Detroit: Downtown Jewish Revival A Boon to City's Urban Redevelopment


Detroit: Downtown Jewish Revival A Boon to City's Urban Redevelopment

by Mordechai Lightstone - Detroit, Michigan

December 16, 2013

Just a day after Federal Judge Steven W. Rhodes ruled that the city of Detroit could legally proceed with its decision to file bankruptcy, some 2000 Jews gathered in Downtown Detroit’s Campus Martius Park to celebrate the rebirth of their city. A symbol of the city’s hope, the 25 foot steel and glass menorah, designed by the Detroit Design center to reflect the materials and energy of the Motor City, cast light from all eight of its candles.

Despite continued financial and bureaucratic mismanagement, Detroiters remain optimistic about the future of their city. To many young Jews in Detroit, the commitment to rebuild the general community is also deeply tied to a Jewish spiritual renewal.

In the 1940s, Detroit’s Jewish population had some 85,000 people served by kosher butchers, Talmud Torahs and 48 synagogues. In 1958, Rabbi Berel Shemtov, Chabad’s pioneering emissary to the city and today the movement’s head in the state of Michigan, moved to Detroit. As Jews made a steady exodus to the Northwestern suburbs, Chabad accompanied them. But now the Jewish population has begun to move from the suburbs that their parents and grandparents fled to during the city’s civic decline, and are returning to the city proper.

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, Chabad’s newly appointed emissary to Downtown and director of Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit, is passionate about this renewal. Pinson and with his wife Devorah Leah first moved to West Bloomfield, one of the area suburbs, in 2002 to head the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House. During his tenure as its director, he created a community for recovering addicts that grew from an initial two members to some 500 today.

Urban Rebirth Complements Jewish Renewal

It was not until Pinson moved to the Friendship House’s parent organization, the Friendship Circle, which  provides assistance to families with children with special needs, that he found his new calling. Noting both the largely underserved young professional demographic and the gentrification of Detroit’s urban core, Pinson realized that someone was needed to reach out to the young Jews dedicating their lives to the city’s rebirth.

Currently he estimates that the downtown Detroit has some 500 permanent young Jewish residents, with an additional 3000 working there during the day, and tens of thousands visiting for the area’s nightlife and shopping.

“I want to create a place for young Jews that lets them engage with Judaism in their own terms,” Pinson says. “I want to show them that Jewish involvement can exist outside the walls of the synagogue, that it can be something that is cool and hip, something they can relate to.”

Benji Rosenzweig is one of many young Jews who found new meaning in Jewish life through Chabad and the renaissance of Detroit’s Jewish community. But the area real-estate broker was not interested in Jewish life when he first moved to Detroit.

“I had seen it all, I knew what Judaism was about and didn’t care to engage with it,” he recalls. But his meeting with Pinson at a Purim party changed many of his opinions. 

“Yisrael was different,” Rosenzweig says about his first meeting with Pinson. “He's straightforward and direct, entirely without pomp. He doesn't stand on a pedestal. There’s something about him that people in Detroit connect to.”

Since that meeting, Rosenzweig has helped with Chabad’s expansion in the downtown area, including securing permits for the Menorah lighting and the recent purchase of Chabad’s new 4500 square foot Gilded Age building in the historic North Brush Park area.

Noting the urban redevelopment of downtown Detroit, Rosenzweig views his ability to make an impact on the future of the neighborhood as something whose time has come. “Four years ago you couldn't give away space downtown, today, thanks to what everyone has been doing, you can't find a space to rent downtown. For someone like me to be part of change like that could only happen here."

Jewish Organizations Share Goals, Responsibilities

Unique to Detroit’s Jewish revival is the strong alliance between local Jewish organizations. Pinson serves on the board of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit’s NextGen engagement. In an interview with Lubavitch.com, Scott Kaufman, the Federation’s CEO, said he sees Pinson’s involvement as central to the city’s Jewish rebirth.

“When I became CEO I saw that Detroit was faced with an existential challenge. It had become an exodus community, with our youth leaving for places like Chicago or Los Angeles. We made a strategic decision to attract, engage and retain young Jews so we wouldn’t be a sun-setting community,” says Kaufman.

“Yisrael is a guy who genuinely wants to rebuild Jewish Detroit. He’s a mentsch who lives his values and is a community builder and bridge builder. Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit will be a great asset to Jewish Detroit. “

Perhaps a portent of Jewish Detroit’s future success, despite freezing weather the day before, the Menorah lighting was accompanied by a relatively balmy 50 degrees. When Rabbi Shemtov announced the launch of the new Chabad center as the first of a series of initiatives in honor of the 20th yahrtzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory, the crowds cheered.

Reflecting on the future of Detroit’s Jewish community, Pinson notes that “they need to be served in the ‘Detroit way.’ You have to be part of the city, the people, the culture, the movement to help the city.”

“I want to be part of rebuilding this city,” he says, “part of the rebirth, not just for the Jewish community but for everyone. I'm part of something that’s amazing, [and it’s my hope] that I can and offer something truly unique."

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