Opinion: The Death By Neglect Of A Community

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By Janet Birnkrant Levine
By Janet Birnkrant Levine

Sorrow and heartache walked with me Erev Rosh Hashanah from the parking lot adjacent to the now dark and boarded up JPM up the path I always walk to Temple Emanu-El, through my family’s Birnkrant Garden.

The few spaces left in the parking lot are surrounded by trash, huge dark Dumpsters and shipping crates. Danger seems to lurk in every shadow.

All the former joyful families making their way on foot to services have vanished. The countless seniors who live in Prentis and Teitel apartments seem locked away in fear of venturing out after years of walking freely to our temple and other little shuls around us.

The desolation left behind is not only an eyesore, but a shame on this community, which claims to value older people.

Parking lot of the former JCC in Oak Park
Parking lot of the former JCC in Oak Park

There are hundreds of us still living in this 10 Mile Corridor, and we have been abandoned heartlessly by not only the JCC, but our Federation as well. We are the stepchildren of the Metro Detroit Jewish community, much as we were decades ago before our grassroots citizens fought to save this vital Jewish presence. We’re not all from West Bloomfield.

The fight to save our JPM was passionate, and loose promises were made to appease and silence our voices.

Now the reality is cruelly apparent. In the darkened parking lot, any threatening people might hide. No one is safe walking here. Our Temple Emanu-El path guard had to walk me to my car with his flashlight.

For shame! Shame on the JCC for neglect and abandonment of this still-vital, precious neighborhood. We have been wished away. Shame on our Federation for not stepping into the void with help to turn on the lights and offer safe passage once again.

What has become of all those little and not-so-little family endowments made over the years to support JPM, the pool and its programs? This story goes back a long way.

MDOT, with the urging of our 10 Mile grassroots efforts way back in the 1970s and 1980s, had the patience and willingness when building the great I696 freeway through our neighborhoods to ensure safe walking passage for our Shomar Shabbos as they cut through.

Those engineers stood with some of us on the roof of Prentis Tower to see exactly how far flung our people were. And with loving care and the help of a very wise and persistent mayor of Oak Park, the freeway opened on a bitter, blustery day in 1989 with beautiful grassy crossovers designed to hold us all together.

I stood on that overpass as the ribbons were cut, tears of pride and elation freezing on my cheeks. And I was not alone.

How very sad that the Michigan Highway Department felt more compassion and understanding of our observant neighborhoods’ needs than our Federation and JCC. The lights have gone out, and the powers that be seem oblivious and uncaring.

A death knell has sounded.

The conscience of the greater community has turned to stone.

Janet Birnkrant Levine is a resident of Huntington Woods.

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