One City, Many Voices: Why Detroit?

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By Miriam Liebman

In the months following Hurricane Katrina, our country turned its eyes to New Orleans, shocked. Questions were asked about the federal government’s aptitude, the Army Corps of Engineers and local Louisiana government. Time and again the question was raised: Why New Orleans? Why rebuild a city built on swampland? To many, the answer was simple: community, culture and legacy.

Spending time in New Orleans through AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, I became inspired by what it meant to build community after unparalleled devastation, particularly, Jewish community.

Having grown up in Farmington Hills, I moved to Detroit a year and a half ago to participate in the revitalization of Detroit and its Jewish community. I have been humbled to realize that while much of my motivation for moving was about building community, I have little idea about how to best do so. When I first arrived, I, too, was not aware of the nuances that make up the way we talk about, interact with and build community in Detroit.

The recent shift in the image of Detroit has been from that of extreme crime and poverty to that of a blank slate and a place of opportunity. What I have found is that this language, although intended to be both positive and powerful, excludes all people experiencing high poverty and low opportunity currently living in Detroit.

Best intentions cannot save Detroit or its people. We must begin with humility and respect. We must highlight positive efforts of those engaged in community-based work currently in the city. We must acknowledge our privilege to love, to build relationships and to experience opportunity.

In his 1963 speech “Religion and Race,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel aptly noted, “… the history of mankind may be described as the history of the tension between power and equality.”

I fear that the more the Jewish community assumes power among those rebuilding Detroit, the more we ignore equality in the name of revitalization. We all envision a better, safer, healthier Detroit and yet, there is no easy solution nor quick fix. In 1963, Heschel advocated for social equality. In 2012, our city remains so unequal that to many, we are the epitome of American industrial failure.

This fall, I will leave Detroit to enter my first year of rabbinical school. After many series of interviews, I was finally asked, “Why Detroit? Why care so deeply about a city as depressed as ours?”

I knew how to answer questions about my Jewish journey, why the rabbinate and even my relationship with the Divine. But “Why Detroit?” struck me. In the end, the answer was simple: community, culture and legacy.

Miriam Liebman, a proud Detroit resident and active member of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, spent a year in AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, has been an educator for Bend the Arc domestic service learning programs, and will soon bring her passion for learning and social justice to New York, where she will enter rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

 

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