Many Jews strive to help rescue the dream of a revitalized Detroit.

By Robert Sklar Contributing Editor
By Robert Sklar
Contributing Editor

He was young, ambitious, charismatic, articulate and politically savvy. He held such potential as Detroit’s new chief executive.

Kwame Kilpatrick was a big man with big ideas and a seemingly big heart for redefining a flailing Detroit, once one of America’s industrial giants with a booming population and a dynamic pulse.

It was 2002 — and he offered real hope. Voters and supporters, including many Jews, felt he had the imagination, smarts and panache to improve the city dramatically. He hadn’t yet elevated political patronage to a tawdry level.

Kilpatrick had built bonds with the Jewish community during his years as a state representative from 1996 to 2001, succeeding his mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, when she was elected to Congress. He even visited Israel in 1999 on a Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)-sponsored trip.

Years later, as he politically collapsed amid scandal, Jewish business leaders pressed on with revitalizing Detroit, imagining some of the same possibilities as Kilpatrick. Other Jews stayed engaged through social causes.

Good Impressions
Flashback to May 7, 2002. The location: A Southfield banquet hall, where 300  Metro Detroit Jews were gathering to hear what the first-term mayor had to say. It was a notable day that would bind the Kilpatrick administration and the Jewish community at the political hip — for a while.

Kwame Kilpatrick, in happier times, speaks at the Birmingham Temple in February 2005.
Kwame Kilpatrick, in happier times, speaks at the Birmingham Temple in February 2005.

Detroit Jews were gathering to hear what the first-term mayor had to say. It was a notable day that would bind the Kilpatrick administration and the Jewish community at the political hip — at least for a while.

Kilpatrick spoke in Southfield as part of a Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit luncheon series. The appearance enabled him to acknowledge the enthusiastic Jewish support he had in the November 2001 election against Gil Hill, a good man with old-school credentials.

Many of Kilpatrick’s major donors were local Jewish professionals who yearned for Detroit to be the next great urban turnaround. Municipal challenges had been festering: blight, crime, drugs, public transit, bloated expenses, a declining tax base, retail flight since the glory days of Hudson’s, a staggered industrial core, cash-strapped public schools, the nation’s highest school-dropout rate.

Making A Case
In his upbeat talk, Kilpatrick, just 31, extemporaneously sketched his dream to educate the city’s children and bring clean, safe, well-lit streets. His words resonated; they still make sense.

Before an engrossed audience that included many suburbanites who had grown up in Detroit and had fond memories of those formative years, Kilpatrick dreamed of reinvented neighborhoods and a robust job market, not just a vibrant entertainment district.

He was on to something.

“Many of us think of world-class cities that have thriving restaurants, a thriving retail downtown and huge buildings that you can see for miles,” the mayor said. “But really global cities, cities that are talked about all over the world, are cities where families feel safe and secure with their children, and which are clean — and the world knows it.

“When we have that,” he added, “the other things come. In turnaround situations all over this country, it started with some very basic quality-of-life issues.”

Kilpatrick stirred the audience when he encouraged a reconnection “to the community that gave you your start.” He was talking to each of us who could trace our humble beginnings to Detroit and who parlayed the once-vast opportunities of the public schools into successful lives and careers.

“That connection,” he said, “is what draws everyone back to the central responsibility of making sure the next generation of people has a foundation upon which to build their business career or their political career.”

Time To Ponder
It was an aha moment: The mayor wanted everyone in the room to be energized by a better tomorrow, not feel guilty by decades-past white flight. He was pushing those of us with a suburban address but also a love for the city to not feel like outsiders.

“We’re going to work together,” he insisted. “For us to be the global community that we purport to be, it’s Detroit and the region. We really need to have that mentality if we want to compete for our children’s sake.”

He was right, of course. The problem, sadly, was that he didn’t know how to achieve that mentality; he was too busy absorbed in self-aggrandizement.

By the time Kilpatrick spoke nearly three years later at Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills, he was struggling with a city that had lost 1 million people and 15,000 businesses over 40 years. Detroit’s No. 1 industry had become the public sector — certainly no way to rebound. Still, he wowed the small Birmingham Temple audience in February 2005 with inspired talk of diversified industries, a thriving international port, a campaign to renovate “dinosaur” buildings and, of course, better-funded schools.

