Volunteers at the Madison Heights Food Pantry

Madison Heights Jews are not so isolated as one might think.

I spent the week before Rosh Hashanah in a bit of a funk,” says Madison Heights Mayor Roslyn Grafstein, who last August was appointed to the city’s top position. “I was missing my mom and my family a bit more than usual.”

Her non-Jewish neighbors didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of Rosh Hashanah. Yet, they figured out a way to help Grafstein celebrate her most memorable Jewish New Year.

Mayor Roslyn Grafstein
Mayor Roslyn Grafstein

Before COVID, Grafstein, a Toronto native, crossed the border frequently to visit loved ones in Canada. Last year, she planned to return for a birthday celebration, Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah. All three trips were canceled because, due to COVID, the borders closed for nonessential travel. Grafstein hasn’t seen her mom or her siblings since December 2019.

“My neighbor asked me what I missed, other than my family; I told her it was the shofar and the songs,” Grafstein says. “She invited some of our non-Jewish neighbors to her house for a bonfire and an outside Rosh Hashanah celebration. She read the children a Rosh Hashanah book she found at the library. We ate cut apples drizzled in honey, listened to Avinu Malkeinu on her phone. Her daughter sounded the shofar from church. I have never celebrated in that way before, but I will never forget the feeling of welcome that I felt.”

Spanning seven square miles, Madison Heights borders Warren, Hazel Park, Royal Oak and Troy. With approximately 30,000 residents, the Jewish population is tiny, numbering only a couple hundred.

“I don’t know many Jewish people are living here,” says Sean Fleming, a 49-year-old retired army veteran now working in telecommunications. He moved from Oak Park to Madison Heights in 1997. “It’s not a far-fetched idea. They just aren’t like ‘here I am.’”
The Jews who call Madison Heights home say they love where they live for various reasons, including the city services, friendly neighbors and convenient location near I-75.

Grafstein, 50, came to Michigan in 2004 because she “met a guy from Detroit.” That guy, Scott McGuire, is now her husband, and he purchased a house in Madison Heights a year before she left Toronto.

“Madison Heights is not the bastion of the Jewish people — there aren’t a whole lot of us here, but my job is to represent everybody,” says Grafstein, who is most likely the city’s first Jewish mayor.

Elected to city council in 2017, she was appointed mayor after her predecessor became a judge.

“I’m probably not what most people think of when they hear of a foreign-born, non-Christian,” says the former Torontonian. When constituents hear their mayor is Jewish, they may be surprised because of the low Jewish presence in the city, according to Grafstein.

A 2018 Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit population study showed 221 Jewish households in Madison Heights, comprising just .7% of the city’s population.

Amanda Stein started the Food Pantry when the pandemic hit.
Amanda Stein started the Food Pantry when the pandemic hit.
Impact Not Small

Amanda Stein, a clinical social worker, wife and mother of three, had an emergency food pantry up and running almost immediately after realizing the community would need assistance due to the financial strains of COVID.

Stein thought of creating the food pantry last March, the same night schools across the state closed for in-person learning. During the first nine months of operation, it served an estimated 12,000 people, raised more than $30,000, and distributed roughly 25 tons of food, hygiene and cleaning items.

Over the last year, Stein and a team of volunteers turned what was supposed to be a temporary endeavor into a permanent, nonprofit organization. Stein no longer serves as the executive director because of the time commitment but is still very involved.

Amanda Stein (center) and some of the team at the Madison Heights Emergency Pantry (MHEP)
Amanda Stein (center) and some of the team at the Madison Heights Emergency Pantry (MHEP) Photo courtesy of Amanda Stein

She also sits on the city’s Human Relations and Equity Commission, a newly created committee formed to review city policies and advise council on ways to make Madison Heights a more equitable community.

“The pandemic brought to light the social and racial inequities in this country, and that’s really the reason why we started the group,” Grafstein says. “We want to make sure that everybody feels safe and included.”

The commission held its first meeting in September. Based on a commission recommendation, the city council approved a proclamation recognizing International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.

Commissioners successfully recommended council pass a resolution eliminating gender identity questions on city forms. They also asked the council to request that the state of Michigan remove gender designations from state applications to prevent discrimination. With similar success, the commission’s request for a Juneteenth event to celebrate the emancipation of those enslaved in the United States was granted.

When Fleming heard the city was looking for residents to sit on this commission, he jumped at the opportunity. He was one of approximately a dozen to apply and one of seven appointed.

“I have a deep sense of pride in being Jewish, and I wanted our religion and culture to be represented in our city,” says Fleming, who is a member of Oak Park’s Congregation Beth Shalom with his wife, Alison.

Sean and Alison Fleming and their daughter Natalie.
Sean and Alison Fleming and their daughter Natalie.
Searching for Jews

Since 1982, many Jewish families living along both the I-75 and Woodward corridors have found a spiritual home at Congregation Shir Tikvah, a Reform/Renewal synagogue in Troy — the only synagogue in northern Oakland County.

