuary, church and Elks building, but finding a property that can be brought up to current codes and provide space for a school and other programs is difficult.

The location of synagogues, temples and other Jewish institutions has become more relevant as Federation’s 2018 Jewish Population Study indicated that a significant proportion of the Jewish population has shifted since the prior survey in 2005. Between 2005 and 2018, the survey indicates that the proportion of Jewish households declined in two West Bloomfield zip codes as well as in Farmington Hills.

Phase II will include a children’s splash pad. Courtesy of Stuart J. Fine & Associates.
Space in Phase II will be devoted to kinetic learning. Courtesy of Stuart J. Fine & Associates.
A connecting space in Phase I called The Bridge will include a a mini gym with a climbing wall. Courtesy of Stuart J. Fine & Associates.

During this same period, the proportion of Jewish households, especially younger families, increased in Oak Park/Huntington Woods and other areas in eastern Oakland County. In 2018, Jewish households comprised 65 percent of the homes in Huntington Woods, and 34 and 32 percent respectively of the households in the two main West Bloomfield zip codes.

After the Jewish Community Center (JCC) campus in Oak Park closed several years ago, some Jewish residents in Huntington Woods, Royal Oak, Oak Park and Berkley pointed out the distance and inconvenience of driving to the West Bloomfield JCC. Some programs formerly held at the Oak Park JCC were moved to other community locations in what is called the “JCC without Walls.” Recently, the JCC has started off-site groups in Birmingham and Franklin with family-friendly activities such as Shabbat in local parks.

Tisdale says Temple Israel’s membership includes families from the Woodward corridor and many multi-generational families. The West Bloomfield location “has served us well, but we’re always looking at how we can better serve members,” he says.

For several years, Temple Israel has offered outreach programs open to everyone in the Jewish community, although they are targeted to younger families and individuals and held in Berkley and Birmingham to draw individuals living in or near those suburbs.

Temple Israel’s Rabbi Jennifer Lader describes these Shabbat services and dinners at Berkley High School as grassroots efforts geared to young families with school-age children. Outreach efforts to this group will continue but with enhanced programming at different sites, she says.

The goal, she adds, is to develop a meaningful way to celebrate Shabbat with families in eastern Oakland County. They plan to use The Platform, an event space in Birmingham, as well as other yet-to-be-determined locations. Jacob Spike Kraus, a singer and songwriter, has been engaged as the temple’s youth artist in residence, and he will perform at some outreach events.

These programs are “totally open to everyone and our hope is that they will attract an intergenerational audience,” Lader says. “Temple Israel believes that a rising tide raises all ships. We are constantly visioning about how to reach people and increase our bandwidth in the eastern areas.”

Yedwab says, “We always had the idea of creating Jewish experiences where people are. Brick-and-mortar organizations are under siege.”

Following through on that idea, the temple established The Well, short for Meet You at The Well, a program targeted to young professionals, in 2015. Yedwab credits temple member Lori Talsky for supporting the program. “The Well has served thousands of young people with events at gyms, coffee houses and Detroit locations,” he says.

The Lefkofsky family at a ceremonial ground-breaking for Phase II Couresty Lefkofsky Family/Temple Israel

Rabbi Dan Horwitz, The Well’s founding director, explains the use of multiple locations but not the Temple Israel facility is by design.

“The Well was created to serve the needs of Metro Detroit’s young adult population broadly — not to serve a particular temple or synagogue. Our target audience is 20- and 30-somethings and young families with kiddos up to age 5. Temple Israel understood that the goal of The Well was to turn as many young adults and young families on to being part of the Jewish community as possible, knowing that the more engaged and connected young Jewish people there are, the more likely they are to affiliate down the road, ideally benefiting all of our community’s institutions.”

Some Well events are held at The Platform, owned by Gary Cohn, a Temple Israel member. He says The Platform has hosted Shabbat services and dinners, meetings for Temple Israel leadership as well as a craft beer-making demonstration offered by the temple’s Rabbi Josh Bennett.

“They are looking to position themselves on the east side,” Cohn says. In addition, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit has used the facility for its LGBTQ group, he says. The Platform opened about a year ago.

“We’re always looking for ways to serve our members and always looking for opportunities,” King says.

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