A New Generation of Jewish Families in Detroit
Meet Jewish families who are committing to raising their children Jewishly in the city.
By Stacy Gittleman
Photos by Elayne Gross
Naysayers be darned, like the city itself, the Jewish community within Detroit’s neighborhoods is coming back.
Over the last five years, a slow but steady increase of Jewish single professionals moved into the city. As they marry and start families of their own, they are buying homes in neighborhoods like Palmer Woods, Boston Edison and Woodbridge.
Their plan is not to move into the suburbs as their kids grow out of diapers and into backpacks. In it for the long haul, families interviewed with children from birth to teens — some profiled in a 2016 piece in the JN — are committed to sending their children to schools within the Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD), even if they sometimes may need to plan it out one year at a time. Currently, 10 Jewish children are enrolled in DPSCD, according to Rabbi Ariana Silverman of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS)
Federation’s 2018 Jewish Population Study indicates that the number of Jewish households in the city of Detroit decreased from about 1,900 households in 2005 to about 800 households in 2018.
However, Silverman says this number is misleading and does not reflect what she sees on the ground level. The households of older Jews who have moved out or passed away are being replaced with younger couples who are having children. Though they have not yet outnumbered this older demographic, Silverman sees this as a demographic shift that is evidence the Jewish community in Detroit is growing.
“It used to be that I could name every Jewish kid in Detroit and knew every mom who was pregnant,” said Silverman, a native of Chicago. She and her husband, Justin Robert Long, a professor at Wayne State University’s School of Law, now have Rebecca, 4, who is attending a DPSCD Montessori preschool program at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, and August, 2.
“Now, I find that is not true. I keep learning about new (Jewish) couples, young families and singles moving into the city. In 2017, we had High Holiday services [geared to young families] and 30 people showed up. This past year, we had 65. I say this in all sincerity: If the community is looking for a feel-good story about Jewish Detroit, this is it!”
While this growth in the Jewish population is taking root, Silverman said that her family and other families do not shy away from the fact their children attend school in a district with a student body that is predominantly African American. She and other Jewish parents interviewed said there are complexities and racial politics when it comes to choosing a school for their children in Detroit. They acknowledge that a higher percentage of white children attend one of the four schools in the city with Montessori programs and that it is getting harder to find spots there. The Montessori programs run from grades preK-4 and DPSCD plans to grow the program each year.
For the first time in more than a generation, the Detroit Jewish Coalition (a group of Detroit-based Jewish organizations, which includes IADS, the Reconstructionist Congregation of Detroit (RCD) and Repair the World), with funding from the Farber family, launched a new Jewish school on Nov. 18. Dor Hadash opened at IADS with about 10 children ages 4-6, who mostly attend DPSCD schools. Silverman and Sarah Allyn are the primary instructors.
Meeting on Sundays, the program is based on a family education model. For the first hour, the parents learn with Silverman while Allyn teaches the kids, then for the second hour, the full families come together with both instructors. Its emerging curriculum will entail traditional and experiential Jewish learning. The lessons will be coupled with community service projects and outings to reinforce Jewish values by putting them into action.
Rozita Knox, a single mom of eight, has been a Detroiter since 2010 and lives on the east side of Detroit close to Grosse Pointe. It was this same year when, after years of soul searching, she and her mother Chava Knox as well as her children, now ages 3 months to 18, formally converted from Christianity to Judaism. They all belong to the Downtown Synagogue, where Chava is a board member and Rozita’s son Antwoine is taking bar mitzvah lessons.
Being black and Jewish, Rozita finds herself straddling the different communities within Detroit. In their former schools in St. Clair Shores, Knox’s children were the only non-white kids in school. Now, in Detroit’s schools, they find themselves the only kids in their class who are Jewish.
Knox says her Jewish identity gets surprised reactions.
“When I tell people I am Jewish, let’s just say I get many different responses,” said Knox, an independent contractor who works as a stage hand for corporate event planning. “I have to explain to people that, yes, you can be black and Jewish and, no, I do not have a Christmas tree in my home. But I welcome others to come into my home to celebrate Jewish holidays with me. Because I converted, I get to understand faith from both sides.”
Knox loves that now there are more Jewish families in Detroit to enlarge her circle of Jewish connections.
“Finally, there are adults [with their kids] in town who understand where I am coming from, and there are now classmates for my children who they can relate to as Jews.
“These are such welcoming changes; it’s great to see Detroit grow and change, to be part of it all and to see that the growth has a Jewish component to it.”
Erin Einhorn & David Lorenz
Erin Einhorn and her husband, David Lorenz, live near Downtown Detroit with their two children.
Einhorn, originally from West Bloomfield, has enjoyed the lifestyle of urban neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Manhattan. When she returned to the area with a family of her own, it seemed natural to her to find a place to live within Detroit.
Einhorn works as Detroit bureau chief of the nonprofit education news organization Chalkbeat, which covers public schools in seven states and across the country. Lorenz is a software developer who commutes to work Downtown by bicycle. This enables them to share one car. Thanks to the Eastern Market, Whole Foods, other local stores and Amazon, there is no real reason to leave the city for anything they need.
