Silent Witnesses: Migration stories viewed through Synagogues Transformed, Rebuilt, or Left Behind

The story of Detroit is the inspiration for an artists project and exhibition on how synagogues, as community institutions, stand as witness to the social upheavals of our time. The exhibition will be held in the Metro Detroit area, during February and March.

With this project we continue to develop our innovative model of historically-engaged art installations in a hybrid space that is part art world, part public history activism, and part community art. Our projects are artist intiated, and artist organized.Migration is a leitmotif of American cities. Like many other urban areas, Detroit attracted in the early 20th century migrations, seeking better living conditions and job opportunities. Soon Detroit became the fourth largest city in the United States, and social tensions rose with the rapid pace of growth. Following World War II, the widespread suburban development caused population decline, which increased after the 1967 riots/rebellion. In recent years, Detroit is witnessing attempts to revitalize its center.

Detroit's story is the story of an American city. It is the story of people, and the legacies they left behind. It is the story of a changing American cityscape, the reinvention of spaces and places.

At the end of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to the United States, fleeing pogroms and poverty. Many settled in Detroit, where they built synagogues that were not only places of worship, but also community centers in which these immigrants could come together.
Downtown Synagogue, Detroit, photograph by Julian Voloj

With the Americanization came a new migration. The second and third generation left the immigrant neighborhoods in search for better economic opportunities and living conditions, leaving their physical structures, the synagogues, behind.

At the same time, two million African Americans migrated from the Southern United States to the Midwest, Northeast and West, fleeing prejudice, and poverty. In many cases, they settled in former Jewish neighborhoods, and many of the synagogues, created by the migrant generation before them, were reinvented as Baptist churches, or community centers.

Links to Resources for more Background Information