Birmingham Rabbi Preaches Kindness — And People Respond In Kind
With an eagle-eye focus on kindness, Rabbi Tzvi Muller is leading a small, one-of-a kind congregation in the Birmingham-Bloomfield Hills area into a bright future.
Muller, rabbi of the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chai Center (BBCC, or simply “the Chai Center”), says his vision of treating fellow people with respect and dignity follows that of the great sage Hillel, who said the entirety of Judaism is treating others as we would want to be treated ourselves — the rest of Judaism being commentary.
Muller aims to use his traditional congregation’s programs to show how Jewish rituals and practice can support the ethical values at Judaism’s core.
“Most people associate traditional Judaism with what you can’t do,” said Lisa Cohen, a volunteer with the congregation. “However, Rabbi Muller’s message is about the things you can do, realizing your vast potential for goodness.
“The scope of his knowledge is unbelievable. He’s warm, personable, very smart and he can connect with people at every level of learning.”
Muller welcomes Jews of any background or stripe to his programs.
“Wherever people may find themselves on the religious spectrum, they appreciate the Chai Center’s offerings supporting their ethics, values and inner humanity,” he said. “The welcoming, unpretentious and easygoing nature of our congregants helps make that possible,” he added.
One of the most successful new programs is “1st Shabbat” on the first Saturday of every month. Muller leads a late-morning discussion about Jewish values and practices, followed by a luncheon.
Muller says he likes to focus the discussions on how to treat people and bring kindness into interactions with others.
Reva Rosen, a Bloomfield Hills resident, said, “My husband and I find the ‘1st Shabbat’ discussions instructive and inspirational. They help us set personal goals for the month.”
The next “1st Shabbat” program will take place 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1. Muller will lead a discussion on making amends for having pained others.
The luncheon afterwards will include a gourmet honey tasting to honor the upcoming New Year. (Because space is limited, anyone interested in attending should RSVP at email@example.com.)
“Rabbi Muller’s dynamic and creative approach to Jewish life has inspired people to find deeper meaning in their Judaism and to grow as Jews,” said Jack Baum of Birmingham, who has been part of the BBCC community since 1990.
Baum said Muller’s welcoming nature has brought new people to the Chai Center. “We are now on a growth track, with overflowing attendance for our special events, even when competing with the secular calendar,” he said.
For the High Holidays, the rabbi is also planning educational and meaningful programs similar to his “1st Shabbat” get-togethers. There will be no charge for these, but space is limited.
On Rosh Hashanah, programs will be held 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 3 and 4, followed by a holiday luncheon. For Yom Kippur, a program will be held 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, but, of course, without the luncheon. To RSVP for any of the holiday events, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Though Muller has been rabbi of the BBCC for just over a year, the story of the congregation started more than 30 years ago when Bloomfield Hills resident Eileen Borsand wanted to incorporate more Jewish practices into her life.
Although she and her husband, Jerry, had grown up with a strong Jewish identity — they were married at Congregation Shaarey Zedek — they now lived just north of Quarton Road in Bloomfield Hills, an area that is home to many Jews but few Jewish institutions. One thing she really wanted to do was attend Shabbat services regularly without having to drive.
So Borsand started her own congregation in 1985. She and her family rounded up the quorum needed for a minyan — some from the neighborhood and some further away — and held weekly services in her home. Rabbi Moshe Polter led the congregation for a number of years in its early stages. Since then, the Borsands have remained the driving force behind the congregation.
About 20 years ago, the Borsands rented space in the Birmingham Masonic Lodge on Woodward Avenue between Quarton and Lone Pine roads in Bloomfield Hills. The BBCC has been meeting there ever since. In February 2015, the tiny congregation found itself without a spiritual leader. Friends told the Borsands about Muller, saying they thought he could develop and implement a unique vision for the community. He started shortly before the High Holidays last year. Since then, Muller has brought new visibility and vitality to the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chai Center.
When Muller started at BBCC, he was determined to keep the traditional Shabbat minyans going but also to develop programs and classes that would be relevant to the broader Jewish community.
In addition to Muller’s popular classes, during the past year the congregation has held many successful programs, including a Chanukah party, a lively Purim party that attracted more than 80 people, a Friday night Shabbaton attended by more than 70, an art show, as well as programs for Shavuot and Tisha b’Av.
In February, the BBCC led a group of 12 women, ages 45-60, on a trip to Israel. Since their return, Lisa Cohen, who served as a madricha (group leader) on the trip, has organized a monthly cooking session for the group. Led by Rachaeli Muller, the rabbi’s wife, they enjoy a dvar Torah, a nice dinner and then pack up the unique dishes they cook for the Mushka Perel Lunch Program, which provides kosher food for families with children in local hospitals.
The group was very excited when the BBCC recently brought in David Sussman, the well-liked tour guide from their Israel trip. At the Birmingham 8 Theatre, he shared his inspiring story of survival as a soldier in the Second Lebanon War — first to about 20 teens and then to a general audience of about 100 participants later in the evening.
Muller, 40, grew up in New York. He was a congregational rabbi in Canada for several years and came to the Detroit area nine years ago to work as the educational director for Partners in Torah, an adult education program now known as Partners Detroit. He also directed the Kindness Project, an initiative of the Jewish Community Center and Partners that provided ways to enrich people’s lives with the practices of kindness in Jewish tradition.
The rabbi and Rachaeli are proud parents of five daughters and one son. Their home in Birmingham is about a 10-minute walk from the BBCC.
Muller also directs the Jewish Values Institute and has brought its teachings to an array of venues, such as Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Temple Kol Ami, the Max M. Fisher Federation Building and Schechter Wealth offices in Birmingham.
Muller says his current goal is to position the BBCC as a dynamic, attractive and relevant place for meaningful Jewish life in the community. Many people see this goal beginning to become a reality already.
Marc Cohen of Birmingham said, “The BBCC provides a wonderful opportunity for the fast-growing Birmingham-Bloomfield Jewish community to experience quality Jewish culture and learning with an energetic and thoughtful rabbi who eloquently relates our Torah philosophies to the realities of today’s challenges.”
Since Muller started last year, more than 300 people have studied with him, and more than 150 people, new to the Chai Center, attended other programs at the BBCC. He credits the extraordinary commitment of Jerry Borsand, BBCC president, and the rest of the shul’s lay leadership for its success.
Muller and the Borsands recognize that the BBCC has outgrown its rented home in the Birmingham Masonic Lodge. They are looking for a larger building in the area that can be the congregation’s permanent home.
Meanwhile, they will continue to strengthen and expand the program where they are.
“Many people are checking out the Chai Center and finding something they were looking for,” said Muller.
“One of my main goals is to make everyone, regardless of background, feel as comfortable as possible.”
By Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer