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What Is Jewish Detroit?

By Ilana Schuman-Stoler

We need to talk.

In 2011, compelled by visions for a more just society, members of a newly invigorated global community asserted their desire for government and community change. But before the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, a similar movement had begun within Detroit and its metropolitan region.

This movement continues as an array of organizations, citywide initiatives and business entities persistently stake claim to headlining the efforts of what is commonly referred to as “the revitalization of Detroit.”

Within these competing forces lies a deep and heavy history of intergroup relations within the city of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. It is clear that the Jewish community has invested in Detroit.

By Ariel Pearl-Jacobvitz

This vested interest is evidenced by ardent Jewish support for the city that seems to be embedded into the very fabric of this community.

But in what ways will the Jewish community be a part of the continued vibrancy of Detroit? That, friends, is the jackpot question of the day — a question worthy of communal consideration. On April 1, we invite you to talk about it.

This is a critical moment for redefining the Jewish community’s relationship to the city of Detroit. With growing national attention on the movement toward revitalizing the city, efforts to build programs in the city and to recruit fresh, young talent have gained momentum.

In the last year, many Jewish national organizations, such as Repair the World, Moishe House and Jewish Funds for Social Justice/Progressive Jewish Alliance, have brought people and money to Detroit to initiate projects and participate in community-building efforts. Local organizations such as the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and CommunityNEXT have revved up their own efforts to build a constituency in the region in support of this revitalization.

Though all these organizations exist under the same Jewish umbrella, they work independently and are often in tension with one another in their respective approaches to building community.

The Motor City Moishe House, which last summer played host to Chasidic reggae singer Matisyahu (center), is helping to redefine Jewish Detroit.

As members of a cohort of students in the Jewish Communal Leadership Program (JCLP) at the University of Michigan, we have been working to create “What Is Jewish Detroit?” — an event that will bring together a diverse group of Jewish community leaders, activists and historians to discuss the relationship between the Jewish community and the city of Detroit.

The program will be structured as a communal conversation. It will focus on:

• The historical relationship of Detroit’s Jewish community to the city over the course of the 20th century and the relative presence and/or absence of Jews in Detroit throughout the city’s history.

• Reflections from community members of different ages on their individual experiences in and perspectives on the city.

• A series of focused plenary and table dialogues framing critical questions related to the community’s current relationship to the city and a request that attendees begin framing avenues toward continuing conversation on these issues.

The purpose of this event is to take a step back from the many different current projects that are refocusing Jewish Detroiters on the city in order to reflect upon the intentions, assumptions and aspirations informing these various projects.

Inspired Leaders

The JCLP provides an opportunity for students to explore their Jewishness in the professional arena. Combining a master’s of social work degree from the University of Michigan School of Social Work, participants study nonprofit management and community organizing as they relate to the longstanding history of Jewish organizations.

When our adviser, JCLP director Dr. Karla Goldman, was installed in 2009 as the Sol Drachler Professor of Social Work, she shared her vision of students who would be engaged in addressing the challenges of 21st-century Jewish community.

“It is my hope that in our work we will be able to bring the responsibilities inherent in our ancient and more recent past together with the opportunities of this moment to imagine and create a Jewish community that believes in itself and [to] understand its role in the many different worlds of which it is part,” Goldman said.

For the JCLP, this has been a main programmatic focus. The “What is Jewish Detroit?” symposium on April 1, from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, will explore these issues as they inform the Jewish community’s relationship and responsibility to the city of Detroit.

For more information, contact Karla Goldman at (734) 763-6583 or

Ariel Pearl-Jacobvitz and Ilana Schuman-Stoler work in the Jewish Communal Leadership Program at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.


1 Comment

  1. Syd on 03/23/2012 8:38 PM at 8:38 PM

    Doesn’t it strike anyone as unnerving that this conversation is not going to take place in Detroit? Perhaps it can be moved, or another incarnation of the conference can take place in the city…


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