Rebuilding the Bridges Between Detroit’s Jewish and African-American Worshippers

A pastor and a rabbi are making ‘interfaith’ more than just a buzzword

Behind the façade of the historic Albert Kahn-designed building at Woodward and Gladstone, now the Bethel Community Transformation Center, a board of volunteers is taking steps to renovate the 100-year-old space into a hub for social justice initiatives, interfaith partnerships, the arts, and education.

A bit further downtown, the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue’s annual campaign recently sought funds to support programming at the last free-standing synagogue in Detroit, housed in a historic four-story building on Griswold.

But beyond being more examples of repurposed buildings in Detroit, another less visible resurgence is materializing. It’s the rebuilding of the once-close relationship between Detroit’s African-American and Jewish communities as viewed from the lens of Breakers Covenant Church International’s Pastor Aramis Hinds and Rabbi Ariana Silverman, who leads the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Why did the connection between the black and Jewish communities fray and how can we take steps to rebuild the relationship we once had?’” Hinds says. “The hard part is understanding the reasoning behind the Jewish community leaving Detroit. Those are difficult conversations to have depending on what side of the table you’re on.”

Determined to strengthen their partnership, Hinds and Silverman fostered the Downtown Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) services this past September at the former home of Temple Beth El, now owned by Hinds’ church. It marked the first time in more than four decades that the High Holy Days were observed at the historic Woodward Avenue building.

Sharing their worship space with Detroit’s Jewish community created a picture of shared purpose like the one Martin Luther King Jr. aspired to, a picture as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, Hinds says.

“Our community is changing in Detroit but it’s still the same dream. It’s what the Selma March showed us in 1965 when Jewish and black leaders walked together,” he says. “We cannot stop, but what we can do is to be the ones who shape what our communities look like, to become more diversified. It is our holy responsibility to do our part.”

Pastor Aramis Hinds and Rabbi Ariana Silverman are working to strengthen the ties among their congregants and communities.

Thanks to a loan and support from nonprofits, Hinds and his community partners are slowly refurbishing the building the BCTC bought in 2014.

“It was in such bad condition when we moved in that I never envisioned us being this far along,” Hinds says. “Now it is very much alive.”

Silverman, who also is on the board of the BCTC,  says choosing the landmark building for the High Holy Days was a confirmation of the Downtown Synagogue’s “commitment to listening and working with our neighbors and partners to envision and create a different future.

“The move of the services back to Detroit after 20 years of holding services in the suburbs is because the number of Jews living in the city has increased dramatically, and because it is a reflection of our values,” Silverman says.

More than 500 attended the High Holiday services at Bethel, more than five times the capacity of the small sanctuary at the Downtown Synagogue.

“We chose to build a partnership with BCTC, and hold our high holiday services in a place of worship that is both breathtaking and in need of repair, because we are committed to Judaism, justice, and Detroit,” Silverman says.

During the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hinds and Silverman also held a meeting for their congregants, called the “2067 Discussion” at the BCTC. The group was facilitated by Professor Peter Hammer, the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State Law School.

“We looked back 50 years and looked ahead to what our communities could look like 50 years from now. It was very powerful and amazing,” Hinds says. “The conversations were more intimate than most of the people in the room were used to, but we have a shared goal to bring diversity to our members by rebuilding the bridges between us. It requires us to ask how do we develop the deep level of trust necessary to meet the challenges we face.”

Hinds admits that what they’ve embarked upon is hard, but he’s not reluctant to do what is necessary to help his church and the metro Detroit Jewish community find common ground.

“It takes guts and sacrifice to do this kind of work. What pushes Ariana and I to embark on this journey is the long history between Jews and blacks. That deserves to be reflected on,” Hinds says. “It was brave of Ariana to come to a congregation owned by a black pastor. Everyone who came to the High Holy Day services walked out of here with light like they were doing something special.”

At a time when race and religion dominate much of the local and national conversation, Silverman finds the challenge to continue talking imperative for both communities. “The fact that many members of the Jewish community and communities of color have become strangers to one another is not an excuse to disengage, rather we are required to re-engage, even though it is hard.

“And as the last free-standing synagogue in Detroit, the Downtown Synagogue recognizes the importance of being place-based, and that to be a good neighbor in 2017 requires a recognition of past injustices and a commitment to listening and working with our neighbors and partners to envision and create a different future.”