Huntington Woods hosts one of the fastest growing Jewish populations in Michigan and has attracted a dozen of diverse religious leaders.
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky
Some have lived there for decades, others for just a few months. Some grew up in Detroit, others moved from elsewhere. They range in age from 29 to 70; some are first-time parents and others have grandchildren. They are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform/Renewal, Humanist and non-denominational. One raises backyard chickens. Some lead congregations, others hold administrative positions at congregations or in the community.
In short, there’s not much these 12 men and women have in common except they are rabbis — and they live in Huntington Woods.
That’s not completely surprising, given that the tiny southeast Oakland County city — it’s less than 1.5 square miles in area — hosts one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in Michigan. The 2018 Detroit Jewish Population Study conducted by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit showed 1,575 Jewish households in “the Woods,” more than double the 720-household total shown in the 2005 population study. Today, two out of three households in Huntington Woods are Jewish homes.
If the 12 have anything in common, it’s that they like the city’s small size, the sidewalks and relatively small lots that make it walkable. They like the neighborhood elementary school and other communal resources, the big trees and the houses that aren’t cookie-cutter copies of each other.
Some were friends before they became neighbors. Rabbi Ari Witkin’s in-laws, Steve and Janice Traison, were close friends with Rabbi Dan Horwitz’s parents, Gina and JN Publisher Arthur Horwitz, so the two West Bloomfield families saw each other often and the two rabbis became friends.
Others have developed close working relationships. Rabbi Asher Lopatin’s congregation, Kehillat Etz Chayim, is located in Congregation Beth Shalom’s Oak Park building. Lopatin and Beth Shalom’s rabbi, Robert Gamer, along with Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh, who lives in Ferndale, have held several joint programs, including study sessions on Shavuot and Tashlich services at a home in Oak Park on Rosh Hashanah.
Here’s a brief look at the rabbis of Huntington Woods, in alphabetical order.
Aura Ahuvia of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy grew up in Milwaukee and attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She has graduate degrees in journalism and Judaic studies from the University of Michigan and was ordained through ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Ahuvia, 54, and her husband, Aaron, a professor at University of Michigan-Dearborn, moved to Huntington Woods from Ann Arbor in 2017, a year after she became the rabbi of Shir Tikvah, which is affiliated with both the Reform and Renewal movements. They have two grown sons. One thing that attracted Ahuvia to Huntington Woods is the highly educated population. She has enjoyed meeting her rabbi neighbors.
Dorit Edut grew up in Northwest Detroit and lived in Oak Park for many years. She and her husband, Shimon, a retired landscaper, moved to Huntington Woods in 1999, when her father died and left her his house. She holds a B.A. in Russian studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a master’s in counseling education from Wayne State University and rabbinic ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York. Edut, 70, has done rabbinic work for the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue and Congregation Beth Israel in Bay City. She now coordinates the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network.
“The ability to ride bikes, jog or walk anywhere here is great and reminds us of the neighborhood I grew up in in Detroit,” she said.
David Fain, 35, is rav beit hasefer (school rabbi) and dean of Jewish studies at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills. He grew up in Connecticut, graduated from the University of Connecticut and earned master’s degrees from Hebrew College and the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem in Judaic studies and Jewish education. He was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Bronx, N.Y.
He says he, his wife, Shoshana, and their two sons, Yair, 3, and Natan, 2, love the community feeling in Huntington Woods. He is a regular attendee at Kehillat Etz Chayim.
Robert Gamer, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom, grew up in Oak Park and graduated from U-M before attending rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he earned a master’s degree and ordination. He lived in suburban Chicago before moving to Huntington Woods in 2010.
With many Jewish neighbors and a number of congregants who live nearby, he’s frequently “on call” for people with questions and those who have requests for prayers for healing. Gamer says he appreciates the diversity within the Huntington Woods Jewish community.
Chanoch Hadar left his native South Africa in 1998 and came to the U.S. after two years in Israel. He was ordained by the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, N.J. He and his wife, Tamar, who grew up in Oak Park, moved to Huntington Woods in 2005 from New York with the goal of offering outreach and services to unaffiliated Jews. The prayer services and programming they offered out of their house grew and developed into the Woodward Avenue Shul (WAS) in 2008. (The WAS is technically in Royal Oak but feels like it’s on the eastern edge of Huntington Woods.)
He finds Huntington Woods to be friendly and accepting, and attractive to “people who cherish age-old values and prioritize good character.” Having kosher stores and restaurants nearby is another plus.