Unfortunately, the mayor imploded by 2008, a byproduct of City Hall corruption.

A Crushing Outcome
The rise and fall of the man who became known as the “hip-hop” mayor echoes as he awaits sentencing of up to 20 years or more in federal prison following his March 2013 conviction in U.S. District Court in Detroit on 24 charges, including racketeering conspiracy.

In January 2008, not long after his November 2005 come-from-behind re-election against Freman Hendrix, Kilpatrick, already dogged by tendencies toward personal lavishness in a languishing city, drew the notoriety spotlight along with his former chief of staff, Christine Beatty, when the Detroit Free Press broke their text-messaging scandal.

That thrust the Detroit City Council into focusing on ousting the mayor instead of nurturing the culture he envisioned where intellect, not only athleticism, was championed. Long lost was Detroit’s penchant for progress and prosperity, kindled briefly during the tenures of Mayors Jerome Cavanagh (1960s) and Dennis Archer (1990s).

Statistics show that more than 80 percent of all juvenile delinquency in Detroit takes place after school.

So there’s urgency still to Kilpatrick’s call to nurture young minds, not just strong bodies, through after-school youth programs that build computer and job-interview skills. That approach requires not only urban leadership, but also assistance from suburbia. We’re all part of Metro Detroit — one community with many governmental districts.

Kilpatrick had a personal stake in his dream: He and his wife, Carlita, have three boys.

Shining Examples
I grew up in Detroit when its population was peaking at 1.8 million. It is where I became bar mitzvah and graduated high school (Henry Ford). It is where I grew to love both Judaism and journalism, setting the stage years later for my joining the Jewish News. My family roots in the city go back to the 1890s.

In recalling Kilpatrick’s pitch urging reconnection, I think of Jewish business leaders who have stepped up: Dan Gilbert, A. Alfred Taubman, Eugene Applebaum, Bernard Glieberman, Gary Torgow, Matt Lester, Warren Cohen, Jonathan Holtzman, the Fisher family, Farbman Group and Schostak Brothers, to name just a few.

Many synagogues are partners with Detroit churches or schools; Temple Israel’s budding healthy-living alliance with the Northwest Activities Center (the old Detroit JCC) and Adat Shalom’s lead role in the Holocaust Remembrance Day interfaith observance held Sunday at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall (whose recent restoration was jump-started by the Fisher family) are the latest examples.

In 2011, Shaarey Zedek honored its 150th year and its 1861 founding in Detroit. Temple Beth El enjoys a rich association with Rev. Kenneth Flowers’ Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue remains a venerable asset for Jews, especially young adults, who live and work in the city.

The Detroit Jewish Coalition for Literacy is one of the JCRC’s enduring successes. The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee have built portfolios in black-Jewish relationship building. The Detroit Jewish News and the Michigan Chronicle have teamed up to tighten black-Jewish ties and lift the region.

Jews have a special bond with Wayne State University because of a Jewish presence among students, instructors, administrators, board members, alumni and donors over the years.

The Motor City Moishe House and the Repair the World-Moishe House offer Jews in their 20s meaningful, pluralistic Jewish experiences inside Detroit. Jews within the city and beyond support its cultural jewels, hospitals and sports teams.

A Hard Fall
Kilpatrick’s backslide intensified in August 2005 when he described Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, a classic anti-Semite, as a spiritual inspiration and gave him a Spirit of Detroit Award and a key to the city.

Farrakhan had come to Detroit to promote his Millions More Movement and an October 2005 Washington interfaith rally marking the 10th anniversary of the Nation of Islam’s Million Man March for black empowerment. Both events were redemptive in theory; anti-Jewish support, from the likes of Farrakhan and Malik Zulu Shabazz, leader of the New Black Panther Party, ultimately tarnished them.

The Farrakhan honor sullied Detroit and people of good will everywhere, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion. It dulled what black and Jewish groups had achieved in galvanizing understanding. All Kilpatrick’s press office could do was berate me in a JN letter for challenging the mayor’s judgment.

Farrakhan was on record ridiculing the “Nazi-like State of Israel” and blaming America’s ills on Jewish control of government, business, finance, entertainment and the press.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s big ideas proved hollow. The political irons eventually branded him a fraud. He let down the people who believed in him. He was elected to serve, but opted to indulge. One of the Democratic Party’s rising stars, he had flamed out. Mayor Dave Bing and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr are left to try to salvage the Motor City and restore some of its luster.

