The Future Of Jewish Detroit
In last month’s column, I claimed I found the future of Jewish Detroit, but did not reveal what it was. Curious?
Since my homecoming, I overheard many a lament for the closing of the Oak Park JCC, relocating what is arguably the fulcrum of Jewish life forever to West Bloomfield. My own family was one of the last Jewish holdouts in south Oak Park, once a largely Jewish community just north of Detroit, which thinned as Jews migrated even further north. In the present, it seems, Jewish presence in Metro Detroit originates north of 10 Mile and stretches much further beyond.
But, what about the future? I decided to search the entire Woodward corridor from where the first Jews displaced big beavers and set up shop on the Riverfront to where modern Jews shop for sets on Big Beaver Road.
I volunteered Downtown with Repair the World at Gleaners. I attended Purim events at Shir Tikvah, the Birmingham Temple and with Detroit Jews for Justice. I met with community leaders, whose work with groups like The Well, NEXTGen Detroit and the Downtown Synagogue are reimagining the millennial Jewish experience and its relationship to J-Detroit.
I toured with the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and religious school fifth-graders from Shaarey Zedek. I meditated and visualized in the bygone awe-inspiring home of Temple Beth El on Woodward in Detroit, on its way to becoming the newly revitalized Bethel Community Transformation Center.
I experienced firsthand the reborn Riverfront from the RenCen to Campus Martius. I celebrated Shabbat at homes in Farmington and broke bread at Avalon International Breads. I wandered the JCC campus and reacquainted myself with the amazing museums in the Midtown corridor.
OK, so where in all of this did I finally locate these Detroit Jewish pioneers? The millennial activists? Urban activism is vital to a city but also, in the words of Detroit historian Dr. Lila Corwin Berman, tends to reshape “the city’s topography to meet their needs and ideals.”
Was it the big-hearted suburban philanthropists, billionaire entrepreneurs or hipsters eagerly renting high-end condos? From the time of Lafayette Park to the RenCen to the casino boom, “trickle-down urbanism,” to use a term coined by historian Dr. Thomas Sugrue, has only proved successful to an extent.
The answer is I found the future of Jewish Detroit in all these places. But, that’s too obvious and easy. We know where Metropolitan Jewish Detroit lives and will continue to thrive and grow. Here is the big reveal: The future of Jewish Detroit proper is a handful of toddlers. Read on.
People will not move en masse anywhere if they have nowhere to educate their children. Period. A city survives and thrives, in my opinion, if its schools do, specifically public schools. Detroit’s many efforts at righting itself have faltered because public school education has faltered as well.
For the Jew of the 1960s, Berman writes, “The personal sacrifices of deciding to send one’s child to an urban school and working toward local, neighborhood-based school reform struck many Jews as high … Racial integration in schools seemed unrealistic in the 1960s.”
Let’s hope the same is not true today.
Exclusively patronizing private schools and charter schools means public schools will be neglected. In doing so, many of our fellow Detroiters, neighbors in our newly reimagined metropolis, will remain in the periphery. Please know I don’t begrudge anyone for sending their child to anyplace they feel will provide the best education or, if they so desire, a solid Jewish foundation. But, I cannot reconcile how education and profit motive should ever be associated. Kenahora … Pu-pu-pu!
There is one question I asked throughout my search and will continue to ask. When people flock to Detroit, where will they send their kids to school?
Nobody has a solid answer. I looked at the website for the Live Downtown initiative. It promised shiny new development, culture, arts, jobs and more. Nowhere did it talk about schools. Nowhere.
I did interviews with Jews living in Detroit and out, parents and schools administrators alike. Although some mentioned private schools and charter schools like Hillel and Detroit Achievement Academy and even public upper school successes like Cass Tech, the things still most associated with Detroit public primary schools are corruption, lack of funds, lack of discipline and struggle.
Jews in previous generations struggled to keep their Detroit neighborhoods alive by remaining in integrated Detroit schools as long as they felt they could, but they eventually left.
Today, young Jews are fighting for education justice from afar and also within the boundaries of the city itself. But, until we can answer the question, “Where will they educate their kids?” we won’t know if it’s a winnable or even sustainable fight.
The handful of toddlers I found, the future of Jewish Detroit, are a group called JTot, a program of the Downtown Synagogue, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit and the Jewish Federation. They live in Detroit, and the parents I met are progressive with a desire to send their kids to public school. It’s just that nobody is sure what that will look like. Will the whole group go to one school or might they split into various schools? Or, will they hold off, work for more reform and government support and send a future class of kids to public school?
The toddlers don’t know it as their little keppies are filled with thoughts of simpler things like crayons, blocks and storytime but, make no mistake, this small group of tiny nap aficionados are the true pioneers of the future of Jewish Detroit in the city.
When they cross the primary-colored threshold on the first day of kindergarten, Jewish Detroit and Detroit itself might be crossing into a new era.