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A Spiritual Investment in a Promising Part of Detroit

A Spiritual Investment in a Promising Part of Detroit

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Rabbi Yisrael and Devorah Pinson, co-directors of Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit—known locally by its much catchier name, “Chabad in the D.''
Rabbi Yisrael and Devorah Pinson, co-directors of Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit—known locally by its much catchier name, “Chabad in the D."

The economic situation in Detroit has gone from bad to worse—worse being that the city filed for bankruptcy last summer, with a court ruling in December that Detroit was eligible for Chapter 9 on its whopping $18.5 billion debt. That fact has followed years of Detroit topping lists of the most crime-ridden or dangerous cities in the United States. It seems the place just can’t get a break.

But at rock bottom, there’s only one way to go, and that’s up. There are optimists out there, and for them, the glass is at least half-full.

Take, for example, Rabbi Yisrael Pinson.

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A tall man with an easy smile, Pinson, 37, hails from Nice in the south of France. He studied in Israel, England, America, France and Australia, where he received his rabbinical ordination, arriving in Detroit from France in 2000.

Until very recently, the rabbi worked in the suburb of West Bloomfield at the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House, which provides support and guidance to individuals and families struggling with addiction and other life crises. His wife, Devorah, a Cincinnati native, continues to help at the Friendship House and Friendship Circle, even in the midst of a move to a brand-new Chabad House—officially purchased in mid-December—in the urban area known as Brush Park in Midtown Detroit.

Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit—known locally by its much catchier name, “Chabad in the D”—is situated in a 105-year-old grand mansion on Mack Avenue, in what was once a wealthy Jewish area. With its striking architecture, own side parking lot and roomy interior—4,300 square feet, plus a basement—the Pinsons thought it seemed right for a Chabad House and home for their five children.

Still, moving past the negative P.R. and building a positive reputation for the neighborhood will take some doing.

“Detroit is in the news for bad reasons,” says Pinson. “So I thought I should start something for good reasons.”

The new Chabad House on Mack Avenue, built in 1908
The new Chabad House on Mack Avenue, built in 1908

“There are 60,000 Jews in the metropolitan area, most born in Detroit and now living outside of it,” the rabbi goes on to explain. “But they have a nostalgic connection and more. Families are losing young people to Chicago, New York, Miami. If they want their kids to stay, then they need to boost up the city. We need to help make the city attractive to young people.”

Turning Around a Decades-Long Decline

The first recorded Jew in Detroit was Canadian fur trader Chapman Abraham, who had a residence there until his death in 1783. In more contemporary times, the city’s Jewish community saw its halcyon days in the 1940s and ’50s, but by the end of the 1960s, specifically after the Detroit riots in 1967, most left—some residents even use the word “fled”—for the western suburbs.

The continued population drain from the city over the next two decades caused all kinds of economic problems, as did the automobile industry’s increasing woes due to foreign competition, a global rise in fuel prices and plain-old poor management; “Motor City” was spinning its wheels.

But the current generation of young people has a newfound respect for urban life, and a desire for cultural activities and alternative housing. They want to live closer to where they work and study, and some larger companies—Rabbi Pinson notes Quicken Loans, the largest online retail mortgage lender in the United States, headquartered in Detroit—have taken notice and are trying to help expedite that process.

He acknowledges that “we’re at the beginning. We’re trying to create a community where people are comfortable.”

What also helps is a new Whole Foods Market down the street that has a common goal of serving and boosting up the neighborhood. Wayne State University is also just blocks away, attended by more than 30,000 students in all of its various programs, and Pinson currently serves the Jewish students there as the Chabad on Campus representative. Many commute, but that’s a lot of activity for one section of the city. A vegetarian/dairy kosher restaurant already operates on campus, but Pinson is trying to make it cholov Yisroel, where dairy items are closely supervised throughout the production process, so that even strictly observant Jews can eat there. Others are looking to open kosher eateries in the greater downtown area.

From left: Alyssa Goch, Cara Goch and Stephanie Reich at Chabad's Open House on Tu B’Shevat, which drew more than 100 people despite a sudden snowstorm.
From left: Alyssa Goch, Cara Goch and Stephanie Reich at Chabad's Open House on Tu B’Shevat, which drew more than 100 people despite a sudden snowstorm.

As for Devorah Pinson, 34, she currently serves as the program director for the Friendship House and will remain in that position on a part-time basis until a replacement can be found.

In her new location in Detroit proper, she plans to launch the Rosh Chodesh Women Society, which will offer a monthly “women's only” gathering with activities such as cooking and baking classes, as well as lectures and discussions geared towards Jewish women and themed around upcoming Jewish holidays.

“We would also like to become full members of the Midtown community, getting involved in local events and activities," she says. “We are planning to start a community garden this spring, and invite our neighbors to join us and be part of the greening of Brush Park.”

‘Great Energy in the Room’

On Tu B’Shevat, Jan. 16, the Pinsons held an Open House—on the same night as a sudden snowstorm and what turned out to be enormous traffic gridlock from the North American International Auto Show, Detroit’s largest annual event and a consistently impressive one, attended by some 800,000 people. But guests still showed up at Chabad and nibbled on the Seven Species—two grains and five fruits grown and celebrated in Israel.

That night, Rabbi Pinson affixed a new, oversized mezuzah on the front door.

“We opened a Chabad House and on Day One, we had 100 people come in bad weather,” he says. “There was great energy in the room; there were people from different backgrounds who showed a passion and an ambition to do something in Detroit. Now everyone wants to know: What’s next?”

