it takes a village.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman is originally from the south side of Chicago, but Detroit is the place she’s lived the longest. She’s spent time in Washington D.C. and New York City but moved to Woodbridge in 2010 when her husband became a law professor at Wayne State University. Both of her young children were born here, so she prides herself on being a Detroiter by association.
“My husband and I grew up in neighborhoods that were diverse in a lot of different ways, and in ways that are, unfortunately, increasingly unusual,” Silverman says. “I want my children to grow up in a community that crosses lines of race, faith, and class. We moved into a house where there was an interracial couple to the left of us, and an interfaith couple to the right. To the right of them was a multi-generation family of color, and across the street was a same-sex couple. Next to them were nuns. We want our kids to understand that these neighbors are part of the loving village that will raise them.”
It was for this diverse, community-oriented reason that Silverman also wanted to work in Detroit. She served at synagogues in West Bloomfield, Grosse Pointe, and Jackson, and in 2016, became the first female rabbi at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, Detroit’s only freestanding synagogue. It had been lay lead since 2001 until the congregation raised enough money to hire a rabbi again.
“This congregation has long been committed to social justice, partnership, and diversity—all of the things that matter deeply to me,” she says. “Although one way it has broken with the past is that there’s now a female rabbi.” Silverman’s four-year-old daughter, in fact, once went to a synagogue with a male rabbi and was confused. “She didn’t realize men could be rabbis,” Silverman laughs.
The congregation was established in 1921 and provided opportunities for prayer and study, free of charge or obligation, to all Jews living in metropolitan Detroit. It became a place for Jews to worship during working hours, mainly because of the tradition of reciting Kaddish when mourning a loved one, Silverman says. During the 1950s, it was one of over fifty Jewish congregations in Detroit, but when Jews began moving into the suburbs, it became the last one remaining.
You might recognize the building on Griswold Street—the synagogue’s unique triangle structure and brightly colored windows are hard to miss. It has held that location since the 1960s, but it, too, was in danger of closing in 2008, particularly when the recession hit. Membership and budget were small, but it just so happened that, also in 2008, young, optimistic Jews were moving into the city, with visions of a diverse, reinvigorated Detroit. They brought with them knowledge of social media and crowdfunding. Eventually, they raised enough money to keep the doors open.
“The past ten years have been an incredible blessing,” Silverman says. “But we’re thoughtful of how we show up as neighbors to the folks who have called Detroit home for a long time.”
They’re devoted to serving the needs of all Detroiters; Silverman is passionate about addressing racial injustice in the city. She works with organizations and leaders from different races, classes, and religions. She hosts events with a cherished pastor of a Christian church, is involved with non-profits like Detroit Jews for Justice, and has a strong partnership with Eden Gardens, a neighborhood and community garden in northeast Detroit. This collaborative approach will become even more solidified when renovations of the upper two floors of the synagogue are complete, as Silverman would like to see them inhabited by their varied partners.
“We need to find ways to bring folks under the same roof to do amazing work together,” she says. “I think the synagogue will succeed, and the Jewish community in Detroit will succeed, the more we cross borders. We have to fight the trend of separation.”
That ideology applies to all aspects of Silverman’s life.
“I read a book recently by Robert Putnam called Our Kids,” she says. “Putnam says that when he was growing up, and his parents talked about ‘our kids,’ they meant the kids in the neighborhood. Now when people talk about ‘our kids,’ they mean the kids in their house. That’s a major shift in how we organize communities and our lives. What would it mean to imagine ‘our kids’ being Detroit kids?”
Silverman will enroll her children in Detroit Public Schools and is making an effort to raise the enrollment of Jewish kids in the school system. Creating diversity among the younger generation is key. Although some suburban parents might be reticent, here in Detroit, Silverman believes she can make a difference.
“One of the things I love about this city is that it feels like the choices I make as a Detroiter really matter: where I shop for my groceries, what businesses I patronize, where I buy a house,” Silverman says. “Those are the things I think deeply about as a rabbi. Every choice I make is intentional and reflective of my values, my Judaism. It affirms what I believe and who I want to be. And that’s a pretty incredible thing.”