Detroit’s Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue reopens after $6M renovations

The renovations emphasize inclusivity, from an ADA compliant elevator to a shared workspace for local Jewish organizations.

The stained glass exterior of Detroit's Downtown Synagogue.

The colorful stained glass of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue fits in on a vibrant block.

Detroit’s Downtown Synagogue is set to reopen Friday following a nearly $6 million renovation.

The Isaac Agree congregation was founded in Detroit in 1921. And although it’s changed in many different ways, it still keeps its significance.

“The building was built in 1930, and for a while housed Fintech, which was primarily a men’s clothing store, and in 1964, was purchased by the synagogue,” says Rabbi Ariana Silverman. “Since then, the synagogue has occupied this space through thick and thin, and it has been really committed to staying in the city of Detroit and being a resource for the city of Detroit.”

Rabbi Arianna Silverman talks with WDET's Russ McNamara on the street outside the synagogue
Rabbi Ariana Silverman talking about the renovation work at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue with WDET’s Russ McNamara.

Perhaps you didn’t know what the building was. But if you spent time near Clifford and Griswold in downtown Detroit, you’ll recognize this building, according to Executive Director Rachel Rudman.

“In the previous decades if you walked past the Downtown Synagogue you would have just seen brick. You couldn’t see what was happening inside and people who were inside couldn’t really see what was happening on the street,” says Rudman.

“So a huge piece of this project was opening up the brick, bringing in these floor-to-ceiling glass windows so that people who were inside the building could feel like they’re part of the neighborhood and people in Detroit could see that there actually is a functioning community, that the Downtown Synagogue is alive and well.”

Rudman says the synagogue hadn’t had a functional elevator for decades before the renovations.

“So another huge reason and draw of this project was being able to have an ADA compliant elevator, especially since our sanctuary is on the second floor.”

The building is shaped like a wedge or a slice of pie. It has stained glass varying from red, yellow, blue, green and orange colored squares. That beauty extends inside where a terrazzo floor — a throwback to the temple’s clothing store past — has reemerged.

A mosaic tile floor featuring black and red diamonds and circles.
The newly uncovered terrazzo floor inside the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

“We had no idea this was here. It feels a little bit like an archeological dig when you find the gorgeous mosaic underneath the site. We have found our gorgeous mosaic,” Rabbi Silverman says.

While the floor is a great first impression, the showpiece is the glowing stained glass windows that are captured on the second floor that, too, displays the rows of pews and bookcases for Jewish texts. Rabbi Silverman says this is something she and her congregants embrace.

Interior of the Detroit Downtown Synagogue during renovations, featuring rows of wooden seats and colorful glass windows.
The sanctuary inside the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue before renovation work was completed.

“The iconic stained glass windows weren’t originally installed to be a symbol of the diversity in our community. But they’re perfect for us in terms of explaining how we cross lines of race, faith, class and geography. We want this to be a space for people from all over the rainbow of Jewish experience and Jewish-adjacent experience.”

That Jewish-adjacent experience has been on the road, welcomed into Sibley House next to Christ Church on Jefferson for Shabbat services during the remodel, and that kinship means a lot to Rabbi Silverman.

“One of the things that’s particularly important to us about being in the city of Detroit is working in partnership with our neighbors and understanding that one of our biggest fights as a community is the fight for racial justice,” Rabbi Silverman says.

The third floor has been rebuilt as a shared workspace for various Jewish organizations. Rabbi Silverman says the ability to share resources and collaborate with other smaller organizations was a driving factor for the rebuild.

Some of the building’s shared space tenants will include:

One of the congregation’s goals is to find young Jewish people and welcome them back to the temple. Rabbi Silverman says she hopes to motivate and inspire them to be excited to celebrate their faith.

“I haven’t had numbers for the last few years, but what I can tell you is that prior to that, we had a very vibrant community on Friday nights that would wax and wane based on whether there was a Tigers game. Communicate with God and then go root for the Tigers.”

Fortunately, Café D’Mongos is next door.

Though they’re aiming to be the cool Synagogue, Rabbi Silverman doesn’t care why people are coming in, just as long as they are fulfilling their goal.

“There are many ways to connect to Judaism and Jewish culture in this building. And I think that’s really important to people who are younger for whom maybe the way that they traditionally think of a synagogue is not something engaging.”

The iconic stained glass of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue provides a warm, welcoming glow to the temple’s sanctuary.

Rabbi Silverman knows there’s around 100 children born to worshipers over the past decade and says the renovations will make it an inclusive and welcoming place for them and everyone else.

“They were born in Detroit. All of the programming that’s happening here is in Detroit and they’ll feel like this is their home.”

The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue is another example of Detroit’s growth post-bankruptcy and a reminder of the faith in this city shared by so many people.

Over 300 people put their money toward that faith. Under the leadership of congregation president Samantha Woll and Building Renovation Committee co-chairs Vadim Avshalumov and George Roberts, major comprehensive campaign funders include the William Davidson Foundation, The Jewish Fund, the Max and Marjorie Fisher Foundation, the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation and the Gilbert Family Foundation.

The Grand Re-Opening of the Downtown Synagogue will take place on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2023 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 1457 Griswold St. in Detroit, on Griswold between Clifford and Grand River Ave.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.