Jewish families find city living satisfying.
Will there be Jewish children growing up in the city of Detroit in the 21st century? That’s the question Rabbi Ariana Silverman considers quite a bit.
Silverman, a Chicago native, lives in the Woodbridge neighborhood with her husband, Justin Robert Long, and their 18-month-old daughter, Rebecca. They are expecting their second child in July. Silverman is the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Jackson, and Long is an associate professor at Wayne State University’s School of Law.
They moved from Manhattan in 2010. Silverman jokes that when they arrived, she and Long were “Jews two and three” in Woodbridge, accross the Lodge Freeway from Wayne State. Now, 20 Jewish residents live there. Silverman said she loves living in the neighborhood.
“Many young Jews rave about living in Detroit and I would, too!” she said. “Our daughter is hugged by neighbors on our block whose race, religion, family structure, politics, socioeconomic status and/or sexual orientation are different from those of her parents. We have never had a problem with safety. And there was a welcome basket of Michigan foods from our neighbors when we moved in!”
Silverman estimates about 300 Jews live in the city and, out of that number, there are “about 20” Jewish families. Her definition of a Jewish family is “at least one Jew living with children in Detroit.”
Despite the sizable increase in the number of Jews living within the city limits over the last five years, it is still a small percentage of the total number of Jews living in Metro Detroit. A 2010 update to the Detroit Area Jewish Population Study of 2005 determined there were 66,500 Jews living in the region.
Vadim Avshalumov, program manager at the Downtown Detroit Partnership, said he knows of no data that confirms the number of Jews and Jewish families living within the city limits.
Avshalumov has a good understanding of the Jewish population trends in the city — he’s an urban planner; he lives in Midtown and he is active in the Jewish community. Anecdotally, his impression is the number of post-college single professionals living in Detroit has significantly increased while the number of Jewish families has not increased at the same rate.
“I don’t think the needle has moved on the number of Jewish families yet, to be honest,” he said.
He does, however, see a lot of value in organizing a study to determine the number of Jews and Jewish families in Detroit. His initial approach would be to talk to demographers or other professionals specializing in this type of work, determine how to best gather such data and then ask a local Jewish organization or foundation to fund the project.
In an effort to support Jewish families that have chosen to live in the city, Silverman started JTot Detroit with Kate Bush and Erin Einhorn, who also are Jewish parents in Detroit.
The group’s Facebook page description: “JTot Detroit is a group of Jewish families raising Jewish kids in Detroit. We’re looking for ways to create fun Jewish cultural activities, celebrate holidays and connect Jewishly in the city.”
The group receives funding from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and it has met three times — an organizational meeting in November, a Chanukah party in December and a Tu b’Shevat event in January. Members have indicated they would like to gather about once a month.
“The exciting thing about the November event was that people wanted to have more,” Silverman said. “And we had a whole conversation about ‘We’re Jewish parents in Detroit and do we want to do anything together?’ And the answer was ‘Yes!’”
Seventeen families are on the contact list. Seven families came to the organizational meeting, and nine families came to the Chanukah event. The oldest child in the group is 7, but most of the kids are under age 4.
Silverman concedes there probably isn’t going to be a “total explosion” of Jewish families living in the city. However, the JTot members could be the next generation of new Jewish families to live in the city, and this is cause for optimism.
“There have been scattered Jewish families here over the last 15 years, but the last five years have seen a baby boom. That is what is exciting to me — there are more and more Jewish kids who call Detroit home,” she said. “This is a story that hasn’t happened in a very long time.”
JTot members live in neighborhoods including Midtown, Lafayette Park, Woodbridge, Palmer Woods and Downtown. Silverman estimates two-thirds are homeowners, and home ownership is an indicator of a community’s longevity. If people are renting, it’s easier to leave a neighborhood. However, if a family owns their dwelling, they have more at stake and are more likely to remain long-term.
“There still is an open question of whether people are going to stay and what people are going to do about school and what people are going to do about neighborhoods,” Silverman said. “I’m a strange outlier perhaps because we got married, had a child and intend to stay; but it’s not clear how many other people are in that cohort.”
Kate Bush & Daniel Montingelli
“I encourage anyone to live in the city — Jewish or not,” said Kate Bush.
“It’s like living in any city center; diversity is being part of a rich and truly dynamic history and a great sense of community.”
Bush lives in Palmer Woods with her husband, Daniel Montingelli, a Montreal native, and their 3-year-old daughter, Judy. Bush and Montingelli rent the home where they have lived for the past 7½ years.
“I love everything about Palmer Woods,” Bush said. “I love the beautiful homes and the families living here. We walk the neighborhood quite often, and I’m always discovering a hidden gem.”
