Detroit is a city of churches. Over 5,000 places of worship host a diverse assortment of faiths, from established organizations like the Catholic and Methodist churches, to individual firebrand preachers who embrace theologies far outside the mainstream. As Detroit has grown and shrunk, it's religious demographics have changed as well, most notably from Catholicism in the early 1900's to Protestantism today. Often overlooked, however, is Detroit's Jewish history, which played a vital part in the growth of the city.
The first Jewish immigrants began to arrive in Detroit in the 1840’s, mostly of German or Bavarian descent. Among them were Isaac and Sophie Cozens, who moved from New York City to Detroit in 1850, then a city of 21,000. With few Jewish people living in Detroit at the time – around 60, by some estimates - and missing the sense of community that came with having a formal place of worship, they organized the Congregation Bet El (the German name later Anglicized to Beth El) in September of 1850. Services were first held in the Cozens home on the corner of Congress and Antoine Streets with 10 members, later moving to a room above a store on Jefferson Avenue. The church was formally incorporated in April of 1851.
The flow of European immigrants from the continent to America increased, with many heading west for new opportunities, and by 1859 Congregation Beth El had outgrown its modest storefront church. A hall on Cadillac Square between Bates and Randolph was rented. Two years later, a former French M. E. Church on Rivard between Monroe and Lafayette was bought, and the Congregation had it’s first permanent home.
During this time of growth, a nationwide debate about the course of the Jewish fate was ongoing, as some sought to reform the church, while others wished to maintain their traditions. Though Beth El had started off as a solidly Orthodox congregation, its leadership began steering towards a more reform style of worship. The relaxation of certain and rules and the introduction of a Temple choir caused the church to break in two, with the Orthodox faction forming the Sha'arai Zedek Congregation, which would become the main Orthodox Temple of Detroit.
Further growth in the city and the Jewish population forced another relocation in 1867 to the Tabernacle Baptist Church at the southwest corner of Washington and Clifford, which was purchased and renovated. Though they numbered just a few hundred, the Congregation became an important institution of the city. When the Detroit High School burned down in 1893, Temple Beth El opened its doors as a temporary school.
For nearly 30 years, Beth El continued to grow, even as over 20 different reform and Orthodox Congregations established themselves in and around downtown. In 1899, when Rabbi Leo M. Franklin took over leadership of the Temple, his first act was to immediately begin fundraising for the construction of a new place of worship, as the current building was packed to capacity. By October of 1900 a plan for a new Temple was formally adopted.
Following a pattern established by waves of immigrants before them, most Jewish people settled in the slum parts of the city just north and east of downtown, establishing a community and acclimating themsleves to their surroundings. Within a generation, upward social mobility meant that families could afford better houses outside the slums, and like the Germans and Poles had a decade before, the Jewish ethnic community began to move outwards from downtown. Filling in behind them in the slums was the last major ethnic group to arrive in the city: southern blacks.
The northward movement of the Jewish population in Detroit out of the slums downtown was just beginning in the early 1900's, and recognizing that the center of the congregation would be several miles north within 10 years, it was decided to locate the new Temple further up Woodward to better accommodate future membership. Fundraising for the new tabernacle and school began in April of 1901, and architects George Mason and Albert Kahn presented plans for a 1,200 seat Beaux Arts-style church and school to be built on Woodward Avenue between Erskine and Eliot Streets. Ground was broken in November, and the cornerstone laid on April 23rd, 1902. Six months later construction had advanced to the point where services could be moved from the old Temple on Rivard, the last of which was held on December 26th, 1902. The first service held in the new temple came a month later on January 24th, 1903, and the building was completed and dedicated in September of 1903.
The new Temple provided a base from which a variety of social and civic programs could be launched, including a Woman's Auxillary, Young People's Society, Glee Club, Boy Scout Troop, and a community gymnasium. The Detroit String Quartet gave concerts. During the First World War the church was involved in relief efforts, and young men from Temple Beth El served overseas in number and distinction.
