A rendering of the facade.
A rendering of the facade. (IADS)

Construction is scheduled to begin in October after the holidays and be ready for a grand reopening just in time for Chanukah 2022.

With more than $4 million raised so far toward its $4.5 million capital campaign to completely renovate its building on Griswold Street, the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS) marks its first century in serving Detroit’s Jewish community as it looks ahead to its next.

From its humble beginnings in 1921 in a house on Rosedale Court in Detroit’s North End to the 1962 purchase of its current Downtown building, the site of the former Fintex clothing store, the shul has remained Detroit’s longest continual Jewish congregation.

The future first floor.
The future first floor. IADS

Construction is scheduled to begin in October after the holidays and be ready for a grand reopening just in time for Chanukah 2022. The capital campaign, which continues through this fall, is possible thanks in part to major gifts from the William Davidson Foundation, The Jewish Fund, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the Gilbert Family Foundation and the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation.

A Collaborative Space

Renovations will increase the footprint of the five-floor building from 12,000 to 15,000 square feet, potentially providing office and conference room space for other Metro Detroit Jewish agencies such as the Jewish Community Center, Hazon and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

Second floor sanctuary and event space.
Second floor sanctuary and event space. IADS

It will be topped off with a rooftop garden/event space for everything from weddings to social happy hours. IADS President Vadim Avshalumov said the synagogue’s renovation plans reflect its growing focus on social justice and Jewish community building and is based on other movements such as IKAR in Los Angeles and Mishkan in Chicago.

“Social justice is an important part of who we are at the Downtown Synagogue, and the ritual aspects of Judaism are an important sliver of what we do as well,” Avshalumov said. “The goal with this renovation is to truly become the central hub for the entire Metro Jewish community and to provide collaborative and office space for many partnering Jewish agencies so they can have a place to call home for their Downtown efforts.”

Meeting Changing Needs 

Rabbi Ariana Silverman said some of the building’s renovations reflect the growing number of families with children who, before the pandemic, were using the building for a variety of religious, social and educational purposes. The congregation now boasts almost 90 children under the age of 18. When renovations are complete, a children’s play area on the north end of the second level will be separated from the sanctuary with a glass wall with a view of the bimah and the ark. That way, families with young children can take a break outside the main sanctuary but still feel connected to services with a “sacred cacophony” of noise, said Silverman. 

The third floor will have shared workspace.
The third floor will have shared workspace. IADS

One wall of the sanctuary — which will be outfitted with chairs instead of pews for more flexible usability — will be lined with shelves for a lending library that will be stocked with books for readers of all ages.

The uppermost floor will be the rabbinic study and suite with views of the iconic Detroit skyline. Silverman said this office will provide congregants and others in the community a more private setting to meet and receive pastoral care in greater confidence. 

Silverman said, ultimately, the renovations are designed to serve a multi-generational Jewish population who have diverse outlooks of what Jewish life looks like. 

The rooftop looking west
The rooftop looking west IADS

“There are multiple pathways to Jewish life — whether they be through social justice, the arts, courses taught by me or other members of the community,” Silverman said. “The space of IADS will be designed for building sacred relationships, and that can start simply by sharing a cup of coffee with another in our newly designed foyer/café.” 

Curbside Appeal

On the outside, the most dramatic change to the building will take place on the ground floor. Currently, the first thing passersby notice about the building’s structure is its red brick facade. That will be replaced by a wall of glass. 

“Many people think they are walking past an abandoned building,” said Avshalumov. “The glass on the first floor will give the inviting message to come in and see what we are doing inside.”

Recognizing the realities of today’s world, the glass will be ballistic grade. There will be other security features, including ongoing entry with a buzzer door, a keycode entry system for staff and additional emergency exits on the second floor. Costs for security run up to about $300,000.

The building will be made ADA-accessible with the addition of ramps and a working elevator at the cost of around $350,000.

A bird’s eye view of the rooftop.
A bird’s eye view of the rooftop. IADS

“It’s been heartbreaking over the years to see some members struggle with the stairs,” said IADS board member Emily Levine, a mother of two children under age five. “When renovations are complete, the entire building will be more accessible and welcoming.

“I am excited about the flexible space for education and young families. When the completed building opens once again, there will be a space for little kids to run around. One day, we will need a teen room. It’s great that we are going to have a space that is flexible to change with our needs.”

Construction Plans

During renovations, the congregation will continue programming on Zoom and is also planning makeshift arrangements for temporary spaces around town for in-person programming, services and religious school activities as pandemic restrictions ease.

Noah Resnick, associate dean of architecture at University of Detroit Mercy and a designer with Laavu studio in Detroit, said all interior design efforts will take into consideration the historic landmark nature of the building. Through a procession of interior design elements, Resnick said visitors of the building will first experience a welcoming foyer space and then move up either with the stairs or the elevator to the sanctuary.

The rooftop looking south
The rooftop looking south IADS

“At the core of all of our interior design concepts and aesthetics will be the bimah and the ark,” said Resnick, who has volunteered at IADS and helped design the synagogue’s sukkah design concepts for Detroit’s 2018 Sukkah X Project competition. “This is such an iconic building known for those colored squares of stained glass. All elements of the design will be created with a celebration keeping in mind the building’s historical significance.”

A Revived Community

Before its current location, IADS survived as a “nomadic shul” in the 1940s and 1950s, a place where Jewish workers gathered in various apartment buildings for a Downtown minyan, said Avshalumov. Just as it seemed on the brink of closing, a new population shift happened.

Beginning in the early 2000s, new Jewish singles and families began to move into the city, and membership has increased in the last 12 years. IADS now has a staff of six, membership has grown from 100 to 300 families, and its budget grew from $40,000 to $600,000 annually.

Rooftop bird's eye view
Rooftop bird’s eye view IADS

IADS member Martin Herman, 91, began his connection to the synagogue in the 1960s but became active when he needed a place Downtown to say Kaddish for his parents in 1989. That began a decades-long affiliation with IADS that included serving on the board, being synagogue president, leading services as a gabbi, and seeking and writing grant proposals to keep the synagogue afloat and functioning even as the city’s Jewish population declined. 

He said that since 2015, there has been an upswing in activity and community at IADS, giving him hope for future generations.

“I am in awe by the zeal and success of the young people who have invested their energy into the Downtown Synagogue,” Herman said. “Though I do not agree with them about everything, I am close with many of them. The changes coming to IADS serve as a rallying point for the Jewish community in the city. 

“We’ve come a long way.”

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Stacy Gittleman is an award-winning journalist and has been a contributing writer for the Detroit Jewish News for the last five years. Prior to moving to Metro Detroit in 2013, she was a columnist and feature writer for Gannett's Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester, NY. She also manages social media pages for other local non-profit organizations including the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. Contact her with breaking news and feature story ideas that impact Detroit's Jewish community at stacy.gittleman@yahoo.com