She said her neighbors are “fantastic,” and they are a variety of ages. There are older families that have lived there for generations and middle-aged folks with kids in high school or college. She’s also starting to see more young families in the neighborhood. “It’s quickly changing,” she said.
A benefit of living in Palmer Woods is that it’s an “extremely convenient neighborhood” located along the Woodward corridor north of Seven Mile. Montingelli is a math teacher at University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, and his job is just a 1-mile bike ride away.
Bush especially appreciates nearby Palmer Park. She refers to it as a “rising star” in the city. The park’s offerings include a garden, an apple orchard, yoga classes, and hiking and walking trails.
She has spent much of her life in the city. She has fond memories of growing up in the University District near the University of Detroit Mercy. She lived in a “beautiful” home in a “very diverse” neighborhood, and she still drives by the house regularly. She attended Golightly, a Detroit public school, for her elementary education. She went to Friends School for middle school, a Quaker school that closed this year, and the Roeper School in Birmingham for high school.
However, living in Detroit as an adult wasn’t initially her plan. Bush left the area after college, attending McGill University in Montreal. She lived in Canada for four years and then moved with Daniel, then her boyfriend, to Australia. They lived there for just three months when her father suffered a stroke and she returned to Detroit.
“We found a community here — a new community — because so many of my friends that I grew up with had moved away for college and didn’t return afterward,” she said.
Bush is a current member and former board member of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit. She remains a “proud supporter,” having recently planned a “tot Shabbat” led by Rabbi Dan Horwitz. A dozen families attended, and there are plans to have another one in the spring.
“I thought, ‘How can I be involved in the synagogue at this stage in my life?’ and creating some toddler programming seemed like a good fit,” she said.
Bush is also an organizer of JTot Detroit. She has found the group to be a good opportunity to connect with other Jewish families living in the city, and she’s “excited to see how it unfolds.” Going in, she thought she would know all the families, but she has since met several folks.
“A lot of families are facing similar issues that we are as far as things we want our kids to have and that’s having access to Jewish experiences that we don’t necessarily have to shlep for,” she said.
Judy had been attending a preschool in the Cass Corridor, but she switched to Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park to be closer to the digital advertising agency where Bush works. It is still undecided where Judy will go for her elementary education, but at this point it likely won’t be Detroit Public Schools.
“My hope is that in the future it’s a viable option, but the quality of education is just not the same right now,” she said.
When asked if Detroit is experiencing a “resurgence” — Jewish and otherwise —Bush offers these thoughts: “It’s attracting a lot of great media, and if that’s going to help illustrate all the things the city has to offer to those who might not feel comfortable coming in, then that’s a great thing. I just think words like ‘resurgence’ and ‘reinvention’ do an injustice to the rich history that the city has.”
Dan & Rebecca Yowell
“There are so many unique experiences,” said Dan Yowell, describing living in Brush Park with his wife, Rebecca, and their 3-year-old son, Alexander.
“I always wanted to give Alex a broader and just more diverse experience,” Rebecca added. “I love how he gets to interact with different kids and the different activities we can go to.”
The Yowells own a condominium in Brush Park, north of Ford Field and Comerica Park, and have been there for nine years. They call their neighborhood a “great location.” It’s an ideal spot in that they can walk or bike to entertainment venues, restaurants and sports stadiums, but it’s not “right downtown” so there’s less activity. Also, they both drive to work; the freeway is easily accessible.
They describe their neighborhood as diverse; and they said there isn’t a majority in any age, race or ethnicity. There are older residents, but younger families have been moving into the area. Their neighbors are also Wayne State University students who rent from the condo owners.
“There are so many public spaces you can access and interact with people who aren’t your neighbors or your family members or close friends. Just getting out there and seeing all the different kinds of people,” Dan said.
Dan and Rebecca met while attending college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They stayed in Ann Arbor post-graduation, but eventually decided to move to Detroit to be closer to work and social activities. Dan was a teacher in Southwest Detroit at the time — he now teaches in Livonia Public Schools. Rebecca was working at Judson Center Wayne, located on the Detroit-Redford border. The couple were also visiting friends in Detroit on weekends. “It made sense to move,” Dan said.
Rebecca grew up in Flushing, a suburb of Flint, as one of the only Jewish students at her school. For this reason, she has made a special point to expose Alexander to Jewish activities from a young age.
The Yowells are also involved in JTot Detroit. They attended the group’s Chanukah party in December, and they found the event welcoming and enjoyed the casual atmosphere. Alexander especially enjoyed singing holiday songs and playing dreidel.
As far as other Jewish activities, the Yowells are past members of the Downtown Synagogue. Also, they attended the recent “tot Shabbat” at the synagogue, and the family has been to Menorah in the D the past two years.