The church doubled in size between the opening of the new Temple and the end of 1904, growing at such a rate that by 1917, First Unitarian Church was rented out to accommodate overflow crowds of holiday worshipers at Yom Kippur and Rosh Hoshana. With over 900 members, Beth El was one of the top three Congregations in the United States. After just 14 years, the Temple on Woodward Avenue was sold, and Albert Kahn drew up plans for a larger place of worship.
Earlier predictions about the movement of congregation northward had proved correct, and so the location of the new Temple was planned for a site on Woodward Avenue and Gladstone Street where a small private school stood, roughly two miles north of the exiting location. Initial renderings showed a very similar style building to the current one, albeit much larger. However, at some point in the design phase the plan was scrapped, and a flat-roof classical building of Indiana limestone was approved in November of 1920. Contracts were let in April of 1921, and the cornerstone laid in October, accompanied by a letter from President Harding congratulating Rabbi Franklin and the congregation.
The new Temple Beth El would be one of the largest Jewish places of worship in the country, seating 2,200 in a spacious, oval sanctuary featuring a frieze, which has the names of Hebrews prophets and sages. At the rear of the Temple was a multi-story community building, which housed a small auditorium and 28 classrooms. In May of 1922 the last regular service was held at the old Temple, which was later sold and became a theater.
During this time period many of the other Temples had moved locations as well, building new Synagogues every 20 to 30 years as their flocks moved north. Having gained a measure of upward social mobility, Detroit's black population started moving north as well, settling into areas that Jews were vacating as they were one of the only ethnic groups in the city who would sell property to blacks. The old Synagogues were sold to young black congregations, giving them permanent homes around which to build a community.
The Congregation met in temporary locations until the building was largely finished in time for it’s dedication ceremony in November, when the biblical scrolls were placed in an ark, and an "eternal" flame lit over the altar. Work continued through 1925, as French artist Myron Barlow finished four mural paintings around the main dome. Each mural represented a period in Jewish history.
Temple Beth El, along with other Congregations including Beth David and Sha'arai Zedek formed the nucleus of a Jewish neighborhood that grew north and west of Woodward out to 12th Street and as far west as Fenkell. The usual membership of 1,000 at Beth El swelled to over 3,000 for Yom Kippur in 1932 filling three auditoriums to capacity. During the week, over 1,700 students attend the Temple’s school of religion. In 1927, additional buildings along Gladstone were purchased to house overflow students, with the plan being to build a permanent school building, which never came to fruition.
As at the previous location, Rabbi Franklin continued to push reform the Congregation, opening relations with Protestant and Catholic leaders and becoming a respected figure throughout the country. He died in August of 1948.
By the 1970’s, another migration was underway, as Congregations began to vacate their synagogues and move further north to the edge of the city and into the suburbs. Temple Beth El had outgrown their location once again, and in 1973 to a new Temple at Telegraph and 14 Mile Road in the suburbs.
Within a decade, nearly every Jewish Congregation in Detroit had moved north and out of the city. Most of the incredibly ornate synagogues were bought by protestant churches, which still use them today. The 1903 Temple Beth El became a theater in the 1920’s, and after going through several owners, is now used by Wayne State University. In 1975, The Lighthouse Cathedral Church bought the Woodward and Gladstone location and used it for over 30 years, until it was sold to Little Rock Baptist Church in 2007. While Little Rock used the school portion of the building, the sanctuary was leased to several different churches, including Citadel of Faith Covenant Church, which left for a different location on Trumbull in 2012.
Little Rock Baptist, which already had it’s own church across the street, struggled to maintain the large building. Water leaks began to appear around the dome of the sanctuary, which was no longer in regular use. After the school closed or moved around 2013, the building was vacant, and scrappers started to remove valuable metal. A pipe in the basement was ripped out, which caused extensive flooding.
In October of 2014, the Temple was sold to Breakers Covenant Church, which has since reopened the church. Services are now being held in the auditorium, while funds are raised to repair the main sanctuary.
While much of Detroit's Synagogues left the city decades ago, there is still a strong Jewish presence downtown at the Agree Synagogue and other faith-based outreach organizations. And though many former Temples remain in use throughout the city by different faiths, Temple Beth El was one of the most influential and long-lasting, leaving an indelible mark on the city and it’s faithful.