Challenge Detroit

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Local young Jewish leaders chosen as finalists for “leaders of tomorrow.”

Vadim Avshalumov

Azerbaijan was the home of Vadim Avshalumov until he moved to Israel. He’d then travel about 6,000 miles to Southfield where he would live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment with his family.

His education was centered at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills and the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield. He’d go on to Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. A year was spent in England working for the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues. By the time this is published, he’ll probably be hours away from graduating from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor with a master’s degree in urban planning.

His next stop, he hopes, is the city of Detroit.

Avshalumov, now 26, of West Bloomfield is one of several finalists from Jewish Detroit in a unique program called Challenge Detroit, which will invite 30 visionary “leaders of tomorrow” to positively impact the city of Detroit from August 2012 to July 2013. Sixty-six finalists remain of the 900 that applied from around the world. The latest round of judging included online votes from 17,000 individuals. Those selected will be announced publicly on May 21.

Jared Berman

Joining Avshalumov as one of the 66 finalists are Zachary Berlin of Farmington Hills, graduating this semester from the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan with a bachelor of arts in public policy; Jared Berman of Farmington Hills, graduating this semester from the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University with a bachelor of arts in finance and a specialization in international business; Dana Schostak of Birmingham, graduating this semester from the University of Michigan with a bachelor of arts in sociology; Darin Gross of West Bloomfield, graduating this semester from the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University with a bachelor of arts in finance; and Isaac Gilman, graduating this semester from the University of Michigan with a master’s degree in urban planning.

The idea for Challenge Detroit was envisioned in 2009 by Doyle Mosher, a partner in Mosher Dolan, a Birmingham-based building firm. This is the first year of the Challenge Detroit competition, which aims to find leaders with the intelligence, passion and commitment to move the city forward. The participants will work approximately 32 hours per week at one of the host companies, which include Quicken Loans, Mango Languages, United Way for Southeastern Michigan, DTE Energy and Focus:HOPE.

Mitch Mondry

The participants receive monthly $500 subsidies to live in selected areas of Detroit, and they will be invited to monthly social and cultural activities by local organizations and participate in monthly team challenges, such as a TechTown project to further social entrepreneurship in our region.

Mosher is very bullish on the prospects for Detroit. Beyond the creation of opportunity for young residents, he wants this to advance “relentless positive messaging” for the region. Mosher wants Challenge Detroit to help “move this region from a message of despair to a message of hope.”

Mitch Mondry of Birmingham, a current board member of Challenge Detroit, has been involved in the program since it was a gem of an idea three years ago. To him, it seems like the kind of thing that can turn the tide for Detroit and generate excitement and enthusiasm locally and nationally to activate positive buzz for the community. Mondry says this is one important piece to the puzzle, along with many other initiatives going on right now.

“The Jewish community has a strong history of leadership in Detroit, and it is incumbent upon us as Jewish leaders to retain and recruit the next generation of leaders,” he said.

“I believe Detroit is the future,” said Berlin. “I want to be on the cutting edge of the energy flowing into the city … My dream is to work with a community of innovators who are committed to our city. We can make a difference. One individual, one community, one vote at a time.”

Zac Berlin

Berlin constantly hears from friends who express a passion to move to Detroit. “They want to have an impact in a way they could not during a typical 9-5 job in Chicago or New York.”

Berlin acknowledges the current challenges — from unemployment and crime to poverty and poor education — and he understands that one leader cannot solve all of these problems. That’s why he is attracted to the collaborative nature of Challenge Detroit.

Avshalumov, too, echoes that approach. He has researched methods for increasing job opportunities, providing better housing and figuring out how communities can control their destinies. He plans to apply the skills that he’s learned studying Detroit’s social, economic and cultural realities, and while researching what other cities have done to improve their economies and empower their residents.

“We all know the city is making a comeback,” Berlin said. “It can be seen by the influx of philanthropists, business leaders and public officials all making the revitalization of Detroit a top priority. All that’s missing is the next generation of leaders. Challenge Detroit helps to fill this gap.”

Dana Schostak, a former intern with the North American Development Team at the Birthright Israel Foundation, envisions a year of cooperation amongst the other change-makers in the city. She says that her readiness to work with people and revive our community has driven her to want to make a difference.

“I have a strong desire to work with colleagues to create a positive impact for those in need, and I am determined to turn Detroit, my home, back into the thriving city that it once was.”

Berman, chairman of MSU Hillel Arts & Culture and past-president of the MSU Hillel Jewish Business Association, is excited about the “incredible people and projects” rooted in Detroit’s creative foundation. He wants to build onto it for the benefit of others and the benefit of the city. In the past year, he has interned at Detroit Venture Partners, Dan Gilbert’s venture capital arm, and launched an apparel company with a small loan from the Hebrew Free Loan Association.

It was also an internship with Detroit Venture Partners that ignited Gross’ commitment to Detroit. He says that working in Detroit and seeing the changes going on was a life-changing experience.

“Instantly, I was able to find the passion and direction I was seeking,” he said. “The summer showed me how much opportunity Detroit has to grow as well as the positive energy from the people that want to contribute. With my passion, I know I can help make a better Detroit a reality.”

A common theme arose durng these interviews with the finalists. It is summed up by one of the many lessons Berlin learned at the University of Michigan’s Hillel.

“An engaged community really can change the world, or in this case, a city.”

By Adam Finkel, Special to the Jewish News

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