Since 1922 Temple Bethel has been a place of importance to the faithful of Detroit – first as a synagogue, and since 1973, home to various churches. In close to a century of service to the city it has done a lot of good.
This would be “a place of reconciliation.”
Now it has fallen into quite a bit of disrepair, and a group of the faithful has launched a Kickstarter campaign to restore the temple to its former glory. The goal is to turn the 1922 Albert Kahn structure on Woodward and Gladstone with its incredible domed sanctuary into a modern performing arts destination, worship space and community center.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
The current resident is Breakers Covenant Church International. Its Senior Pastor Aramis Hinds has big plans for the structure, now called the Bethel Community Transformation Center.
“This space, it speaks to me,” Hinds says on the Kickstarter video. “It speaks to me about purpose. It speaks to me about heritage, sanctuary, safety, home.”
He reached out to Rabbi Ariana Silverman, who earlier this year became the first rabbi at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in 16 years. During the whole process his greatest ally has been Silverman and she and those who attend her synagogue have been an invaluable resource.
The two have spearheaded the interfaith initiative they believe will result in a phenomenal comeback of this religious structure.
“Our goal is to marry the rich heritage of the past with present vision and to foster better and brighter future for all,” Hinds says.
When Hinds first looked at the building it was in terrible condition and looked like it had been abandoned. Paint and plaster chips all over the place. Dirty and grime everywhere.
While the congregation has cleaned up the building there is much work to be done.
The most pressing concern for the building is roof off of the main sanctuary. The years have taken an exceptional toll. There is also a need to update the bathrooms, repair the elevators, upgrade the mechanical and electrical systems, cover maintenance costs, and restore the historic structure.
It will be costly. The goal of the Kickstarter campaign is to raise $100,000. The campaign ends April 28 and, as with all Kickstarter initiatives, it is all or nothing.
If successful, the Kickstarter campaign will enable them to reach the short-term objectives and transform the vision into a construction plan with an architectural firm and general contractors.
To make it easier to hit the ground running, Hinds has already started to collect and study the best choices for the work. The plan is to keep the jobs as local as possible, so the benefits will go directly to the community.
Specialists are needed, simply for the age of the temple. So far, the University of Michigan stepped up to help provide some of them.
The group envisions a four-phase renovation process beginning this summer and covering all of the different areas of the building.
This is about more than just the restoration of a historical landmark in the city, and it’s more than just a place where people worship.
Hinds sees the structure as a community center that houses his church, which has around 250 members. That’s a small congregation for the five-story, 55,000-square-foot building with 55 offices and classrooms, a 1,600-seat interior-dome sanctuary, banquet hall, a commercial kitchen, sub-basement gymnasium and 350-seat auditorium, – plenty of room to share.
So when the Breakers Covenant Church International congregation bought Bethel in October of 2014, after leasing it for a year, they opened up to more organizations including:
- The Casoe Group, a performing arts guild that gives Detroit kids a place to express themselves creatively
- Computer Learning Center
- Phoenix Center, a program that helps displaced and homeless youth ages 14-24
There also tours about the Jewish history both at the synagogue and in the city and limited Shabbat services for congregations across metro Detroit.
Once the work is done there are plans for more community outreach that would provide:
- Job resource and training services
- Counseling and mentorship programs
- Health and wellness outreach
- Community theater events
- Cross-cultural educational initiatives and exchanges
- Shared workspace opportunities for community-centered startup businesses and organizations
- Further investment into historical tours
- Greater opportunity for neighborhood gatherings and outreach activities
- Weddings and special events
- Full use of the sanctuary for worship events, lectures, educational events, theater, and music
Through it all Bethel’s legacy has never been forgotten and seeking out involvement of the Jewish community was a priority. The original congregation, which left Detroit for Temple Beth El’s new home in West Bloomfield in the 1970s, was contacted. Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El represents them on the Bethel Community Transformation Center.
Temple Bethel was built by the first Jewish congregation in Michigan, which was founded in the 1850s at the Couzens family’s home in Detroit. Architect Albert Kahn was member. Besides worship, it was used as a home base for community outreach. The most notable one was to build and strengthen the relationship between the Jewish and African-American communities.
There is a point of pride to be part of the transformation of Detroit and to shine a light on the history of the Jewish people in the city. Silverman says Temple Beth Israel plans to have its High Holiday services at Bethel this fall. They have been at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Bethel will also remain a headquarters for the interfaith council that has formed. Hinds believes they give each other perspective and strength.
The inscription on the front of the building reads “My house shall be called the house of prayer for all people.”
Those words resonated with Hinds, who says he realized as he first walked up to the building that this would be “a place of reconciliation.”
While they are not sure about their future with Bethel, Hinds and Silverman is hopeful the dollars will come in.
“It is a sacred task to restore both the space and the relationships in the city of Detroit,” Silverman says.
“If those walls could talk I can only imagine what they would say,” she says. “What I want those walls to say five years from now is that a bunch of people came together to make this place sacred again.”
The goal is to collect the needed $100,000 by April 28, at 11:59 pm. Click here to go to the Kickstarter site. Thanks to a generous anonymous donor group, all donations up to $20,000 will be matched dollar-for-dollar.
Photos by Jamie Feldman