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Deconstructing Detroit: Tackling Urban Issues From a Jewish Perspective

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Blanche Engel and Jerry Gutman participated in “City Leaving and City Living,” a discussion between a panel of older adults who had left Detroit and young professionals who have recently moved there. It was part of a five-part series on “Judaism and Urbanism,” sponsored by the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies and Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit in Michigan. (Photo: Ronelle Grier)

At the discussion, from left: Yana Gaines; Devorah Pinson, co-director of “Chabad in the D”; RachelKaplan; Lauren Goldstein; and Danielle Monast (Photo: Ronelle Grier)

Preparing kosher food for more than 200 participants prior to a Shabbat dinner in Detroit.

Discussion series focuses on those who left the city, those who have moved in, and why

Jewish texts and laws apply to every imaginable subject, including those topics that do not, at first glance, seem particularly Jewish.

Take urban life, for example. Can the teachings of the prophets show modern Jews how to live in a city? How did halachah (Jewish law) evolve as Jews moved from agricultural to urban settings? Does big city life erode or enhance Jewish identity, and how does this differ in various parts of the world? Do Jewish values affect a family’s decision to live in the suburbs instead of the city?

A group of (mostly) young professionals from in and around the city of Detroit learned the answers to these questions and more in a five-class discussion on “Judaism and Urbanism.” The sessions were part of the ongoing Jewish Learning Series, a joint program of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies and Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit in Michigan, more commonly known as “Chabad in the D.”

Detroit is the most glaring example of the radical shift in rust-belt urban demographics in contemporary America. The population of the city fell from a high of more than 1.8 million people in 1950 to some 700,000 in 2013, a loss of 61 percent.

The fifth session in this series, which concluded shortly before Labor Day weekend, was called “City Leaving and City Living,” and it featured a thought-provoking discussion between an intergenerational panel of older adults who had left Detroit and 20-somethings who have recently moved there. The event, which included a kosher meal, was fittingly held in the high-rise city condominium of Vadim Avshalumov, program manager for the Downtown Detroit Partnership and board member of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies.

About 15 people attended the lively group conversation, where participants shared factors that influenced their respective decisions, including Jewish values, communities and institutions.

“Our mission at Chabad is to engage those who participate and contribute to life in Detroit,” said Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, co-director of “Chabad in the D” with his wife, Devorah. “We are excited about the first learning series and the diverse group of students it attracted. And we look forward to continuing to facilitate thought-provoking discussion, bringing Jewish people together around the study of Torah.”

‘Part of a Larger Community’

The older generation was represented by Jerry Gutman, 77, a former history professor and Jewish educator whose family moved from Detroit to nearby Oak Park, Mich., in 1958, and Blanche Engel, 89, who moved to Detroit from Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada in 1947, and relocated to Oak Park after her marriage in 1960.

Gutman, who now lives in West Bloomfield, Mich., an affluent Detroit suburb where many Jewish families reside, said his family left the city proper because the high school serving his neighborhood was “becoming rough,” and his parents were concerned about the safety of his younger siblings. Engel moved to Oak Park to be near the Orthodox congregation she had developed a close affiliation with while living in Detroit.

Growing up, Gutman was exposed to a diverse group of people, from his public-school experience and from the customers he met working with his father, who owned several variety stores throughout Detroit. He and his wife frequently drive into the city to attend baseball games, the symphony and other events, and Gutman notes that he has little patience for those who are “afraid” to leave the suburbs and venture into the city.

While he likes the fact that young people are moving into the city, he cautions against re-creating the “Jewish Detroit of old,” where Jews lived in segregated neighborhoods and associated mainly with other Jews.

“They should view themselves as part of a larger community,” he said.

Engel’s grandson—area native Michael Krefman—told the group how he recently moved to Detroit after living in San Francisco and southwestern Florida. “It’s a dream come true to come back home,” said the 33-year-old, adding that his parents, who live in the suburbs, said they were both proud and happy about his decision to live there.

One point of contention was whether the younger adults living in Detroit would remain after marriage and children entered the picture.

Ariana Silverman, who taught two sessions of the “Judaism and Urbanism” series, feels strongly about her decision to live in the city with her husband, Justin Long, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, and their 1-year-old daughter.

“It’s a question of values,” said Silverman. “You’re making a choice about what you want to represent to your children.”

Krefman said he would probably move to the suburbs once he married. “I want good schools and a backyard for the kids,” he said. “That’s how I was raised. If I had been raised in a city, it might be different, but I wasn’t.”

Yana Gaines, a realtor who lives in West Bloomfield, believes that many families buy homes in the suburbs because they want more square footage and convenient features like attached two-car garages, which are less common in urban homes. But she added that “you can live in the suburbs and still contribute to the city.”

Next Class: Food-Delivery Systems

Silverman believes it is part of her Jewish values to live in Detroit and pay property taxes that support programs for those who are less fortunate. “Things will never change if people think of Detroit as somewhere you live until you turn 25,” she said. “It’s a myth that you have to live in the suburbs in order to raise kids.”

The other four sessions in the series focused on the prophetic texts and their teachings about “City Life,” “Urbanism and Halachah (Jewish Law),” “Modern 20th-Century Urban Life and Its Effect on Jews” and “Contemporary Responses of Jews Living in Cities.” In addition to Pinson and Silverman, instructors included Professor Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.

The Jewish Learning Series, geared toward young professionals from Detroit and its surrounding suburbs, offers practical, text-based Jewish learning that can be applied to everyday life. The next segment, focusing on food-delivery systems from a Jewish perspective, begins on Wednesday, Oct. 21, and will be held every third Wednesday of the month for four months. Each class will be hosted by a different participant in locations around the Greater Detroit downtown area.

The Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies is a cooperative venture between the Cohn and Haddow Families, Wayne State University and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. It facilitates and enhances academic study and research in all areas of Jewish history, culture and thought.

“Chabad in the D” on Mack Avenue in Detroit offers a variety of classes, discussions, and social and recreational opportunities, in addition to regular services and Jewish holiday celebrations.

It held a Shabbat celebration (dubbed “Good Shabbos Detroit”) last month for young professionals that drew more than 200 participants—its largest attendance to date and the first one in three years to be held outdoors. Special guests included 24 visitors from Israel who were in town for the Jewish Federation’s Birthright Mifgash program with their American counterparts.

The Friday-night program, a project of NEXTGen Detroit, is held monthly in different venues around town.

(Chabad.org)

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