But Kilpatrick’s dream of a new spirit and a new energy in Detroit lingers. It’s a noble dream — despite his ignominious fall. Fittingly, the Jewish community labors at the forefront of innovation and investment in helping drive that dream, no matter who’s in control of the city’s frayed leadership reins.

The Jewish community has done much to propel our core city. But we can, and must, do more.

Federation — buoyed by its NEXTGen young adult department, which sponsors several Detroit support programs, and by its JCRC-administered Detroit Jewish Initiative, which took root in the early 2000s — is in the best position to chart and command our collective course.  

In Detroit Jewish Initiative’s Wake
In November 2001, Mayor-Elect Kwame Kilpatrick told Detroit Jewish Initiative (DJI) members the central city and the suburbs must work together regionally:

Detroit Jewish Coalition for Literacy's Marlene Bresler and Lily Broner, both of West Bloomfield, tutor at Emerson Elementary in Detroit.
Detroit Jewish Coalition for Literacy’s Marlene Bresler and Lily Broner, both of West Bloomfield, tutor at Emerson Elementary in Detroit.

“No one man, no one city council member, no one business can do it. It’s really a collaborative effort that brings communities together to develop relationships and move communities forward.”

DJI was supported by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and administered by its Jewish Community Relations Council to deepen connections between the Jewish community and city of Detroit residents. Programs included a 2002 mission to Israel and Africa for Metro Detroit rabbis and ministers so they could visit Jewish, Christian and African sites to spotlight each other’s heritages and help build bridges of understanding and fellowship.

DJI no longer exists as an initiative, but remnants of it continue via:

• Harms Elementary in southwest Detroit, where students receive holiday gifts (and, in years past, learned team building at Tamarack Camps).

• J-Serve, a Jewish teen community service corps working in the central city and for which the Jewish community also provides financial support.

• Detroit Public Schools’ literacy program, featuring 100 Jewish volunteers.

• Annual community health fairs, which include volunteer physicians and health professionals.

• Detroit-centered humanitarianism, from helping lower-income residents fill out forms for social services to coordinating Belle Isle volunteer cleanup crews.

• Mitzvah Day each Dec. 25, when hundreds of volunteers fan out to cover work responsibilities for Christians celebrating Christmas.

This year, the JCRC also sought Jewish volunteers for Meals on Wheels duty Easter morning on Detroit’s east side.

In June 2011, the Jewish community hosted a national community leaders mission in Detroit, where black and Jewish leaders from around the country visited Detroit to learn about its problems and work toward solutions.

Since 2006, JCRC Executive Director Robert Cohen has been a member of New Detroit, a coalition of business, government, nonprofit and religious leaders working to reduce racism in Metro Detroit.

“The Jewish community has much to offer as a participant in that process — and much invested in its outcome,” he said. 

NEXTGen Detroit
A key goal of NEXTGen Detroit is transforming southeast Michigan, from the central city outward, as young Jews discover a vigorous Jewish community — from professional to philanthropic, cultural to educational, nightlife to religious.

City of Detroit-oriented programs hosted by this Federation young adult department include:

• Pitch for Detroit, which gives young adults a chance not only to reconnect with one another and the community through sport and charity, but also to host a fun, community-wide event that builds on the momentum for a reinvigorated central city.

• Do It For Detroit Fund (Di4D), in partnership with Repair the World, provides micro-grants, ranging from $500-$3,000, to support empowering grassroots initiatives intended to promote positive social change within the central city. Grantees must actively engage the general community in productive volunteer service.

• Live Detroit Fund, which provides rent subsidies for up to 25 “next-gen” change agents to live in Detroit and host events to bring peers into the city.

NEXTGen Detroit’s annual EPIC Event in March at MGM Grand Casino in Detroit drew more than 850 young people.

‘“As the city experiences a renaissance, the young Jewish community wants to be a part of it and see the city thrive’,’ said Miryam Rosenzweig, NEXTGen Detroit executive director. ‘‘Through NEXTGen, they are finding different avenues to be connected, from entrepreneurial to social justice, for example.’’ 

 — Boxes compiled by Robert Sklar