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Days of Future Past
Detroit seniors look to the city’s past with an eye to the future.
Downtown Detroit used to be a bustling, flourishing business district and is only now seeing a resurgence. Memories of that distant past are not lost on the Jewish community’s older .
So how do we ensure that future generations appreciate previous Jewish generations’ contributions to Detroit — and, more importantly, learn from them?
Paula Marks-Bolton, David Tanzman and Mandell “Bill” Berman have different backgrounds, but all share a love for Detroit’s Jewish community. These three professionals shared a few moments of history, reflection and their thoughts on the future.
Marks-Bolton of West Bloomfield is a Holocaust survivor who came to America in 1949 with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She stayed at first in Detroit with her relatives, Jane Meisner and Alan Zeiger, in a four-family flat on Tyler Street. She says she found work right away because she did not want to be a burden. She became a U.S. citizen in 1954.
“My first job was at Nate Green’s on Seven Mile and Livernois, a high-end lady’s dress shop,” she said. “I was the main fitter.”
Many Holocaust survivors lived near Marks-Bolton, and many attended Rabbi Leo Goldman’s congregation Shaarey Shomayim.
“We and the other survivors were close,” she said. “There was a special bond, and we wanted to restart.”
This bond among survivors was strengthened by Goldman, a survivor as well. Marks-Bolton now teaches about the Holocaust and speaks at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.
David Tanzman of Oak Park, a Detroiter for most of his life, originally came from Corona, N.Y. Early jobs included dusting women’s fur hats in a factory, building candlesticks for the holidays and making cotton deliveries for the garment industries.
Later, because he could sing, he landed a job as a sound technician at a local radio station providing sound effects.
During World War II, Tanzman fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, was promoted to a chaplain administrator, arranged Gen. George S. Patton’s funeral and conducted the first High Holiday services in Heidelberg, Germany, after the war.
When the war ended, Tanzman worked first as a government messenger in Washington and later became a mediator for the National Defense Mediation Board and then the National Wage Stabilization Board.
In September 1948, he relocated to Detroit to join the newly established Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Its focus was to prevent labor disputes through mediation and arbitration. One of Tanzman’s first assignments was to resolve a teacher strike at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah.
Bill Berman of Franklin was born in Detroit and is a longtime businessman and philanthropist. He graduated from Harvard University and served as a naval officer during WWII. Berman then started a successful career in the building business with his brother-in-law and became president of the Southeastern Michigan Builders Association.
According to Berman, Detroit’s past leaders were many. Specifically, those involved with the Jewish Federation in Detroit were of primary significance. Having been involved with Federation for many years, Berman is proud to be considered a leader himself.
Fred Butzel (1877-1948), a lawyer and community philanthropist, was recognized as one of the great Jewish leaders of his time. His efforts played a prominent role in Jewish welfare and educational programs.
“The Butzel name was the name to aspire to when I was a kid,” Berman recalls. “He was the name we all knew.”
Berman gives credit to Max Fisher (1908-2005), another renowned community leader in Detroit, for helping him grow into more leadership roles. Fisher was a passionate supporter of Israel and the city of Detroit.
In the late 1950s, the Jewish community had a heated controversy involving multiple Jewish factions. Fisher was approached to help dissolve the quagmire revolving around the Jewish Community Center on Curtis and Meyers operating on Shabbat. At the time, Berman was vice president at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. When Fisher started to form a new committee, he approached Berman to act as chairman.
Berman makes the point that to “want” is not enough: “You have to be ambitious to do it,” he said, and he followed his own advice. Today, at age 97, he is a patriarch of Jewish Detroit and best known for his contributions to Jewish and secular education.
Marks-Bolton considers Rabbi Goldman an outstanding leader in those earlier days. One way he helped was by giving a fresh sense of community to those who needed it.
From 1982 until 2010, the late rabbi was a chaplain at Providence Hospital in Southfield and Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
“When it became hard for him to walk, he still went to the hospitals — with a walker,” Marks-Bolton said.
Goldman’s daughter, Rose Brystowski, would drive her father on many occasions to the hospitals and stay late with him.
“He had to see every Jewish patient and their roommates, too,” Brystowski said.
Tanzman recalls Rabbi Samuel Prero (1916-2003) as a leader. Prero came to Detroit in 1948, and started fundraising for Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. Then he began helping to grow the Young Israel movement, the congregation’s new building on Dexter and youth activities. Eventually, Prero became the rabbi of Young Israel in 1950.
Tanzman, a longtime Young Israel member, developed a close relationship with the rabbi. He recalls an incident when an individual who maintained a lower standard of religious observance was elected to the board of a synagogue.
Tanzman approached Prero in private and asked, “What do we do?”
To which Prero replied, “You do nothing! You do not embarrass a Yid.”
Tanzman understood from Prero that criticism is better withheld on occasion, especially in times of community building.
“I love the idea of Jewish people coming back into Detroit,” Marks-Bolton said. “If it will be back to the way it was, I do not know. Downtown Detroit, when I came, was a beautiful place to go.”
For those interested in helping strengthen our community, she says, “It takes more than good intentions. It has to be a collective effort. If everybody will do a little bit, it can be huge.”
Tanzman has learned a great deal about how to communicate with different personalities as a mediator.
“The receiver is the key,” Tanzman says. “You have to communicate in a manner the receiver can understand.”
Berman feels it is important to support Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit’s initiatives because our Jewish continuity depends on them.
“We need to keep young people involved with us,” Berman said.
You Can Play A Role
Conversations with senior Detroiters are a portal to a rich community history. With the support of Federation, synagogues and the Detroit Jewish News Foundation, Jewish Detroit is building the present, preparing for the future and protecting the past.
Metro Detroit’s older adults are a treasure trove of community knowledge. Learn more about them and community history by engaging older adults through Jewish Senior Life programs. Visit www.jslmi.org/volunteer.
Also, the DJN Foundation has provided a window into our past. Go to www.djnfoundation.org to read the headlines as far back as 1942.
By Josh El’Chonen, Special to the Jewish News