“No way. My zaydie went to Mumford” is the usual response I receive when discussing my job with Detroit Jews.
Being a young Jewish teacher at Mumford Academy has helped me fully understand the rich history behind my school. Most Detroiters, regardless of religious affiliation, remember Mumford as being the premier Jewish high school in the city, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s.
The school, which sits between Santa Clara and Thatcher streets on Detroit’s west side, was a community hub for the surrounding Jews in the neighborhood. My dad recalls vivid memories of playing basketball at the Jewish Community Center (now the Northwest Activities Center), which is directly behind the school on Curtis and Meyers. Some of the most successful Detroiters — those constantly celebrated as pride points in the Jewish community — are alumni of Mumford.
Another common response from Jews regarding Mumford, which tends to follow directly after a rousing game of Jewish geography, is something along these lines: “It must be so different there now.”
Yes, to some degree the differences are stark. The student population is 99 percent African American. About 85 percent of students qualify for the free and reduced-lunch program. Students no longer exclusively reside in the neighborhood and travel from throughout the city to attend. The day-to-day challenges the current students of Mumford face compared to the students of Mumford in the past make it seem like two drastically different schools. But it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t feel this way.
How powerful would it be if Detroiters no longer thought of Mumford as the Jewish school of the past and the black school of the present, but as the school that has been able to preserve its rich history, despite the changing population of students?
I would love to be able to walk the halls on my way to first hour and see the composite pictures of graduating classes pre-1980. Many of the Detroit Jews I have spoken with have mentioned they would love to build a relationship with Mumford but do not know how to help or where to begin. I have a potential place to start.
Because the students of Mumford have experienced more emotional and physical trauma than most people endure in their entire lives, I am spearheading a fundraising campaign to bring Challenge Day to our school. Challenge Day, an esteemed organization based out of California, leads full-day experiences for students and staff across the country on the healthiest ways to deal with trauma. This experience is incredibly powerful for students who feel like their situations and futures are filled with hopelessness and despair.
I participated in this program last year when I worked at Henry Ford High School, and it changed my life and my students’ lives for the better. We all walked away with tangible strategies on how to prevent our emotional balloons from becoming too full and bursting.
Students were able to identify that other students were experiencing the same pain as they were, which helped them recognize they were not alone. By the end of the program, students were crying and hugging each other, even those who had previous issues with one another. I know that experience will be equally powerful for the students of Mumford.
The Challenge Day program itself is incredibly expensive, so I put together a MyEvent proposal to fund the costs. As you can imagine, the funds at our school are limited, so the only way for this experience to happen is if we generate the funds on our own. We have already raised $10,000 in just three weeks, but we still have a long way to go. If you have any extra money to spare, consider donating to this incredibly necessary program for the students at Mumford.
If you are interested in donating, go to myevent.com/MumfordChallengeDay.
Thanks for taking the time to read through my thoughts. This could be the first step in bridging the gap between the Mumford of the past and present. I look forward to the day when the young Jews of Detroit are not only able to speak of Mumford as a distant memory of their parents and grandparents, but also as a current piece of their Jewish identity.
Steven Benson is a teacher at Mumford Academy.