Some have already addressed that question. Justin Jacobs, who returned home to Detroit nearly 10 years ago after graduating from DePaul University in Chicago, lamented the fact that so little existed for young adults outside of work and the occasional trip to the gym. He himself was bored.

“I decided to do something about it, so that I could stay here,” he says. What he did was announce on his Facebook page the creation of a men’s basketball league for his friends, 95 percent of whom were Jewish; 100 people immediately signed up. It became such a success that he followed it by creating a kickball league for women.

Attending the first Thursday-night class in the new Chabad House are, from left, Rebecca Hurvitz, Jane Gazman, Erik Wodowski and Ryan Hertz.
Attending the first Thursday-night class in the new Chabad House are, from left, Rebecca Hurvitz, Jane Gazman, Erik Wodowski and Ryan Hertz.

One thing led to another and now his company—Come Play Detroit—runs 12 different sports over four seasons. Its web page describes it as “Detroit’s largest provider of recreational sports leagues for adults,” with a fitness studio located downtown.

Jacobs, 31, met Pinson in West Bloomfield, where his younger sister volunteered with the Friendship Circle. He says the rabbi “relates to people directly and makes them feel comfortable. He’s going to be great; he has the personality people want to follow.”

He has been to Shabbat dinners at the Pinson home and wrapped tefillin with him this summer using Google Glass. “I love the sense of community and the feeling that you are part of something special,” he says of Chabad activities.

 Justin Jacobs, who returned home to Detroit nearly 10 years ago after graduating from DePaul University in Chicago, wraps tefillin with Chabad while making the blessing and reading the text of the Shema with Gooogle Glass.
Justin Jacobs, who returned home to Detroit nearly 10 years ago after graduating from DePaul University in Chicago, wraps tefillin with Chabad while making the blessing and reading the text of the Shema with Gooogle Glass.

And he’s confident that Chabad will succeed. “There’s nothing else Jewish in that immediate area. (There is the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, about a mile away on Griswold Street, where it’s been since 1937 and which is also being rejuvenated by young residents.) Like everything else in Detroit, it’s not going to happen overnight,” he says. “But there is a need for it in town. We’re both providing something people want—the social aspect of the Jewish community and the Detroit community.”

His mother, Mindy Krigel, phrases it in stronger language: “I really believe Detroit is coming back. I feel like it’s brewing, percolating. Things are happening.”

She mentions the recent, community-wide Chanukah menorah-lighting, held downtown in front of some 2,000 onlookers—500 more people than last year. It was “huge,” she says.

The West Bloomfield resident comes to the city often because she runs a family pawn shop there. “There are people like me who will definitely go to events [at the new Chabad House]. I’m trying to get others to go, and once they do, they’ll like it.” She thinks that eventually, they will conquer the exaggerated fear of coming into the city.

“Rabbi Pinson is walking the walk and talking the talk,” says the 55-year-old. “I like him. I believe in him. And young people can relate to him; he’s very approachable.”

They are more than relating to him, they are learning from him. The rabbi held his first Thursday-night Kabbalah class about a week after the building’s purchase. Two men and two women gathered around an oval-shaped wooden table on a bitter-cold evening, eyes turned toward Pinson.

Right Time, Right Place

One of them, Ryan Hertz, a metropolitan-area native, has been studying Tanya with the rabbi for about a year-and-a-half. They usually meet at Hertz’s office at the South Oakland Shelter, a homeless service agency he runs.

Ryan Hertz, left, has been studying Tanya with Rabbi Pinson for about a year-and-a-half.
Ryan Hertz, left, has been studying Tanya with Rabbi Pinson for about a year-and-a-half.

Hertz, who graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington with a bachelor’s degree in folklore and holds a master’s degree in social work from Wayne State University, explains: “I fell into my faith through studying other religions. I was exposed to a lot of world traditions, but I never really took a deep dive into my own.

“My experience was hazy, a sort of ‘figure it out for yourself’ kind of thing. Over time, I’ve come to have a deep, deep respect for observant Judaism—something I’ve never been exposed to—and a much better understanding of who I am as a Jew. It’s an ongoing relationship, me and my Judaism.”

One thing he has started doing is wrapping tefillin daily “because that act is meaningful to me and because I understand it.”

The 33-year-old insists that serendipity caused his path to intertwine with Pinson’s: “I’ve been exposed to Chabad in other contexts, but Yisrael is unique. He was the right person in the right place at the right time.”

He means that personally and generally, in terms of Detroit and the younger dynamic that’s being attracted to the city and its potential. In fact, both he and Pinson note that the Midtown occupancy rate is higher than ever, and that right now, people are having trouble finding places to rent in the area.

“Jews have a thirst for spirituality; they’ll look for meaning in the world and find it. People are going to be drawn to them,” Hertz says of the Pinsons. “They are making the leap, and I can’t think of it working out better for them … the location, the timing, everything.”

As for him? What does he think of the development of the new Chabad House? Without a moment’s hesitation, he responds: “It’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened to me in some time.”



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Yaacov Moshe & Esther Moses Baltimore, MD via chabadofparkheights.com February 14, 2014

Great to hear such news from Detroit What we are witnessing is Chabad at its finest doing what Lubavitchers are supposed to do! Yasher koach from Baltimore - to Yisroel and Devorah Leah. Reply

Montreal aunt Montreal,canada February 11, 2014

kol hakavod!!! U bring the Rebbe lots of nachas and US too! Tatslichu in all aspects!! Reply

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