“Getting together with other Jewish families is really cool and a good experience for Alex,” Rebecca said. “We’re always looking for other kids in the city for Alex to play with — Jewish or non-Jewish.”
Alexander has yet to start school and the Yowells have discussed where to send him. They said the Detroit Public Schools are an option as Dan did his student teaching at DPS, and as a public school teacher he feels it’s important to support the district.
“It’s one of the questions we get almost all of the time when we tell people we live in Detroit: ‘Where are you going to send your son to school?’” Rebecca said. “When you live in the suburbs, you just send your kid to your neighborhood school and you don’t even have to think about it. In Detroit, at this time, you have to think about it and really do a lot of research and figure out what works best for your family.”
Dan added, “It isn’t as if there aren’t quality schools in the city — that definitely isn’t true at all. But there is some work involved and you don’t just go with the default necessarily.”
The Yowells encourage other families to move to the city. They said they would like to collaborate with other parents to make Detroit a more viable place to raise children.
“I remember when we first moved here, and we heard all the excuses about moving: When there is less crime, then maybe we’ll think about it. When the schools are better, then maybe we’ll think about it. When the blight is taken care of, when the property values — all these barriers. At a certain point, you just have to step up and do it if you really believe it,” Dan said.
“We’ve always looked at it as the ‘chicken or the egg’ argument where it’s never going to get any better if we don’t have well-educated active families who are choosing to get involved and bring their kid into the city and be involved in the community.
“We still need more people to move in. There’s plenty of room for growth. It’s just the beginning.”
Steve Tobocman & Sharon Dolente
“There’s a real sense of community in Southwest Detroit unlike anywhere else I’ve found in Michigan,” said Steve Tobocman, a resident of Hubbard Farms. “Southwest Detroit speaks to me about what it means to be a member of a community and to care for our neighbors and to be engaged in a lifelong journey of making a difference.”
He describes Hubbard Farms as “very beautiful” and “extremely diverse in almost every single way — racially, ethnically, somewhat religiously.” He appreciates his neighbors, many of who, like him, are longtime residents who have worked in the nonprofit or government sectors or are entrepreneurs. Tobocman is the managing partner at New Solutions Group LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in public policy, social justice and nonprofit issues. He was also a representative in the Michigan Legislature from 2003-2008.
Other aspects of his neighborhood he enjoys include retail and grocery stores and coffee shops. Also, Clark Park is located in his neighborhood. He calls it a “vibrant” area, one that includes a hockey arena, baseball diamond and walking paths.
Tobocman grew up in Farmington Hills and attended Farmington Public Schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. He went to Cranbrook Schools for high school.
He attended the University of Virginia for college and then lived in Washington, D.C., for the following year. Tobocman returned to Michigan to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He first began to spend significant time in Detroit in 1995, when he took a job with Southwest Detroit Business Association, working on neighborhood economic development and community and economic issues.
In 1997, he moved to Detroit following graduation from U-M. He resided in Southwest Detroit beginning in 2001 and, a year later, purchased the home where he and his family now live.
His wife, Sharon Dolente, is originally from the Philadelphia area. Like Tobocman, she is a public interest lawyer. They have two children, Nia, 6, and Adiv, 3, who attend Detroit Waldorf School, a private school in Indian Village. Tobocman said Detroit Waldorf offers a unique education in that it focuses on holistic child development.
“We plan on staying in Southwest Detroit as long as we plan on living in Michigan,” he said. “We’ve talked about what’s in the best interest of the kids in terms of schooling, and we don’t plan to move to the suburbs.”
The family belongs to the Birmingham Temple in Farmington Hills. The temple is a 30-minute drive from Southwest Detroit, and they make the best of the commute by combining religious school with family time. Nia began Sunday school this school year, and Tobocman and Adiv visit his parents while she attends classes. As far as other formal Jewish involvement, Tobocman is a former board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Detroit.
Tobocman encourages other families — Jewish or not — to live in Detroit. He sees few drawbacks to living in the city, a vibrant, culturally rich place.
He feels some people’s fear of urban spaces is often irrational and unfounded.
As someone who’s lived and worked in the city for the better part of 20 years, he’s never been the victim of a violent crime and the amount of property crime that he’s experienced is “negligible.”
“We spend so much time in society overdramatizing the safety issues,” he said. “I think it’s unfortunate that our society is dictated by some real divisions. We’ve made people afraid of each other who really don’t need to be afraid of each other.”
Tobocman said he doesn’t identify with the word “pioneer” and the connotations that term brings with it.
Nowadays, in Detroit, it’s not uncommon to find people like himself: educated, successful individuals who are motivated and inspired by urban and social issues who choose to live and work in the city.
“I’m just a normal person living in the city of Detroit,” he said. “It’s been a very, very interesting experience.”
By Eli Natinsky | Special to the Jewish News