The Last Shul In Detroit

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue is the last shul in Detroit. The shrinking congregation has been without a rabbi since 2003 and its struggling to stay afloat. Members often have to recruit bartenders from a night club next door to achieve the number of worshippers required for prayer service.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. There is one Jewish synagogue left in Detroit. It, too, may close its doors soon because of declining attendance. NPR's Celeste Headlee reports all is not lost. Some younger Jews who worship there are trying to save their synagogue.

CELESTE HEADLEE: It's Saturday night, and the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue is packed. Many are waiting for the Hanukkah party to start. Members gather around their menorahs and sing.

(Soundbite of singing)

HEADLEE: The candles are lit, the lights are dim, and it's a lovely scene until they start the annual meeting. That's when the sparks fly.

(Soundbite of people arguing)

Unidentified Man #1: It caused nothing but destruction. It would be nice if you just sat there and shut up for a change.

HEADLEE: They're trying to elect a new slate of board members, and the stakes are high. Some of the older members voted to sell the building, and there's a determined group of young people trying to get elected to the board so they can try to save the synagogue.

(Soundbite of people arguing)

Unidentified Man #2: Can you actually be a bigger (bleep)hole?

Ms. COURTNEY SMITH (Member, Detroit Action Synagogue Committee): I think people are scared of change. I mean, there've been a certain amount of people here who've been doing their own thing and holding it together for quite a few years.

HEADLEE: Courtney Smith listens to the arguments with dismay. She's part of the Detroit Action Synagogue Committee, a group of eight 20-somethings who believe they can raise the money needed to keep the doors open here.

Ms. SMITH: We've developed this sort of friendship and bond with one another and this sort of common goal.

HEADLEE: So, Smith and her friends have started a fundraising campaign. But it's not universally supported. Several of the longtime members of the synagogue say the institution is dead, and Mike Caskey(ph) of the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council says he can't imagine where the money is going to come from.

Mr. MIKE CASKEY (Grosse Pointe Jewish Council): There is a saying that I like, which is vision without resources is a mirage.

HEADLEE: Caskey says his group and another in Detroit rent space for their congregations, and there's no need to own a physical building.

Mr. CASKEY: And to build what would essentially be a museum downtown that would go unused is not necessary. It would not really deliver any major return on investment.

HEADLEE: But the action committee says the synagogue will be used, and they've enlisted the help of an unlikely ally. Larry Mongo owns the very hip club next door, Club D'Mongo's. He says when he bought the restaurant, the rabbi agreed to support his application for a liquor license for a price.

Mr. LARRY MONGO (Owner, Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy): He said, Larry, if I'm ever short of man for Minyan - I don't care how busy you get - if I come to see you, I want you to come and be the 10th man.

HEADLEE: Mongo agreed and forgot all about it, until one day when the place was packed, and the rabbi showed up at his door needing that 10th man. Mongo told his staff...

Mr. MONGO: Don't tell the rabbi I'm here. So, I ran upstairs and kind of hid. He said he saw me. He sent word upstairs and said, tell Larry unless he start, we can't have a Minyan. If we can't have a Minyan, there's no sense in me going next door, so I'll wait.

HEADLEE: That was the beginning of a close relationship between Cafe D'Mongo's and the downtown synagogue. Last month, Mongo and the synagogue committee hosted a party and a traditional Havdalah service. Hundreds of young people passed between the temple and the club, enjoying drinks and listening to the band. Mongo says he feels he owes something to Jews for all they did for African-Americans in the past.

Mr. MONGO: When they gave free legal services for civil rights, sold us their houses in Northwest Detroit when it was against the law to sell us houses, fronted for a lot of black businesses. So, right now, I see that this synagogue need help.

HEADLEE: And Kate Bush of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit says many people don't know this synagogue is here in the city. And when they find out, they'll flock to support it.

Mr. KATE BUSH (Liaison Co-chair, Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit): As soon as they find out that this is still going on downtown, I think that there will be a huge, huge movement back down here.

HEADLEE: At the annual meeting tonight, Bush and several other young people from the action committee win seats on the board. The vote on whether or not to sell the building is postponed. Susan Tulipman(ph) says this synagogue was founded as a place for everyone, regardless of means.

Ms. SUSAN TULIPMAN: I don't need to be wealthy. I don't need to have an outfit from Neiman Marcus. I'd be welcomed with open arms, greeted like I have been coming there donating $100,000 for 100 years.

HEADLEE: A building contractor estimates it will cost about $450,000 to refurbish the building. The Downtown Synagogue has burned through its endowment, and its only hope is to raise the money from donors. If that doesn't happen, the last synagogue building in Detroit may have to close its doors forever. Celeste Headlee, NPR News Detroit.

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