Miriam Jerris, rabbi of the National Society for Humanistic Judaism, moved to Huntington Woods in 1973 from Oak Park, well before the big Jewish growth spurt. She grew up in Windsor and was impressed that a friend’s house had been designed by someone from Huntington Woods. “I thought it must be a great place,” she said. Now that she’s there, she says the community reminds her of her childhood neighborhood in Windsor.
Jerris was ordained in 2001 from the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in Farmington Hills, where she now teaches. She also has master’s degrees in Near Eastern studies from U-M and in psychology from the Michigan School of Psychology, and a doctorate in Jewish studies from Union Institute.
Dan Horwitz, 35, directs The Well, a community-building, education and spirituality outreach initiative geared to the needs of young adults and families. Horwitz grew up in West Bloomfield, attended Hillel Day School and West Bloomfield High, and has a string of college degrees, including master’s degrees in politics, Jewish studies and sport management, as well as a law degree. He was ordained at Mesifta Adas Wolkowisk.
He and his wife, Miriam, moved to Huntington Woods from Washington, D.C., in 2014 and have three young children. The tight-knit layout of the community is a definite asset, Horwitz said, and Huntington Woods offers a “critical mass” of young Jewish families. “Judaism is meant to be practiced in community, so having community just outside your front door is quite special.”
Asher Lopatin, 55, who was recently named executive director of the JCRC/AJC, has long been fond of Detroit, his wife Rachel’s hometown. He moved here in 2018 to become the spiritual leader of Kehillat Etz Chayim, a new Modern Orthodox congregation. He also founded the Detroit Center for Civil Discourse at Wayne State University.
“Jews should live in a place where they come into physical interaction with their neighbors and where they can also reach out and help neighboring communities,” he said. He invited his Christian neighbors to a meal in his sukkah and they reciprocated with an invitation to see their Christmas tree — and they served kosher cookies from Zeman’s.
He works with many of the other rabbis in the community on programs ranging from prayer services to interfaith picnics and the national conference for JPro, an organization of Jewish communal professionals, held in Detroit in August.
Yudi Mann, development director for The Shul in West Bloomfield, grew up in Oak Park, where his parents still live, but moved to Huntington Woods in 2011 because that’s where the Jewish families are, especially the younger ones. The question isn’t why Jews live in Huntington Woods but why the first Jews moved there, he said. “Once there are Jews in a community, it automatically attracts other Jews.”
As part of the Chabad movement, Mann, 43, said he and his wife, Rivki, try to reach out to the Jews around them, especially those who are less involved communally. He hosts large Chanukah and Sukkot gatherings for his neighbors as well as frequent Shabbat dinners. With eight children (aged 1 to 18), he appreciates how easy it is to get from his house to the Orthodox day schools.
Mendel Polter stepped in to become the rabbi of the Woodward Avenue Shul when founding rabbi Chanoch Hadar moved into a more administrative role. His wife, Kaila, works with him to help grow the community. Part of a four-generation Detroit family, Polter, 29, grew up in Oak Park and earned a bachelor’s degree and rabbinic ordination at the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Brooklyn.
The family, which includes a 3-year-old son, moved from New York in 2017. Though their home on Woodward is technically in Royal Oak, it feels like part of Huntington Woods, where they are among many young Jewish families. “It’s unique in atmosphere,” he said. “Everyone feels like one big family, very interconnected and supportive of each other.”
Simcha Tolwin, 45, grew up in Israel and Detroit and moved to Huntington Woods in 2007 to start Aish HaTorah, just across the Coolidge Highway border in Oak Park. He and his wife, Estie, who works with him, have six children ranging from young adults (one recently married) to the youngest in first grade. Tolwin was ordained at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem and also has a master’s in clinical counseling from Bellevue University in Omaha, Neb.
He gets frequent requests from neighbors to help put up mezzuzot, and a neighbor who liked to engage him in debate asked him to do his funeral. He got an usual request when a neighbor asked him to keep their curtains open on Friday evenings so they could watch the family’s Shabbat dinners. He likes the “shtetl” feeling of the community. “Everyone knows what everyone is doing so it’s easy to make an impact because people talk!” he said.
Ari Witkin and his wife, Liz, are celebrating the birth of their first child, Hadar Yonah, born in August, just a few months after they moved to Huntington Woods from Philadelphia. All he knew of the Detroit area was West Bloomfield, where his in-laws, Steve and Janice Traison live, he said. The Witkins started house-hunting after he accepted the position of director of leadership development for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, and they liked Huntington Woods immediately.
They especially appreciate the city ordinance that allows them to keep three chickens in their backyard. Witkin, 32, grew up in Minneapolis, graduated from Goucher College in Maryland and was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He also has a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania in nonprofit leadership. The family is still “shul shopping,” but he says they’ve gotten a very warm welcome from all the congregations in the area.