Detroit Homecoming events inspire former Detroiters to aid their hometown
Can a community provide experiences engineered to amaze?
Consider Detroit Homecoming. In three years, it’s built a community of hundreds of prominent former Detroiters, resulting in an annual three-day event each fall that is tracking $300 million in economic impact.
The fourth Detroit Homecoming took place Sept. 13-15, with nearly 220 former Detroiters attending; some traveling from London and Israel.
Perry Teicher of Brooklyn has been involved since the inaugural event. “Detroit Homecoming has grown from a gathering that brought individuals with a connection to Detroit back to showcase and highlight opportunities and the change in Detroit to an event that cultivates and connects community … and allows for multi-generational conversations with the opportunity not just to learn from each other, but also to act together.”
The opening dinner was held in the Michigan Central Train Station, the first public event there in nearly 30 years. The experience included native Detroiter Lily Tomlin receiving the key to the city from Mayor Mike Duggan.
“Detroit Homecoming 2017 provided an incredible opportunity to think about the building blocks of my heritage — Detroiter, Jew and Jewish Detroiter,” Matt Nosanchuk said. For this former White House liaison to the Jewish community, the experience of being at the Michigan Central Train Station brought back memories of his own family’s past.
“I recalled my mother telling me how she and her entire family went there after WWII ended to welcome home a cousin who had fought in Europe.”
Nosanchuk also was moved by a visit to Durfee Middle School, his mother’s school in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “It is a beautiful old building next to Central High School, once the heart of Detroit’s Jewish community.”
Durfee is being rented to a nonprofit for $1 per year by the Detroit Public Schools, and is being restored for community use and for entrepreneurs.
“As I walked the halls, I imagined what it must have been like when my mother was a student there, how the neighborhood has changed, and what can be done to give the community that lives there today some of the same educational and life opportunities my mother’s generation was so fortunate to receive.”
Richard Bardenstein, now of Israel, attended his first Homecoming. “Coming and seeing firsthand the changes on the ground and feeling the momentum around the effort made quite an impression,” he said.
“The event didn’t just tell us the Detroit story; it was shown to us with passion and, over the course of a few days, we felt like we became part of that larger story, returning home to reconnect and contribute. Several of the expats I spoke with were already at work bringing projects or themselves back to the city.”
Liz Simon attended the event a second time with her husband, Michael Simon, after they first attended three years ago. Liz stated that it’s been a privilege to participate in two Detroit Homecomings over the years. “The progress Detroit has seen in just a few years from 2014 to 2017 is beyond impressive,” she said.
“The best part about Detroit is its people,” she added. “Connecting to current Detroiters and expats has made me think about how I can use my expertise to play a role in shaping Detroit’s future.” The Simons advised a national political organization that brought a major conference to the city of Detroit this summer.
While the event includes a cohort of returning expats, it aims to include approximately 75 percent of attendees for the first time.
Detroit Homecoming Chair Mary Kramer says that when the event began, Detroit was in bankruptcy. The idea was to engage expats with ties to Detroit to invest at some level — commercially or philanthropically — or simply become better brand ambassadors. The results have exceeded expectations. Crain’s Detroit Business supports the annual event alongside the Downtown Detroit Partnership.
Over the next year, she says, the focus will be on quantifying the outcomes. They will total the number of buildings purchased, square feet, jobs created and more.
Sometimes re-engagement takes time. Duggan talked of expat Jeffry Aronsson’s plans for creating an industry around design and manufacturing of apparel and other goods. Aronsson attended Homecoming I.
“We originally envisioned a three-year run for Detroit Homecoming,” Kramer says. “Mayor Duggan then asked us: ‘Why stop now?’
“This is truly a civic undertaking. Without the financial support of area foundations and corporate leaders, we could not create such a unique experience,” Kramer added. “Some of our funders — foundations like Kresge, DTE Energy, Manoogian, William Davidson and Skillman — have been with us since the beginning. This year, we were pleased that the New York-based Ford Foundation provided an operating grant.
