Religion & Jewish Life

In Detroit, Jewish resurgence led by young aims to transform city

DETROIT (JTA) — Blair Nosan grew up in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield, attended the University of Michigan and then, like thousands of other young Jews from the beleaguered state, moved away.

Though she grew up in a heavily Jewish area Nosan, 26, had felt disconnected both from her Jewish identity and the nearby city, which was undergoing its own debilitating population drain. Over the last decade, 25 percent of Detroit’s residents have taken flight. Some 5,000 young Jews left Michigan between 2005 and 2010, according to a 2010 survey by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

But then Nosan came back.

In 2009, she moved to Detroit to work in its burgeoning urban agriculture scene, eventually starting her own pickling company, Suddenly Sauer.

Nosan was startled to learn that she was part of a significant migration of young Jews to the Motor City  — a young Jewish renaissance that has been as unexpected as it has been successful. It’s evident not just in numbers but in a resurgence of Jewish activity and vitality in the heart of Detroit, including among Jews who had never been Jewishly active.

“I did not expect to find a Jewish community at all,” Nosan told JTA, echoing the sentiments of many of Detroit’s new Jewish residents. “Most of the Jews were living in Detroit as participants in the Jewish community, but with their Jewish identity in mind were trying to fill in the blanks of this long history we had had in the city but weren’t raised with.”

Over the last few years, a slew of new programs from the institutional to the grass roots and from suburb to city have blossomed in the Detroit area.

Detroit’s first Moishe House opened in June in midtown, and its occupants — five from the suburbs of Detroit and one from Los Angeles — have been holding five or six Jewish events a month. The most recent was a sauerkraut workshop taught by Nosan that attracted 16 people.

At a bar in Royal Oak, a suburb near Detroit, Rabbi Leiby Burnham began a weekly program in 2007 called Torah on Tap to talk about Judaism in a bar setting, with the drinks paid for by an anonymous donor. Starting with seven people, the event now draws as many as 100 per week.

The most striking example of the transformation of Jewish life in Detroit is at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, the last remaining synagogue in the city. Detroit once was a major hub of Jewish life, with 44 synagogues. But after race riots in the 1960s and economic decline, most of the city’s whites — Jews included — left for the northern suburbs, repeating a pattern taking place in cities across America.

In 2008, the 90-year old conservative shul was in dire straits — open only once a week, often unable to assemble a minyan and without a rabbi (the last one had died in 2003). The board was considering packing it in and selling the historic four-story building.

“Some didn’t think we had a future,” said David Powell, who has attended Isaac Agree for decades. “We continued to plod along until reinforcements came.”

Starting a few years ago, those reinforcements began to come in the form of young social activists and entrepreneurs who were drawn to the city by its growing arts scene and revitalization programs that offered subsidized rent and unique employment opportunities for social justice work. Many of the Jews among them came to the synagogue, in the process changing it. They began running services, serving on the board and organizing events of the sort that the old shul had never seen: Israeli film screenings, potluck dinners, Israeli folk dancing. Community activists also used it as a gathering place.

“The synagogue wasn’t meeting the needs of the city, and it was struggling,” said Oren Goldenberg, a filmmaker and prominent activist in the community. “It needed to adapt.”

Isaac Agree became more and more popular. Services were held three days a week rather than one. Events were organized to celebrate all the holidays. The synagogue started offering Hebrew lessons and even conversion classes. And now every Friday night it hosts a Shabbat dinner.

“I liked Isaac Agree because it stayed; it’s been here the whole time,” Nosan said. “That’s a poignant point of entry for the community — what’s already here and been here, and figuring out new energy that’s being brought to the table.”

In the past few years, Isaac Agree has more than tripled its membership households, becoming the only conservative synagogue in Michigan not to suffer a decline, according to the 2010 federation survey.

“There are definitely more Jews here then there were a year ago,” said Goldenberg while having coffee in Avalon International Breads, a bakery co-founded by Jackie Vicks, a 20-year resident of the city who joined the synagogue last year. “I live here. When things change, I know it.”

Some of the new Jewish revitalization programs, including Torah on Tap and Detroit’s Moishe House, are receiving support from CommunityNext, a program started by one Detroit returnee based on the idea that creating cultural activities and a strong cultural center is as important as jobs to retaining and attracting young adults to Detroit.

“Young Jews are not going to move to suburbs, they’re going to move to cities,” said Jordan Wolfe, the Detroit native who launched the program in 2010 after returning to the area in 2007 following a stint in California’s high-tech sector. “They’re willing to take jobs as a waiter if there’s something to do.”

CommunityNext’s strategy is to support both Jewish culture and Detroit’s revitalization.

The program, which was funded in the first year by $60,000 from two anonymous donors and another $40,000 from Detroit’s Jewish federation, organizes Jewish events and offers Jewish entrepreneurs small business loans and free office space. CommunityNext also supports nonsectarian Detroit revitalization projects such as Come Play Detroit, which helps organize intramural sports leagues. In its first year, Come Play Detroit created 27 leagues in nine sports involving 4,500 people.

“We’re building community, but the larger agenda is Detroit,” said Rachel Lachover, CommunityNext’s associate director. “People are moving back. People are talking about Detroit.”

In August, the federation teamed up with Come Play Detroit to set up fundraising sports tournaments across the country, raising $100,000 for 25 rent subsidies to help people move to Detroit on the condition that they hold community events once a month — the Moishe House model.

“I’ve enjoyed becoming part of the Detroit Jewish community,” said Allie Gross, an L.A. native now living at Moishe House. “It’s changing as a lot as young people move back in. There’s a sense of urgency. People are excited about what Detroit’s offering. It’s very exciting.”