Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Tenth Man

In an earlier post I referenced the significant Jewish population in urban areas, although more often in the surrounding suburbs.  I did want to speak of some of the Jewish institutions that I had an opportunity to visit during CAJM that serve the significant population of the Detroit metro area.  These included the JCC of Metropolitan Detroit, the Holocaust Memorial Center and Temple Israel, the largest Reform temple in the United States with 3400 families, roughly 10,000 people.  While these super-sized institutions were impressive, I was also intrigued by the vestiges of the former Jewish presence in Detroit and a small resurgence at the Isaac Agree synagogue, the last synagogue left in Detroit. 

The draw for me in attending the conference this year was that a portion of it would be held at the Holocaust Memorial Center.  I knew of the center as the originator of an exhibition on the Ritchie Boys.  You may recall that in my interviews for the Jewish Identity and Legacy project, I had the opportunity to interview Walter Schwarz, a Ritchie BoyThe Ritchie Boys were mostly Jewish refugees who became soldiers trained at Camp Ritchie to use their wits to interrogate German prisoners.  Fluent in German, they were trained to know as much as possible about the German experience so as to make use of that knowledge in extracting information from the POWs. 
Guy Stern, a charming 90 year old gentleman whose energy belied his years, took us around the exhibit.  Guy originated the exhibition and was a key person in the film on the Ritchie Boys.  He told us stories of their interrogations in which one of their techniques was to impersonate the Russians of whom the Germans were quite fearful.  A strong camaraderie developed between these soldiers, many who had left families behind in Europe who perished in the Holocaust.  Within the exhibition they had information on my friend Walter both prior to the war and after. 

The other experience I wanted to make mention of was our visit one evening to the Isaac Agree Synagogue and Larry Mongo’s speakeasy next door.  An interesting combination, these two locations have a somewhat symbiotic relationship.  The Isaac Agree synagogue is a vestige of the former downtown Jewish community.  It is reported to be the last synagogue in downtown Detroit, a small counterpoint to the large Jewish communities now in the suburbs.

Club de Mongos next-door is run by Larry Mongo.  When Larry wanted to start his club, he was told that there was no way he would be able to get a liquor license next to a synagogue.  He met with the rabbi and they struck a deal.  If the synagogue ever needed a minyan to pray, he would come over and be the tenth man.  In exchange the rabbi would support his application for a license. He got the license and opened the club and sure enough that call for the minyan came when the place was packed.  Mongo told us that he felt he owed something to the Jews for the efforts they made for blacks in the past, giving free legal assistance and supporting them in housing and business.  Mongo has also built a relationship with many of the young Jews who are now running the synagogue and trying to preserve it as a Jewish presence in downtown Detroit.

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