A new life for historic Temple Beth El

Jews, Christians, whites and blacks are joining forces to restore the 1922 building by Albert Kahn

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — A lot of memories and mitzvahs resurfaced when Elaine Malin Schonberger entered Temple Beth El’s former sanctuary for a rare shabbat service last month.

The 64-year-old was named and blessed on the burgundy bimah — a platform now carpeted blue with splotches of brown stains — consecrated at age 4, confirmed at 15 and married at 21. The vibrant ceiling murals of Jews in the desert and immigrants arriving in Ellis Island that awed her as a girl were now dulled by decades of dust. The balcony, a casualty of roof leaks, looked like it had been through a war.

“I had so many life cycle events there for myself and my family ... but it was sad to see it was certainly not in the same condition,” said Schonberger of West Bloomfield Township, who returned because her son was playing guitar in the service.

Schonberger and her husband, Mark, were the last Jewish couple married in the Albert Kahn-designed Temple Beth El on Woodward and Gladstone in the North End. And for the first time in 44 years, a Jewish wedding will be held at the 1922 building, now called the Bethel Community Transformation Center and home to a church and several nonprofits, this May.

The groom, Justin Wedes, is on the Bethel Community Transformation Center board — a group of Jews, Christians, whites and blacks — that has a vision to restore the building to its former glory.

They also want to renovate it into a community center with a performing arts theater, fitness center and co-working space. All faiths will be welcome for worshiping. As the owner, Pastor Aramis Hinds of Breakers Covenant Church International points out, the Hebrew words “Beth El” engraved above pillars hugging Woodward mean “House of God.”

After Temple Beth El moved to Bloomfield Hills in 1973, the building changed ownership between several churches. Lighthouse Cathedral first took over, and the building became known as “Lighthouse” among the black community. Hinds surmises the churches couldn’t keep up with the building’s immense operating cost, which “opened opportunities for damage.”

In 2014, Hinds — a 36-year-old Detroit native — bought all 55,000 square feet from Little Rock Baptist Church after leasing space for his 250-member congregation for a year. The purchase came with a $150,000 donation from an individual who believed in his work.

With keys in his hands, Hinds starting researching the building’s past and discovered he owned more than four floors with 55 classrooms and offices. He owned a relic of Jewish history.

“(Temple Beth El) was a focal point in the city for the Jewish community, a beacon of light for the whole city,” said Hinds, his voice reverberating through the stillness in the 1,600-seat sanctuary.

Roots in 1800s

Beth El formed in 1850 as an Orthodox congregation and converted to a reform congregation — a controversial move — in 1860, according to Wendy Rose Bice, executive director or the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan, which plans to run a Jewish history exhibit in the center.

Kahn, a member of Beth El who designed the Fisher Building and Packard Plant, designed one of Beth El’s first buildings — now the Bonstelle Theatre on Woodward — in 1903 before the North End location.

Temple Beth El Senior Rabbi Mark Miller said for 50 years, the building at 8801 Woodward in the North End was the “primary address of everything that happened in the Jewish community” and fostered relationships during Detroit’s booming years.

“The connections between this temple and civic leaders, business leaders, other religious leaders was really profound,” he said.

Learning all this, Hinds took it upon himself to preserve the building’s heritage and engage the Jewish community to, together, revitalize the space in a way that respects its past but also empowers nearby residents, many living below the poverty level.

“The vision is huge. Just imagine a community center that you can go play basketball in and you could go and listen to the orchestra play,” said Hinds, comparing the future remodeled sanctuary to a “mini Fox Theatre.”

“Our goal is for this to be a community center that houses a church,” he added. “I think that’s really, really important. Our goal isn’t to say that it’s a church that houses a center.”

The first step is a Kickstarter campaign, which has so far raised over $31,000 of the $100,000 target. If met by April 28, the funds will go toward roof and elevator repairs and hiring an architect specialized in historic structures to restore the sanctuary’s murals by Detroit artist Myron Barlow and other features. The four-phase renovation of the sanctuary, social hall, gymnasium, auditorium and classrooms could take a decade and millions of dollars, but Hinds is in it for the long haul.

