Jewish millennials reconnect with their Detroit roots through social activism

On a recent evening, throngs of young and old Jews head in and out of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, preparing elaborate plywoods huts for public display. 

Design and construction of these structures, known as Sukkot, is part of a Jewish holiday of the same name for a week-long celebration of the harvest season. This year, the huts were the winners of Sukkah x Detroit, a global competition for the most innovative tabernacles chosen by a juried panel to erect in historic Capitol Park just a block from the synagogue. Between September 23 and 30, the public is invited to wander the structures, sample an open-air marketplace and experience produce, food products, crafts, and Jewish educational events. 

Winning entries hail from across the United States, Britain, and even Gibraltar. "We wanted to create something that all of Detroit could come see and interact with," says Rabbi Ariana Silverman. She's a resident of Woodbridge and transplant from Chicago with a passion for Detroit and a commitment to activate young Jews in strategies for social activism. 
A Sukkah x Detroit winner, designed by JE-LE
"The Torah designates a week-long festival whereby Jews dwell in temporary structures, the Sukkot, in memory of the 40 years Jews lived in exodus and in honor of the harvest bounty," says Silverman. "With 1,300 urban farms, the only UNESCO City of Design in the United States, we hope to showcase Detroit on a national and international stage."

The rabbi has served three years at the synagogue, and is encouraged all the young people who are drawn to creative events, lunch conversations and social action committees, along with religious services. 

A wave of young Jews in their 20s and 30s are moving to Detroit and the near suburbs to participate in a vibrant social justice movement. Whether they came from West Bloomfield or Massachusetts, they often join one of the numerous nonprofit Jewish organizations facilitating work on progressive causes in the city like food access, voter registration, tax foreclosure, and more. 

Historic roots

"I came to Detroit from Los Angeles to be part of the post-industrial society. There's incredible activism and creativity here. I've been watching from afar and longed to participate," says Rabbi Nate DeGroot, 30, the spiritual and program director for Hazon, whose mission is to bring resources for revitalization work in Detroit. 

DeGroot lives with his wife in the North End, where he works closely with Jerry Ann Hebron, director of the Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, a five-acre assemblage of farms, a hostel, a gathering house, and performance space. The rabbi and a team of newfound friends are building a Sukkah for the holiday. 

He sees vast possibilities for collaboration among many Jewish organizations and community groups like Oakland Avenue Farms. Oakland Avenue was once a thriving Jewish and African-American community, and he believes it can be once again. 

"Historically, Jews and blacks worked together, lived together on Oakland Avenue, and Jerry Ann is leading the way to redevelopment," Degroot says. "She has a 30-year plan for growth."

He is well-aware of being white, male, and newly landed. "We take our direction from her. We are there to support the endeavor."
Hanna Fine gardening with other volunteers
Hanna Fine, 23, a part of Hazon, digs with others at the farm while doning her coveralls and straw hat. They're harvesting tomatoes, kale, beets, and more, and truck the veggies to auto plants where they sell them to people who may not otherwise eat nutritional food. 

DeGroot was inspired by Devita Davison’s TEDx talk from 2017 about the work of FoodLab Detroit, a food equity advocacy group, where she outlined the ways people can reclaim land decimated by white flight. "These aren't plots of land where we're just growing tomatoes and carrots," Davison said. "We're building social cohesion as well as providing healthy, fresh food."

Later this month, Hazon will host a North End Sukkah School Havdalah with Congregation T'chiyah, where they will share with community an oral history of farm to table. Jewish and African-American activists will come together to learn about historic collaborations for change in labor and civil rights struggles, placed in a contemporary context. Keeping with Sukkot, it will deal with water and food justice.

And in August, Hazon drew over 6,000 Jews from over 130 organizations and many foodies to the Michigan Jewish Food Festival in Eastern Market to learn about Jewish collaboration with Detroit's urban farmers. Fine helped convene African-American leaders of the food and environmental justice movement to speak about their efforts. 

Detroit is the greatest teacher

Eleanor Gamalski, 25, of Hamtramck, spoke at the food festival, synagogues around town, and any other podium she can find, to talk water and mobilization. She got a job three years ago with Detroit Jews for Justice (DJJ), a grassroots organization that promotes equity, where she helps people of all stripes learn community organizing skills.

DJJ is helping People's Water Board Coalition to advocate for legislation to stop water shut offs and make potable water more affordable for low-income residents. Two such bills, HB 4393 and HB 4389/90, would help those facing water shortages and decriminalize those who hook up water illegally. 

"Currently a first offense is a recommended five-year felony, equal to the sentence for a third drunk driving offense or heroin possession," she says. 

Gamalski, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills and attended Roeper and the University of Michigan, loves living in Hamtramck and working in Detroit for area's diversity in race and class, which informs her work. 

"Amidst the wealth I saw in the suburbs growing up, I knew I had to do more to address the stark inequity of our region."

Currently, DJJ works out of the Bethel Transformation Center, formerly Temple Beth El, on Woodward Avenue, adding capacity to the space and surrounding community with over 100 active members. 

For some, the notion of organizing is new and enticing. Sarah Katz, 28, just started a job as program manager for Repair the World, a national Jewish organization with a branch in Detroit. A recent graduate of Michigan State University, she studied tourism, natural resources, and recreation. 

She chose to live in Hazel Park on the border of Detroit because her role is to act as a bridge between Jews in the suburbs and causes in Detroit. "Young suburban Jews are looking to get engaged in a mindful way," she says. "We model ways to enter communities mindfully and respectfully."

Katz also helps mentor five fellows, young college students looking for careers in urban activism who gain on-the-ground experience with communities throughout Detroit. They live and work together for 11 months, and are placed in various mission-aligned organizations throughout the city. 

Silverman, the downtown synagogue rabbi, sees Sukkot and its religious significance as something that can boost Detroit's creative and agricultural communities to greater heights. Reminiscent of the 50 years the Jews spent wandering the desert, it has been 50 years post-Detroit riots when many Jews and others exited the city for distant suburbs. The triumph is watching and nurturing those who are coming back to the city and collaborating with those who remain here. 

"The world is so fractured," Silverman says. "Synagogues must offer more than worship services. We look to be part of the enthusiastic, engaged young people who have a stake in building community."

Read more articles by Maureen McDonald.

Maureen McDonald is a Southfield-based freelance writer who's contributed to numerous publications and books. She's also taught journalism at several universities.
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