In the wake of recent anti-Semitic incidents, individuals in the Metro Detroit Orthodox community speak on their experience of being visibly Jewish.
Featured photo by Anthony Lanzilote
When an attacker burst into a rabbi’s home Dec. 29, 2019 and began stabbing people at a Chanukah celebration in Monsey, N.Y., there was no misidentifying this as a Jewish house.
Monsey, a small town about 30 miles northwest of New York City, is known for its large ultra-Orthodox community, easily identifiable by their dress — yarmulkes or black hats and black suits or coats for men; wigs, scarves or hats and modest dresses or skirts for women.
Detroit’s observant community members dress similarly, also making them easy to spot as Jewish in public by those who might want to single them out. For the most part, local individuals we spoke with have not experienced anti-Semitic behavior directed at them, except for one.
Melissa Schon, who dresses modestly in skirts and long sleeves and covers her hair, said, “For most of my co-workers, I’m the only Orthodox Jew they have ever met.”
Schon of Oak Park, who works as research administrator at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, is open when questioned about her dress or her sheitel (wig worn by some Orthodox married women) or about religious beliefs like Shabbat.
“I tell them how dressing modestly allows my intelligence and inner self to shine. I really feel that from exposure and sharing, many misconceptions and stereotypes are erased,” she said. “I think it can be a real kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God) to have an Orthodox person in a secular workplace.
“Unfortunately, now all you hear about is anti-Semitism,” she said. “But I’ve been so fortunate to work somewhere so respectful and open to diversity, and I feel not every Orthodox person should feel so scared to work in secular places.”
When Schon was recently honored at a work-related celebration, she said planners, whose guests included a medical school dean, “went to great lengths to be respectful of my religious practices, making it kosher and not having it on a Friday, when they normally have this awards ceremony.”
Being so accepted has, at times, come with determination.
While living in New York many years ago, she sued for religious discrimination after a job offer was receded when she requested time off for Jewish holidays and accommodations for shorter workdays on the Fridays when Shabbat began early. When the suit was dropped and she was hired, she created a “wonderful relationship” with her new boss that continues to this day.
“I felt it was my responsibility to be brave and show her how hardworking a frum (observant) Jew is. I think many negative reactions are mostly due to non-exposure.
“Having only worked in secular environments I am always cognizant of how I treat my coworkers and pride myself on always working hard and with integrity. When I was younger, if I heard or experienced anything anti-Semitic, I was much more fearful to speak up. Now if I hear something negative, such as a co-worker say something like, ‘He Jewed me,’ I stop them and explain in a kind manner why that comment is anti-Semitic.
“Often in my experience people haven’t been called out nor educated on anti-Semitism and my hope is that by having a discussion in a calm manner it opens people’s eyes and changes some of their stereotypes.”
Rabbi Mendel Stein
“In recent years, we have increased our training of staff and students, and taken advantage of Federation security assistance, including visits by Gary Sikorski (Federation’s community security director),” said Rabbi Mendel Stein, development director of the Lubavitch Cheder & Yeshiva-International School for Chabad Leadership in Oak Park.
In the wake of the Monsey attack, Stein sent an email letter last week from the yeshivah seeking donations to upgrade security at the school, including hiring a security guard.
Close to 90 teens attending the school are “Friday Boys,” taking to suburban streets each week to bring the Shabbat Torah portion and Yiddishkeit to Jewish workers in businesses along their routes. They are dressed in black suits, tzit-tzit and wearing black hats; some are even old enough to have beards. They are easily identifiable as observant Jews.
“We are not fearful on a practical level — thank God, ours is a safe community,” Stein said. “We upped our training to be better and smarter, but this makes us stronger, too. It is not at all about hiding our identities. The idea of anti-Semitism is to instill fear, but we respond with more Jewish pride and wanting to increase our Jewish identity even more.”
Louis “Eli” Finkelman, a professor at Lawrence Tech University and a rabbi at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, looks visibly Jewish, but says he has a fatalist approach to the recent spate of violent anti-Semitic attacks in New York and New Jersey. “I think the chances of being injured in a terrorist attack is small compared to slipping on the ice and getting hurt, so I’m not worried about it.”
Finkelman said he generally wears a beret when traveling in public rather than a kippah. He’s been doing that for decades. “I guess I would have to psychoanalyze myself, but it’s probably a bit of camouflage.”
He does wear a kippah when teaching at LTU or working out in the gym but has never felt uncomfortable. He’ll get an occasional question from a curious bystander, but nothing offensive.
The only time he has considered concealing his Jewish identity is when he is traveling and putting on tallit for prayers in an airport. “It gives me an uncomfortable feeling, but I do it anyway,” he said. “Once I did it and a stranger came up to me. He was Muslim and told me about his father who taught Hebrew in Egypt and got in trouble for it. He said he was hopeful to see good relations between Islam and Judaism. That was nice.”
Yehudah (Ryan) Hertz
Yehudah (Ryan) Hertz, 39, has experienced his fair share of curious questions and ignorant comments about his Jewish faith.
As a Chasidic Jew, he has felt “othered” in many situations, but only recently did he feel endangered in his own neighborhood.
Nearly two weeks ago, Hertz and his wife, Batyah (Katharina) Hertz, were walking home from shul in their Huntington Woods neighborhood when a car pulled up slowly alongside them. A teenage boy rolled down his window, swearing and yelling.
“We look like the Chasidic family that we are — I’m walking down the street wearing a black hat and my wife is wearing a sheitel,” Hertz said. “There’s no other reason why somebody would have done that.
“It was very strange and surreal to be two blocks from your house where you feel completely comfortable and safe. I have never experienced thinking that living here in the United States in my own neighborhood where I’m walking home from shul that I’m not necessarily safe to be who I am.”
Hertz says he generally feels accepted in Metro Detroit but is now questioning how serious anti-Semitism is and how it’s going to evolve.
The machete attack in Monsey occurred on the seventh night of Chanukah, prompting a discussion between Hertz and his wife on hiding one’s Jewish identity when fear is detected.
“The Talmud says people should light the menorah in the doorway where it’s visible from the outside, except for in times of danger,” Hertz said. “It led us to this conversation about the menorah as a metaphor for how we do or don’t appear Jewish. Our conclusion in the conversation, inspired by my wife, is that we should double-down and be even more proud.”
JN staffers Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Jackie Headapohl, Allison Jacobs and Keri Guten Cohen contributed to this report.