In addition, in September 2019, Rabbi Menachem Caytak and his wife, Chana, opened the Chabad Jewish Center of Troy to find and connect with Jewish families in the area. While much of their focus is on Troy, so far, they’ve met “a couple dozen” Jewish families in Madison Heights. His hope is to create a framework so that a Chabad center can also open in Madison Heights.

To identify Jews living in cities that don’t have a Jewish infrastructure, Caytak says he and a group of volunteers help make hundreds of cold calls. When the weather cooperates, they go knocking on doors.

Noah Schechter, 32, was shocked to see two guys with yarmulkes standing on his porch last summer. His visitors told him that they had been to a couple hundred homes that day and came across one other Jewish family.

Schechter and his wife, Elissa, belong to Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. But, once COVID restrictions become more relaxed, they hope to participate in some of Chabad’s in-person programming.

Rabbi Menachem and Chana Caytak with their daughter Chaya Mushka in 2019
Rabbi Menachem and Chana Caytak with their daughter Chaya Mushka in 2019

Noah grew up in Huntington Woods and works as a new car salesman. Elissa is from Birmingham. She taught at Temple Beth El, but during the pandemic, she started a tutoring business.

When the Schechters were looking to buy a home three years ago, they searched in Oak Park, Farmington Hills and Birmingham. Madison Heights really wasn’t on their radar, but the young couple looked there anyway. They were swayed by Moses, their 60-plus pound red standard poodle.

The dog went house hunting with them and loved the backyard. At first, his owners weren’t crazy about living further away from family members but say they compromised because of the beautiful yard (they liked the rest of the house, too). The neighborhood, Schechter says, reminds him of Huntington Woods.

“When we’re out walking our dog, everyone wants to stop and have a conversation. We’ve met tons of people here and had only positive interactions. I can’t say that about anywhere I’ve ever lived,” says Schechter, who has been a resident of Huntington Woods, Oak Park, Farmington Hills and Southfield. He also spent a year in Israel. The only downside, according to Schechter, is the small number of fellow adherents. “We wish we had more Jews around.”

Tih Penfil
Tih Penfil

The couple hopes to start a family soon. Schechter has concerns about raising children in an area where they could be the only Jewish students in the class. He recalls being the only Jewish kid in his eighth-grade class at Clarenceville Middle School in Livonia.

“I don’t look forward to my kids going through it, but it’s something that can make you stronger, and it’s kind of how the world is. It will definitely set them up for what’s to come,” he says, adding that while it will be a challenge, he still sees it as a positive and not something he and his wife will shy away from.

It’s something Stein’s three children, ages 11, 13 and 14, currently experience as the only kids in their respective classes who identify as Jewish. When religion comes up in conversation, they are comfortable discussing their Jewish identity.

“Attending Camp Tamarack was an exciting way for them to gain a perspective and an understanding of Judaism,” says Stein, who moved to Madison Heights 11 years ago with her husband, Ken, because of its proximity to his job and her school at the time. “I think camp gave them the knowledge and experience to explain to their classmates what being Jewish means.”

‘Like a Mini-U.N.’

Location was a large factor in drawing others to Madison Heights as well. Tih (pronounced T) Penfil moved there in 2000 after accepting a job as an art therapist and special education teacher in the Warren Consolidated School District.

When Penfil first moved into her 1,200-square-foot ranch, she put up a Happy Chanukah sign in her window. One neighbor asked what Chanukah was, innocently mispronouncing the word. She and another neighbor became friends and now celebrate each other’s holidays together. Others occasionally ask for advice and information because they have a relative who married someone Jewish.

“My street is like a mini-United Nations,” says Penfil, who retired from teaching six years ago and currently works as a photographer. “We all help each other out.”

Elissa and Noah Schechter and their dog Moses, who “chose” their home
Elissa and Noah Schechter and their dog Moses, who “chose” their home

Once, a neighbor she didn’t know well reached out to her with concerns over the sounds coming from her air conditioner unit. He correctly suggested fixing it as soon as possible.
Penfil is 67 and has been active in the Jewish community for as long as she can remember.

Currently, she volunteers at Yad Ezra and co-chairs a Chanukah gift drive at her synagogue, Congregation Shir Tikvah. She is also involved with helping out when the shul partners with South Oakland Shelter and becomes a temporary homeless shelter for one week during the year.

Even though she doesn’t live in a Jewish area, Penfil feels connected to the Jewish community. She is part of a group of women who, before COVID, met monthly for Shabbat dinners. Now, the dozen-plus women gather every Friday night on Zoom. Three live in Madison Heights, but the rest are from neighboring cities such as Southfield and Royal Oak.

The ability to connect virtually has also helped Jews from areas like Madison Heights integrate with the greater Jewish community. According to Federation President Matthew Lester, “A silver lining of the pandemic has been our utilization of virtual platforms to maintain connections during a historically difficult time.

“Even as we begin to consider post-COVID opportunities to gather again in person, we recognize the convenience of Zoom and other online platforms. Going forward, virtual events will be an asset in engaging Jews in the farthest corners of our region.”
Even when those “far away” are just next door in Madison Heights.