“The work is bigger than just our congregation,” he said. “It’s a much bigger picture of healing and reconciliation between city and suburbs, between black and white, between Jew and non-Jew ... and who knows where it will go from there.”

Healing and reconciling

Rabbi Ariana Silverman of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, which serves about 400 households on Griswold, met Hinds at an interfaith event in 2015 marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma March. Since then, the two have become close friends.

“The way you can bridge difference is through that kind of relationship building,” said Silverman, who came to Detroit from Manhattan in 2010 and claims to be the only rabbi living in Detroit for four years. “It takes time and it takes effort, and it’s totally worth it.”

The Bethel Community Transformation Center will provide opportunities to have conversations across lines of race, faith and socioeconomic status in Detroit, she said.

The first phase to renovate the sanctuary is slated to start this summer during the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots. The timing hasn’t gone unnoticed. Silverman said she and Hinds have talked a lot about “reconciliation” and how their communities, once allies, have become “really separated and segregated.”

The Jewish community is now primarily in the suburbs, noted Silverman, mentioning that the Downtown Synagogue is the last active congregation with its own building in the city of Detroit. It’s a stark contrast to 1941, when 40 Jewish congregations in the city served roughly 5,135 families, the Jewish Historical Society reports.

Breakers Covenant International Church now owns the 1922 building on Woodward and Gladstone in Detroit's North End.

“That demographic shift has meant that a lot of the conversations that need to happen have stopped happening,” Silverman said.

In an effort to engage with the community, the Downtown Synagogue will hold High Holy Day services at the Bethel Community Transformation Center for the first time this September. In the 10 intervening days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the “Days of Repentance,” the synagogue will host workshops and lectures focused on the relationship between Jews and blacks in Detroit, which Silverman noted aren’t separate communities. Many of her congregants are Jews of color.

According to the census, Detroit’s white population reached 1.5 million in 1950. Demographers name the ’50s to ’70s as a period of “white flight” when many, including Jews, left the city. According to a population study by University of Michigan Institute for Social Research Professor William H. Frey, the non-black population in Detroit declined 28.1 percent from 1960 to 1970 and 47.9 percent from 1970 to 1980.

Miller, 47, became the rabbi at Beth El, a congregation of 1,100 families, in 2014 and wasn’t involved in the 1973 transition, but said many members felt a sense of loss.

“We have a lot of members currently who grew up in that building and still think of the place as their home,” he said.

Some members, like Dr. Marilyn Heins, resisted the move. Then the Detroit Receiving Hospital director of pediatrics, Heins wrote a letter to Rabbi Richard C. Hertz in 1967, pleading with him to keep Beth El in Detroit.

Now 86, Heins said in a fundraising video that instead of “fleeing,” she wanted to create “a unified community” by expanding the temple into a community center and park.

“I truly believed then, and I still believe, in a community being a community for all people,” she said. Six decades later, her dream is becoming a reality. “Temple Beth El could be a shining example to the rest of Detroit,” she said. “It could be the start of something big.”

Starting the next chapter

While the sanctuary has largely remained untouched — Hinds holds services in the 470-seat auditorium — other areas have received a lot of “TLC” (a word Hinds often drops) from volunteers.

They’ve done “some schlepping,” chuckled Hinds, explaining: “I’ve picked up a couple Yiddish words.”

The “community transformation” has already begun, as a few nonprofits call the building home: The Detroit Phoenix Center on the lower level provides resting space and showers for homeless youth ages 14-24, and the youth theater group The Casoe performs in the auditorium. The church also renovated the second floor library into a Computer Learning Center, so the community can check out books, attend workshops and access 11 computers.

Hinds has come a long way since starting the church in his living room on Mack and Gray on Detroit’s east side.

“I’m just grateful that I have an opportunity to preserve the space,” he said. “If it took 10 years to turn around, if it took 15 years to turn around, I know every day we walk in here, we’re going to make the space better. And to me, that’s my joy.”


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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg