While congregations nationwide are wrestling with aging and diminishing membership, a much different story is unfolding at the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield.
“In the past six years, nearly 25 young couples have moved into the neighborhood and joined our shul,” says Rabbi Shneur Silberberg, 33, the Torah Center’s outreach director.
Without financial or housing incentives (as offered successfully in past years by Young Israel of Southfield), it might seem surprising that couples gravitate to this community. But most of the young people moving into the neighborhood grew up in the area and are returning with families of their own.
Though Guido and Connie Aidenbaum were active in the West Bloomfield Jewish community while raising their three children, they weren’t affiliated with the Torah Center.
Their daughter Whitney (now called Eliana), 29, graduated Frankel Jewish Academy and left Michigan to attend the University of Pennsylvania. There she became interested in leading a more religiously observant life.
After graduating Harvard Law School and working in Boston for two years, she and her husband, Elya Silfen, 30, who works for Morgan Stanley, decided to move to West Bloomfield.
“Being close to family was a priority, but we also wanted to live in an active Jewish community,” says Elya, who voluntarily runs the JTeen program, supported by Bais Chabad and a Schulman Foundation grant, that attracts about 300 non-affiliated teens for weekly Shabbos meals. “I grew up in North Carolina and, by comparison, West Bloomfield has a great deal to offer.”
Connie Aidenbaum, who didn’t think Eliana would ever return to the Midwest, says, “No one is happier than me. I’m glad I was wrong.”
Now, with the birth of the Silfens’ daughter, Estie, three generations of the family attend Shabbos services at the Torah Center together.
They are one among many multigenerational families at the Torah Center.
Recently, Jennifer Goodman, 26, a client associate at Merrill Lynch, and Jacob Miller, 26, a product engineer at Adient, were married. The two, children of Torah Center families, grew up together.
“If you looked up the word beshert [meant to be] in the dictionary, you would find a picture of Jen and Jacob Miller,” Silberberg remarked at their wedding.
“There was never a question that, given a choice, I wanted to live in West Bloomfield,” Jen says. “The people in this community are like family to me.”
Jacob felt the same way; so much so that he bought a house even before he and Jen became a couple.
“I’d go house hunting with him as a friend, without thinking I would ever live in the place he chose,” she says.
Jen and Jacob had dated others, but earlier this year, realized their friendship went much deeper. The romance began.
“We watched them grow up together,” says Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg. “That they want to remain here is a testament to the family feeling our congregants share.”
Miller’s mother, Leslie Weisberg, likes telling the story about how “the kids” were born in the same hospital room two days apart.
“I was leaving the hospital after giving birth to Jacob when Jen’s mother was being wheeled into my room. I handed her the flowers I was about to take home. It must have been a sign. My future daughter-in-law was about to be born.”
Now the newlyweds will live a few blocks from their families, including Jen’s two older brothers, Jereme and Daniel, both of who married women from Chicago and moved to Detroit with their young families.
“Young couples like the Millers and Goodmans are instrumental in cultivating the growth of our shul,” Silberberg says. “They work actively, opening their homes and reaching out whenever there are events.”
Judd Jaffe, 34, originally from Atlanta, recalls when he and his wife, Estee, 27, first met Jereme and Chaya during a Shabbos visit in West Bloomfield. “They were amazing — relaxed, easygoing — with an open door to everyone who just wanted to hang out.”
The Jaffes were living in Southfield at the time and hadn’t considered moving. But they soon realized the Torah Center and its people were the right fit for them. Even before selling their place in Southfield, they purchased a West Bloomfield home.
“We knew we’d made the right decision after Estee’s parents visited from Israel,” he says. “They couldn’t get over how welcoming and warm all the people were.”
Bais Chabad History
The Sara & Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center was started in 1975 when Rabbi Elimelech and Chaya Sara Silberberg came as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to “spread the light of Torah.”
“We have always had an inclusive approach — welcoming all Jews from all walks of life, no matter their level of observance,” Silberberg says. “This open-door policy makes it comfortable for anyone to come learn, pray or celebrate in our shul.”
Located near Maple and Orchard Lake, the Torah Center was built in 1982. At first, the halls echoed with emptiness and convincing families to move to the area was no small task.
“The rabbi had to knock on doors to get a minyan for Friday nights,” recalls Jerome Katz, who moved from Southfield to West Bloomfield 30 years ago with his wife, Malca, and children, Tamar and Joey.
Why did they move?
“We loved the Rabbi and Chaya Sara,” Malca recalls. “People have no idea how amazing those two are — kind, caring, dedicated.”
The population grew so that by 1998 the building underwent an expansion. But in the ensuing years, as the children of the first generation left to attend college and begin careers, there were worries about how to attract new congregants.
Seven years ago, the Torah Center got the youthful shot in the arm it needed with the arrival of Rabbi Shneur and Zeesy Silberberg (she is 32). They work tirelessly to connect with and inspire young people in the area.
As outreach and program directors, they have organized community-wide youth activities and programs, such as the annual Shofar Factory and Chanukah Wonderland.
Shneur, the sixth of 10 children of Elimelech and Chaya Sara, teaches the ongoing series of Jewish Learning Institute courses that connect contemporary subjects with the religious world.
Every month, Zeesy organizes a fun, educational evening for the Jewish Women’s Circle and teaches Jewish-themed art, music and cooking classes for young children. Shneur travels to college campuses across the state to hold pizza-and-learning sessions.
They have held community Pesach seders, Rosh Hashanah dinners and monthly Shabbos meals for singles in their home, all while juggling the demands of five small children under age 8.
“We bought our house around the same time we knew Zeesy and Shneur were moving in,” recalls Tamar (Katz) Bernhardt. When she became engaged to Josh Bernhardt from San Diego nine years ago, she was sure she was going to have to move.
“People were surprised we stayed,” she says, “but Josh loved the community and, as an electrical engineer, was able to get a good job.”
The Bernhardts, like the Katzes, believed the Silberbergs would be able to attract young couples.
Now the Bernhardts are raising their three children, Talya, 7, Eitan, 5, and Ma’ayan, 8 months, down the street from “Saba and Savta.”
So how many families are official members at the Torah Center?
“About 130,” Silberberg says. “But that number doesn’t represent the many hundreds of people we serve all year with our classes and programs.
“Our biggest challenge now is that we’re outgrowing our current building. We look forward to expanding our building once again, God willing, to adding classrooms, offices and play areas.”
Pointing to the strollers crowding the Torah Center’s entryway on Shabbos, he smiles and points to the logjam and says, “That’s a good — no, a great problem — to have.”
Annie Lehmann Special to the Jewish News