Building An Inclusive Community
Since attending the General Assembly in October of 2016 in Washington, D.C., I have altered my lens to view my journey in this community as a Jewish journey — one that I’ve been on for 26 years, and one that has taken a dramatic turn in the past three years.
My Jewish journey started out like many others. I completed 13 years of congregational school, volunteered at Fleischman Residence for eight years, established Fisher AZA with 11 of my friends and went on to become president for two years at Central Michigan University’s Hillel.
Then, it was time to come home — back to Detroit. Aside from my role as director of sales and marketing at Dubin Cleaners & Laundry, I knew I wanted to stay involved in the Jewish community, so the next logical step was to get involved with NEXTGen Detroit. I was a participant for a year, joining the Latke Vodka committee and attending various events. A few months later, I applied for the board of directors, and I was accepted.
Then my life changed forever when I came out as a gay man. That was three years ago. I don’t want you getting the wrong impression. My life wasn’t changed in the way many in the LGBT community’s lives are changed. My parents didn’t throw me out of the house; friends didn’t stop being friends; the community did not abandon me. My experience is the antithesis of these heart-wrenching stories.
My life changed the moment I found out that many young people were leaving the state or not moving back after college because they felt like they didn’t have a home in the greater Detroit Jewish community simply because of their sexual orientation or identity. I’m a passionate person who strives for productive change in my community. I knew I had to do something to change this. What that something was — that was still to be determined.
I met my fellow NEXTGen board member and friend Jonathan Schwartz at a Federation event, and we quickly found out we’re both passionate about inclusivity. Jonathan has a Christian wife so he started an interfaith couples initiative while I created NEXTGen Detroit Pride. We pitched our inclusivity ideas to NEXTGen and they were behind us 100 percent.
NEXTGen Pride, which I currently co-chair with Steven Davis, was started in May 2016 with the intention of giving young LGBT Jews a space and ultimately connecting them to the broader Jewish community. A sampling of our events include Shabbat dinners, story slam, a post-election forum, Painting with a Twist, game night, an LGBT generational panel, Hot Topics/Hot Latkes and a drag queen bingo brunch. We also have a presence in the greater LGBT community by hosting a booth at the annual Ferndale Pride.
Slowly but surely, our community was changing by bringing more people into it.
I was recently in Mount Pleasant for business and visited my alma mater while I was up there. And as I drove through campus and sat in the coffee shop, I was constantly reflecting on my time at CMU. A huge point of reflection was the fact that I fit in. We’re all obviously individual, unique people, but I blended into the college collective. I had a good core group of friends, frequently made the dean’s list, was well respected amongst professors and peers and started to really carve a name for myself in the Jewish community. I was in a bubble — oblivious to the folks who had challenges socially and academically. And I was sure oblivious to the folks labeled as “the other.”
I’ve been lucky. Even as a gay Jew, I never really felt labeled as “the other.” But so many of the people I know today, most notably many of our NEXTGen Pride constituents, have gone through a lifetime of being labeled as “the other” — including from their own Jewish community. They have felt disenfranchised for years and, in some cases, decades — from their synagogues, day schools, youth groups, etc. Finally, through NEXTGen Pride, these folks — my friends — have a place to call their own and a home in the Jewish community. The dynamic in our community is quickly changing into a more progressive and inclusive community. As Detroit Jews, we are all a part of this movement.
I’ve learned through NEXTGen Pride that we have to broaden our base, not only within the LGBT community but also amongst all historically disenfranchised groups. Folks in interfaith marriages, Jews of color, disabled Jews, skeptical Jews and the list goes on. We have to be there, with open arms — just like NEXTGen Pride is with our LGBT brothers and sisters.
While I was working at NEXTGen Pride’s booth at Ferndale Pride this past summer, a gentleman came up to me, a bit skeptical yet pleasantly surprised. An older gay Jew, he had distanced himself from the broader Jewish community. He could not believe that Federation had a presence at an event such as Ferndale Pride. I explained to him how much Federation has evolved and that it’s a new day when it comes to inclusivity.
My Jewish journey has led me to truly believe that we can hold steadfast to our Federation principles, values, morals and convictions of taking care of the needs of the Jewish people and building a vibrant Jewish future while still embracing a new day of inclusivity.
In our current climate of deep, deep polarization, it’s more important now than ever to lead by example and show the countless number of skeptical Jews among us that this is a new era in Federation.
So that’s my Jewish journey up until now — and it’s still being written. I’m so grateful every day to be a part of this Jewish community and that I have the backing of such great leaders, both lay and pro. I’d also like to thank my parents who have supported and loved me every step of the way.
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I mentor a 9-year-old boy through Jewish Family Service’s Mentor Connection program. I look at him and am heartened that the community he’s growing up in is one that will accept him no matter what. However he grows up to identify, whoever his friends are, no matter how much money he makes or how religious he is — we — the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, will always reach out our arms and welcome him into the Jewish community.
L’dor va’dor, from generation to generation … and what a great new generation it will be.
Sam Dubin is creator and co-chair of NEXTGen Detroit Pride. He also serves as director of sales and marketing for Dubin Cleaners & Laundry. He gave this speech to a Federation Board of Governors meeting earlier this year.