The Future Of Jewish Detroit

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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. KenahoraPu-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.

Joshua Lewis Berg
Rina
Rina 05.11.2017

Thanks for not acknowledging the existence of the large and thriving orthodox community that lives in oak park, southfield, huntingntom woods, Birmingham, west Bloomfield, etc

Tova
Tova 05.11.2017

I am in South Oak Park as I type this comment. To write off an entire of subset of the Detroit Jewish community is not only offensive, but foolhardy.

The Orthodox populations in Oak Park and Southfield have been experiencing a boom for the past decade. Look at demographic trends and admit the truth: Soaring birth rates (Yeshivish families) and transplants from the East Coast (strongly encouraged by the Modern Orthodox community) have created a new reality in the neighborhoods the author (wrongly) thinks are passé.

Al
Al 05.11.2017

Did you look very hard, then?

I would like to point out a couple of thoughts:

- Are you aware of the still-quite-large Orthodox community living in the same area where your parents were 'among the last Jewish holdouts'? Myself and many of my friends proudly include ourselves in that category.

- Did you know of the multiple programs created in order to entice young families to move here? There is one that just opened up just north of 9 1/2 and Greenfield. So far, they seem pretty successful. I've met a nice amount of young couples who have credited moving back to these programs.

- Have you seen the new Yeshiva Beth Yehuda building that is going up quickly on the corner of Lincoln and Greenfield, in Southfield? They recently demolished their old building, because they were at capacity with many more kids in the pipeline. In addition, do you know that YBY throws the biggest annual dinner by a religious day school in the county, and they have drawn some pretty big people? Former President George H. W. Bush seems to appreciate the school, amongst many others.

- How about the new Bais Yaakov Building, built for the larger number of preschool and high school girls? It wasn't built this past year, but it was built within the last 5. Or the new Darchei Torah building on 12 Mile? Or the new Chabad campus on 10 Mile?

No offense, buddy, but were you even trying? I know a nice amount of good Jewish eye doctors living in Oak Park who can help you out with glasses.

Ezra Drissman
Ezra Drissman 05.11.2017

It seams that the author was looking primarily for non religious hubs of connected Jews. If that is in fact what he was searching for, than (maybe) I could see where he was going. However; the article as written, and published, is at best ignorant of the religious communities in Oak Park, Southfield and Huntington Woods; or at worst doesn't care to acknowledge "those Jews" who live there. A terribly sad state of both the author and the publisher.

Mimi
Mimi 05.11.2017

Mimi
I am not sure I understand previous comments. Born, raised, and educated in Detroit public schools, including Wayne State University, I am saddened at the current state of Detroit proper. I believe the focus of the author targets young Jewish Detroiters who have taken the leap and moved to the downtown and mid town areas of Detroit, who do not have, but might some day have, school aged children, and have to make some hard decisions of where to educate their offspring. Whether you live in South or North Oak Park, Huntington Woods, Birmingham, West Bloomfield, etc., are you willing to relocate below 8 Mile Road, and educate your children in Detroit Public Schools as we know them today? I applaud the Orthodox community (one I grew up as part of) for your growth and excellent schools, and expanding population and dedication, and your presence in the Oak Park and Huntington Woods communities. That being said, I still agree with the author that reinvention of public education in the City of Detroit is the answer to growing and sustaining a growing Jewish population in our once great city.

Joshua Berg
Joshua Berg 05.11.2017

This is an opinion piece from a particular viewpoint, one which, admittedly, is biased. I don’t apologize for anything I wrote, but I will admit that I am missing a modifier. Rather than "the future of Jewish Detroit, it should have read something like “one pathway of the future of Jewish Detroit.” This is a search in progress as I wander back to Detroit and discover its Jewish cultural life.

I certainly have seen the Yeshivas just north of 10 mile, but I didn't notice too much happening much further south, certainly not in Detroit proper. I’d be happy to tour communities of Jews in south Oak Park for another column if someone will host me. However, the Orthodox places mentioned in the comments above seem to be mostly in Southfield, Huntington Woods, Birmingham, West Bloomfield, etc., all of which are north of 10 mile as well.

I also said “We know where Metropolitan Jewish Detroit lives and will continue to thrive and grow.” That comment was meant to encompass all Jews, the Orthodox as well in Southfield and wherever else. No, I didn’t mention the Orthodox by name but I know they are here and thriving.

This column was more about future Jewish presence in Detroit, the city, holistically. It wasn't about finding enclaves of Jews in the suburbs for the most part separate from the greater Detroit community. I am no fan of private schools and feel they serve to divide but, be that is it may, are there even any Yeshivas in the city of Detroit? I couldn’t find them. Bringing Jews to Metro Detroit to live in insular communities and attend private schools isn't, in my opinion, helping the city so much as the suburban Orthodox community exclusively. I would welcome the chance to explore Orthodox involvement in the greater Detroit community as part of my ongoing wandering.

I ask that people please refrain from pointing a blaming finger at the publisher. If anything, sharing controversial or opposing viewpoints within the larger Jewish community is their job and, I would argue, their duty. They should be commended for doing just that. This column is my viewpoint, the viewpoint of a progressive, humanistic Jew who believes in the complete separation of church and state as enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. So, when reading future columns, be prepared :-) I hope that you will read them, comment and challenge with an open mind. I strive to do the same.

Please don't take offense if I don't respond to any further comments here or on Facebook. It's not a matter of disrespect. It's just that I have to limit my time on social media in order not to drown in work.

Rina
Rina 05.12.2017

So you're going to send your children to public schools in the heart of Detroit? Right?

Anna Kohn
Anna Kohn 05.12.2017

There is a huge voice missing from this article. If you spoke to people involved with the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, or if you spoke to their new Rabbi who tirelessly works to make kids programs possible, you would know that your exposure to Jewish Detroit seems rooted in historical inaccuracies. We left our Jewish spaces in disrepair. We have work to do and it requires paying some respect to the people who held one small thread of community together in Jewish Detroit over the last 100 years. This is all outlined in Lila Corwin-Berman's book, give the afterword another re-read and go talk to the people doing the work.