“Our expats are successful; they’ve been to a zillion conferences. Detroit Homecoming is quite different because of the venues, the intimacy and the engagement strategies we use. It’s an authentic reconnection to Detroit, the great things that are going on and the issues that still need work.”
Jewish Expat Reception
Jeffrey Sachs, formerly of Oak Park and one of the world’s most well-regarded economists, offered a closing keynote address moderated by Rip Rapson, Kresge Foundation president. Sachs was also honored at the Jewish expat reception.
One thought Sachs shared there was figuring out ways to showcase Detroit on the global stage at the United Nations.
Terry Axelrod, who has attended several gatherings with her husband, Alan, is an advocate for the Detroit community in Seattle. She has organized get-togethers for former Detroiters in Washington to learn about the opportunity to give back to their hometown. A second such event is planned for April 2018.
“The initial idea for the Jewish Expat Gathering was for an opportunity to provide a window and connection between Jewish expats and the Detroit-area Jewish community,” said Teicher, event founder. “Given the range of people in town, and the various connections people have to their Jewish identity, this event would highlight innovative initiatives and possibly result in new connections and ideas.
“The value of these gatherings is not just being together in person, but gathering a diverse array of people around a core piece of shared identity. Cultivating and nurturing this shared identity can allow exciting things to develop — ideas that can help create inclusive opportunities and community.”
This year’s Jewish expat reception recognized Stephen M. Ross for giving hundreds of millions to philanthropic causes and Sachs for his advocacy to fight poverty and other major humanitarian issues. It featured remarks from Dan Gilbert, former Sen. Carl Levin, Duggan, Julie Fisher Cummings and Lisa Applebaum.
“The energy in the room was extraordinary,” Bardenstein says. There was local pride in the two honorees who’ve risen to the top in business, the world of ideas and policy and are devoting some of their expertise for Detroit’s benefit. And there was a palpable excitement about the key role that members of the Jewish community are playing in Detroit’s renewal.”
This year’s reception included 150 RSVPs from expats attending the Detroit Homecoming and leaders within the Detroit metropolitan area, including Zingerman’s founder Paul Saginaw, Federation CEO Scott Kaufman, Rockbridge partner Brian Hermelin, Detroit philanthropists Eugene and Elaine Driker, Congressman Sander Levin and Arn Tellem, vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment. Tellem was one of the key leaders in bringing the Detroit Pistons “home” to Detroit and was recognized as a change-agent during this month’s opening of Little Caesars Arena.
Julie Fisher Cummings offered remarks to honor her cousin Stephen Ross, and Carl Levin gave the remarks to honor Sachs. Lisa Applebaum was highlighted this year as a case study of an expat contributing to Detroit through her family’s investment in the city she’s helped to catalyze.
The reception was sponsored by the William Davidson Foundation at the Foundation Hotel in Downtown Detroit. The William Davidson Foundation views the reception as a way “to connect Jewish Detroit expats with local Jewish business and community leaders, which the Foundation believes leads to future collaborations benefiting the local Jewish community and the City of Detroit.” Vadim Avshalumov, program manager at the William Davidson Foundation, assisted the event’s organization. This was the third Jewish reception held as a part of the Homecoming. The 2018 Reception will coincide with the fifth Detroit Homecoming in September 2018.
First-time Homecoming and reception attendee Josh Daitch was energized. “We’re back! I was able to experience the progress I have been hearing about from afar. Speaking to the mayor, walking the vibrant streets of the city, meeting the social entrepreneurs and hearing firsthand the passion and vision of the new superintendent of Detroit Public Schools has reignited the flame of my Detroit roots.”
Photo Credit: Brett Mountain
Adam Finkel, a partner at Orfin Ventures, serves as the Detroit Homecoming co-director of outreach and co-organizer of the Jewish expat reception.