“Cities are my comfort zone,” Einhorn said. “We love walking to places and enjoying the events and restaurants that you can find only living in a city. I had all these great things in New York and in Philadelphia, and that is exactly what I wanted in Detroit.”
Einhorn is on the board of the RCD and a member of IADS. The family enjoys social and holiday programming with JTot, a group for families raising Jewish kids in the city of Detroit. Founded in 2015 by Einhorn, Kate Bush and Silverman, it is a partnership between IADS and the RCD, with funding from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. It provides Jewish programming for kids and a social network for parents. In just three years, it has grown from serving 12 kids to close to 50. Her family is also involved in Dor Hadash.
Each school morning, she walks her daughter to the neighborhood DPSCD school where she is in the first grade. She says sending her kids to school in Detroit is a decision questioned by family and friends back in the suburbs.
“If you only look at test scores for Detroit’s schools, you might get the impression that everything about Detroit’s public-school system is horrible,” Einhorn said.
“But, on a personal level, this is not what we are experiencing. Just like in any school in any school district, not every child is having their needs met. Sadly, test scores are down across the state. Just as any parent in any school district, you have to be invested and advocate for the needs of your children in school.”
Dan & Rebecca Yowell
Since 2016, the Yowells have had another child, Charlotte, to keep big brother Alexander, 6, company in their Brush Park home. Rebecca Yowell works for Wellspring Foster Care and enjoys working and helping those who live in the city around them.
“I believe in working for the good of the people of Detroit,” she said. “In that, I have a personal investment in Detroit, for the wellbeing of the people here is also my wellbeing. I want the kids I work with to succeed just as much as I want my own to succeed.”
Alexander started the pre-K Montessori program at Charles L. Spain Elementary-Middle School and is now a kindergartener. The Yowells are active parents in their school and attend monthly meetings with other engaged parents and appreciate the attentiveness of DPSCD Superintendent of schools Dr. Nikolai P. Vitti.
“Whenever you tell someone that you are sending your child to a Detroit public school, you always feel like you have to explain your decision,” Rebecca Yowell said. “In spite of the talk and rumors floating around that the city may consolidate the Montessori program into one building, we hope the city will sustain and continue to grow the program.”
The Yowells enjoy participating in JTot and live walking distance to the city’s Chabad house.
“We keep meeting new (Jewish families) who have moved into the city for different reasons. It is also amazing to have nearby so many of these activities geared toward young Jewish families,” she said.
The Yowells are aware of the realities of living in a city and, just as in any city, there is crime. But other than their car being broken into a few times, Yowell said she has never felt unsafe in her home or walking in her neighborhood.
In fact, it is the walkability of Detroit’s neighborhoods — and always running into friends and neighbors when they are out — that makes it feel most like a community. They have memberships to multiple museums to give their children’s childhood a true city kid experience.
Emily Levine & Brett Willner
Emily Levine, originally from Huntington Woods, and Brett Willner, originally from West Bloomfield, have been married for seven years. They are parents to Nadav, 2, and are expecting to welcome another young Detroiter this summer. Prior to purchasing a 1916 home in the Boston-Edison neighborhood, they rented in the Cass Corridor near Wayne State University.
Levine relishes the fact that in her reverse commute home to the city from her job in the western suburbs, she cruises along at 60 mph while the traffic on the other side of the highway crawls to a standstill.
On her way home, she may pick up some groceries or kosher meat for dinner that’s still hard to come by in the city. She enjoys shopping at the variety of Latin American and Middle Eastern markets in the neighborhoods of Detroit.
Levine does not like when people shower her and her husband with praise for their decision to live in the city.
“We are not doing it out of altruism or anything like that,” said Levine, who is active with JTot. “We chose to live in the city because we want to.”
Their Boston-Edison home was in move-in condition and their only upgrade so far has been insulating the attic. There is a playground a few blocks away and Downtown is a quick Uber, bike or QLine ride away.
Levine said Jtot fills a need as it creates a circle of friends of young Jewish families doing Jewish things together, whether it be celebrating Shabbat or Chanukah or having an outing like they did this fall to visit the Sukkah X Detroit installation in Capitol Park.
“As the children grow older and get to know each other, they are becoming each other’s Jewish community,” she said.
Sarah Allyn & Conner Mendenhall
Allyn is executive director of Repair the World. After renting in the city for five years, she and her husband, Connor Mendenhall, a software engineer, last August purchased a home in the Hubbard Farms section of Southwest Detroit. Growing up in Huntington Woods, her current neighborhood has similar supportive and friendly “vibes” of diversity in age and race.
She said whether or not they have children, they are “here for the duration” and she is “super excited” to offer a Jewish educational option to Detroit’s current and future children.
“The school in its first year will operate in a very experimental phase and we are open to suggestions from a cohort of families,” said Allyn, who has a background in early childhood education and most recently taught at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.
“As we offer adult as well as early childhood Jewish learning, there will be a heavy focus on social action and volunteerism that will take us out of the building and into our neighborhoods.”
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