Ryan Hertz had no idea his spiritual journey would take him so closely back to where he began.
“Finding meaningful spiritual opportunities has been part of my life since I was very young; but after my bar mitzvah, it was probably another 15 years before I did anything Jewish,” he says. “From age 13 to 30, I was pretty disconnected from Judaism and looked for God in other traditions.”
As he learned more about the Torah, Hertz embraced his Judaism and became Orthodox.
“Sometimes we think the grass is always greener,” he said. “We’re running around looking for something and don’t realize we already have it and already are it.”
As CEO of SOS (South Oakland Shelter), Hertz finds that his religious beliefs line up perfectly with his career in social work.
“Maybe, to some degree, SOS led me to take a deeper dive into my own traditions because we really engage with a wide variety of folks who are inspired by their faith,” he said.
Based in Lathrup Village, the nonprofit SOS (southoaklandshelter.org) works with some 67 religious congregations, including synagogues, churches and a mosque, to operate a rotating shelter system to house and feed the homeless. Each week a congregation hosts SOS’s shelter guests and provides them with overnight accommodations, three daily meals and transportation.
“It’s secular, but the resources are all motivated by the volunteers’ commitment to their faith and faith community,” said Hertz, 36, whose father is well-known local entertainment lawyer Howard Hertz. “People not overtly religious are also involved.”
Providing A Lifeline
While it deals with people in crisis, the overall goal of SOS is to get clients into long-term housing as soon as possible. Securing quality housing (defined as being in a safe neighborhood with a good school system) may cost more at first, but Hertz said it’s actually a cost savings.
“All the barriers related to why they became homeless are better addressed with a bigger bang for the buck where they are in housing. Expecting someone to find a job when rotating from shelter to shelter is not a recipe for success.”
The organization is funded by grants, private contributions and three major annual fundraisers, including the upcoming Rent Party on June 3.
“Even when we are very funded, the public spirit has never been enough for the scale of the problem,” Hertz noted. “I am of the mentality that our organization might not know all the solutions, but we do know how to implement effective programs.”
All clients work with a case manager who assists them in developing and implementing an Individualized Service Plan that outlines goals and action steps to achieve them. SOS claims impressive success rates: 80 percent of sheltered households successfully exited into housing, and 86 percent of Follow-Up Care participants sustained housing for a full year.
Many believe — wrongly, Hertz said — that homelessness is a problem for other people.
“People think, ‘Of course, that would never happen to me; I would never make the choices they have.’ That’s a fallacy. The belief that it’s a lack of will, a lack of character, is just patently false,” Hertz said.
“We should respond rather than look the other way. Homelessness is a solvable problem; the only thing lacking is our community’s will to solve the problem. And solving the problem is a win-win, regardless of your reason for wanting to solve it. Economically, the better bet is housing them rather than ignoring them. My personal approach is that it is a human rights tragedy.”
Human rights, and the meaning of humanity, has occupied much of Hertz’s thoughts.
Search For Truth
“Growing up secular, I didn’t even realize the opportunities for spiritual growth — but I don’t want to say the nonorthodox is not offering meaningful spiritual opportunities. I am not the kind of person who would say this is the only way for a Jewish person,” Hertz said, noting a propensity to “get into trouble” when he tries to explain his embrace of Orthodoxy. “In college, my major was folklore and my minor was anthropology. I thought if I understood the various perspectives of everyone in the world I could glean the underlying truth.”
But finding fulfillment wasn’t that simple. Hertz studied Buddhism (pointing out that “something like 50 percent of Buddhists in the United States are Jewish”), went on monastic retreats at a Korean Zen temple and participated in many spiritual rituals with the Lakota Sioux Nation in South Dakota.
In a Lakota sweat lodge several years ago, Hertz had a mystical religious experience in which he felt the presence of his departed grandparents.
“I felt this sense of comfort that they weren’t really gone, and that their essence gave me a sense of comfort on a certain level,” he said. “I was positive after that day that there is a spiritual world. It was almost an embarrassment that it had taken me so long to realize that I was overthinking things and not embracing the traditional things around me.”
Back in Michigan, a friend invited Hertz to a Partners in Torah Learning Night, an experience he initially found baffling.
“That lesson was on why it is not OK to eat a bat. I said, ‘I don’t even want to eat a bat, how is this helpful to my spiritual development?’ I didn’t understand the entire worldview of my entire heritage.”
He then met Rabbi Chanoch Hadar of the Woodward Avenue Shul. “He has more of an interest in mysticism. He invited me to Tanya class, and the book had a big effect on me. I started developing my own desire to do mitzvahs,” Hertz said.
As his spiritual quest continued, Hertz went through a painful divorce. He surprised himself, he said, by embracing the Orthodox life.
“At the time I reinvented myself, I never really imagined I could become someone who puts all these barriers around my life. It’s still hard,” he said. “Keeping kosher, there are only three or four places I can take people for a lunch meeting, and I am off the map on Shabbat. When you have lived your life as a secular person, that is a big life change.”
Hertz met his wife, Katharina, while she herself was delving deeper into Judaism. Her faith helped reaffirm his own path.
“She took the lead in saying, ‘Yeah, we can do this stuff.’ Seeing her take to it so naturally made me feel inspired and we fed off of each other,” Hertz said. “By the time we got married [in 2015], it was very clear how were going to live our lives.”
They live in Huntington Woods, are active members of the Woodward Avenue Shul and are regulars at Chabad of Greater Detroit events. They use their Orthodox names of Yehudah and Batyah in their private lives.
Batyah is also a social worker; the couple finds solace from their sometimes-painful work in art, singing and playing music.
“I don’t think she and I would be able to cope with it in a healthy way without our faith, observance and community,” Hertz said. “Shabbat is the cure-all — the ultimate recharger. Since I have been shomer Shabbat [Shabbat-observant], I am far more capable of emotionally coping. To help people, I need to be healthy, capable and sharp, not sitting in the corner weeping.”
Hertz considers himself still very much on a journey and welcomes talking with those struggling with their faith. “Anyone looking for a way to connect back, like I was seven or eight years ago, can come for a Shabbat dinner anytime,” he said. “Reach out to me on Facebook.” (Facebook.com/
Several local synagogues, including Beth Shalom, Temple Israel and Shir Tikvah, have partnered with SOS to shelter homeless clients for a week.
“I love the way congregants from all ages come together to help make sure our guests from SOS feel comfortable and welcome,” said Rabbi Rachel Shere of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, which hosts each year. “Ryan cares deeply about the people SOS serves and the greater societal problems that lead to poverty and homelessness in the first place. He does an outstanding job connecting with people and bringing diverse populations together in the service of good.”
Sallyjo Levine of West Bloomfield helped coordinate SOS at Congregation Kol Ami for several years and pitched the idea to Shir Shalom when she joined last year. Everyone embraced the experience, she said.
“We had 220 people, including 3-year-olds, teenagers and everyone in between, helping our 29 or 30 guests — everything from baking, schlepping, organizing and doing,” Levine said. “It’s an incredible experience. It’s really important to reach out to the community. Yes, we are Jews, but we take care of everybody.”
Though his faith brings comfort, looking life’s sorrows squarely in the eye day after day can take a toll, Hertz admitted.
“I get angry at God, maybe more often than not. I think it’s inhumane not to be angry when the world has so much pain,” he said.
“I also recognize,” he added, “that I don’t have the playbook.”
Joyce Wiswell Contributing Writer