08/22/2011 07:22 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011

A Rebirth of Jewish Life in Downtown Detroit


Matisyahu stood out in front of the crowd. He had just stage-dived head first off of a 15 foot-high stack of speakers from the side of the stage. The crowd held him aloft and returned him to the stage as if rehearsed.

"Detroit," he yelled into the microphone, "you are f---ing crazy!"

The crowd roared back.

Lights made the already stifling heat even more unbearable. How they could continue to play? Yet, an hour into the show, the pace and intensity of the music was growing. The crowd jumping up and down to the beat of the music. Rivers of sweat ran off the drummer, who was shirtless by the end.

With more than 1,000 people packed into the air-condition-less hall, many took turns outside on the front steps of St. Andrews. It was that hot inside.

When the band finished and walked offstage, the crowd would not leave. They started to chant for more.

Matisyahu, already drenched head to toe, returned with his signature anthem of peace, "One Day." He brought dozens of concert-goers on stage to accompany him. St. Andrews Hall pulsed with sweat, cheers. Across the room of outstretched arms, the crowd chanted the words at the top of their lungs unmoved by the searing heat.

Earlier in the day, a few miles from the venue, I brought Matisyahu to visit the newly established Motor City Moishe House. The community and residents transformed a historic home which once housed a venerable rabbi of yesteryear into a communal home, part of the national Moishe House network.

In this blighted neighborhood, Detroit's Jewish community is banking on this collective to be a hub of programming for young adults. Though opened only months ago, at least 50 people showed up with just two days notice to meet the singer and enjoy a vegan feast prepared by a young kosher caterer.

When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and 80s, the notion that Jews would return to the city -- literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years -- was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950s. By the time I was born, the Jewish community, and all the synagogues and temples, had moved to the suburbs. My parents' choice to live in the city was never quite understood. Two small shuls stuck it out.

It's no secret that Detroit is on the ropes. The city is a shadow if its former self, even with gorgeous new stadiums for baseball and football. Miles of the city have been razed and nature is reclaiming them. Miles of empty commercial real estate line the streets of the sprawling suburbs. Corruption and mismanagement were rampant and reached their zenith when the mayor was arrested two years ago.

However, Detroit's Jewish community, whose members live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past. In addition to the new Moishe House, and a Repair the World volunteer, a landmark synagogue recently was saved. The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue was about to close its doors and sell the building after 90 years. The situation had been so bad that the synagogue needed to recruit the bartender of a nearby night club to make a minyan. A group of my contemporaries, old shul members and younger Jews have banded together and saved the shul. The compelling saga was even covered by NPR.
Detroit's Jews are resilient. Instead of closing the Downtown Synagogue, they celebrated their 90th year with 300 people.

As the Motor City's modern bard, Eminem, offers, "Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity ... Would you capture it or just let it slip?"

Kick for Detroit is today (Aug. 21). You can make a donation to help the rebirth of Jewish life in Downtown Detroit.

Yonah Bookstein, a leading voice of the next generation of American Jewry, is an internationally recognized expert in Jewish innovation, founder of the Jewlicious Festival, and executive rabbi at JConnectLA. Rabbi Yonah is a frequent contributor to and Follow him on Twitter @RabbiYonah.