Reimagining The City: Stories of Jews Living in Detroit

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Columnists Blair Nosan and Oren Goldenberg launch their new Next-Gen biweekly column about Jews living in Detroit. 

Blair Nosan

As young adult Detroit Jews, we’ve been watching a narrative unfold for the past two years of Detroit as an exciting, opportunity-rich blank slate. Having moved to the city in our early 20s to work in documentary film and food, we were part of an early migration of suburban Jews, like ourselves, wandering back to the city as if pulled by some reverse Detroit diaspora. We were enticed at the opportunity to build and to create, while simultaneously exploring the city’s rich and complicated past.

Neither of us believed what we were doing in Detroit was particularly Jewish, nor did we expect to find ourselves surrounded by like-minded peers. Yet recognizing that our shared desire to reconnect to the city was rooted in the exodus which preceded us, we set about growing a Jewish community that both reflects our “tikkun olam” values and builds from the foundations of Detroit Jewish history.

For the past year, the broader Jewish community has grown increasingly more committed to the conversation surrounding revitalizing Detroit. We believe this excitement will be most poised to contribute to a healthy future region if it is grounded in an understanding of the many faces of Detroit.

Oren Goldenberg

Is there regional consensus as to what we mean when we talk about “Detroit?” Do we have a cohesive and broad understanding of what different communities believe to be the history of our city? Where do our community’s visions for the future diverge, and align, with others? These questions require investigation as we talk about rebuilding, redeveloping and reimagining Detroit.

For us, a recent opportunity to explore this topic arrived with the Black/Jewish forum at Temple Beth El on Oct 26, convened by Arthur Horwitz and Bankole Thompson. Thompson described the panel as “intended to bring two of Southeastern Michigan’s most significant communities, African-Americans and Jews, closer together to collaborate on socioeconomic initiatives for the betterment of Metropolitan Detroit.” This goal touched us and our peers because of our individual and community work in the city, and created a strong enough impetus for attendance that we filled a whole Temple Beth El row.

That night, we were not surprised to hear an oft-revisited chorus: “Bring Detroit back to its glory days!” Yet, as young adults engaged in community-based conversations about Detroit’s future, the notion of returning to our past feels misguided and unrealistic. Why would we be excited to bring back a city that – although culturally and economically robust – was ultimately segregated, classist, environmentally and socially polluting?

Listening to the the panelists talk nostalgically about the past, rather than frankly about race, class, religion and privilege, we were forced to ask why the image being presented for the future of Detroit is so embedded in an inadequate understanding of its past.

 

As young adult Jews who have chosen to live in a city where we are a racial and religious minority, the questions of Jewish identity and Jewish/Black relations, are central to our community identity. We have convened conversations in our homes and in our few-yet-thriving Downtown institutions. We have developed Jewish holiday practices that are both culturally rich and rooted in our unique Detroit Jewish identity. And we have been deeply involved in navigating the complex relationships of our own identity and the identity of our greater Detroit community: participating in work and partnerships that extend well beyond the boundaries of our Jewish world.

Participants heard oral histories and saw art that explored interracial and interfaith partnership at the Downtown Synagogue's Detroit Art Show on Sept. 10, 2011.

Most importantly, we are a part of a communitywide effort to re-imagine what Detroit can be, exploring its potential to become a 21st-century city that defines its greatness not merely along economic lines, but also as a socially and environmentally just metropolis.

As young Jews, we are pointedly aware of the Jewish community’s hunger to engage and retain young adults, and particularly to see Detroit as one of many mechanisms for doing so. While the first question that was raised on Oct. 26 was “what is the role of young people?” no young people, or Jewish Detroiters, were included on the panel that was being asked to speak on their behalf. We’re thrilled that our community is thinking about the perspective of young adult Jews. We’re eager to share our thoughts and our vision for how together we can healthily and mindfully develop our region. And, relying on everyone’s thirst to know more of these stories, we are taking on the task of developing a narrative of and by Jewish Detroiters.

At this time, we hope to bring these conversations to the broader audience of the Jewish News.

Our desire to develop this column came from years of wanting to explore as a community the relationship of Jews to the city of Detroit, and we will focus on unpacking the differing definitions of Detroit, current, past and future.

We are excited to take on this work as the Truth and Reconcilliation Council of the Michigan Rountable has just been seated (www.miroundtable.org/raceresidenceregionalism.htm) and is leading the way toward a more just and inclusive region.

We hope you are as eager as we are for this important work to take form. In the meantime, keep your eyes open for the variety of Jewish Detroit voices that will be presented as part of this ongoing column.

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