I do believe it is true. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In this time of devisiveness, it is good to know there are many who are coming to the aid of families from Syria who have fled their country because of the brutal civil war.
Here is my cover story on how Jews in Detroit are bringing awareness to the plight of the refugees and helping them settle into their new life.
This gallery contains 7 photos.
As they exchange their vows and listen to the reading of a ketubah, sheltering them above their heads are customized canopies woven together from heirloom wedding gowns, a greatgrandfather’s tallit or even the cloth napkin from the restaurant where the proposal took place. Understanding the significance and holiness of this moment as the beginning of a new marriage and family, today’s couples seek to bring more personalization into the design of their one-of-a-kind chuppot.
It was an honor and a pleasure to interview and feature these often unspoken heroes of our shuls for this cover story in the March 16th issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Next time you go to synagogue for services, don’t forget to thank the custodian for their service.
Longtime non-Jewish staffers help make their synagogues special.
By Stacy Gittleman
They are often the first to open up the building in the morning and the last ones to lock up at night. They work hard to make sure the furnace runs in the winter and the air conditioning is cool — but not too cold — in the summer. Because of them, the floors shine and the carpets are fresh right before the High Holidays and the start of Hebrew school.
Their years connected to a congregation often outlast many Jewish members and even the clergy, making the synagogue or temple custodian not only the caretaker of our holy Jewish spaces, but a congregation’s unofficial historian.
Many of Detroit’s synagogues and temples owe much gratitude to the dedication of their custodians, who take much joy in watching Jewish preschoolers grow into young men and women and return to synagogue with their own children. When they fall ill, they receive visits from congregation members and congregational clergy. For that, they say, working as a synagogue custodian is like being part of a big extended family.
Murphy Ealy, 67, of Oak Park, worked in a scrap metal recycling facility when, in 1999, he got a call from an employment agency about a custodial position at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. His work at the recycling yard was “grimy.” Ealy loves to clean, so he said he was “strongly encouraged” to take on the new opportunity.
Seventeen years later, he still loves his job of preparing the building for services, meals and other programs throughout the Jewish calendar cycle.
“The favorite part of my job is welcoming in the congregants when they come for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Ealy said. “I watch the kids grow older every year, and a lot I’ve known since they were preschoolers are now coming back married with their own kids. I have both celebrated and at times mourned together with the families here.”
Ealy arrives at Beth Ahm most days at 5:30 a.m. to open up the building for minyan. He then spends the rest of the morning cleaning and setting up for the week’s programs or services until his shift ends at noon. Many times, he will return to the building for evening functions and is especially instrumental during special occasions such as building the sukkah and helping the congregation’s sisterhood during its annual rummage sale.
As Ealy polished the brass railings of the bimah in the sanctuary on a recent morning, he considered the holiness of his work.
“For six days, I spend most of my time in a Jewish house of worship,” he said. “There is certainly something special about doing my work inside a synagogue. When I’m in here and it is peaceful and quiet, I feel safe.”
As keeper of the synagogue’s keys, a custodian is also on call for various emergency circumstances, like responding to an emergency alarm or a power outage. But it is not often that a custodian is called upon to determine the results of a local election.
Beth Ahm serves as a polling location for Precincts 9 and 10 in Oakland County. One election night, Ealy returned home after work only to receive an urgent phone call from a local government official. The polling workers left the voting sheets in the locked synagogue, and they could not call the election until Ealy opened the building to count the votes.
“He is a one-man show who knows us all and knows the inner workings and routine of our congregation and can anticipate what needs to be done without even asking,” said Beth Ahm Executive Director David Goodman. “He is here for us all and is an integral part of our success.”
‘As Important As The Rabbi’
On the other side of town, Beth Shalom of Oak Park loves to brag about its “one-man maintenance team,” Vasile Havrisciuc.
Vasile Havrisciuc, maintenance manager, spruces up the Beth Shalom sign.
For 11 years, Romanian-born Havrisciuc has worked as the synagogue’s maintenance manager. He has a background in electrical, plumbing and HVAC skills and is “constantly finding ways to save the synagogue money,” according to building committee chair Allen Wolf of Bloomfield Township.
Non-Jewish custodians of synagogues take on unique job responsibilities such as learning about Jewish laws and observances surrounding Shabbat, kashrut and other customs.
According to Wolf, Havrisciuc is a devout Catholic who knows more about Judaism than most Jews do.
“When Pesach comes around, no one needs to tell Vasile how to kasher the kitchen,” he said. “When the High Holidays approach, he knows how to re-arrange the shul and pull out the appropriate machzorim. On Shabbat, he knows we can’t turn on ovens or lights, so he makes sure these things are handled.
“Congregation Beth Shalom is a very heimishe [down-to-earth] shul and Vasile is an important part of that. He is as important to the success of Beth Shalom as the rabbi, the cantor or the office staff.”
An ‘Honorary Jew’
Charles Criss, 57, of Detroit, has worked for Temple Emanu-El for 34 years. From those decades of experience comes the knack for anticipating the needs of the synagogue’s day-to-day operations, according to Executive Director Fredrick Frank. Criss said he has become an expert on the temple’s roof, forecasting where leaks may spring up and advising contractors during roof renovations.
He knows the congregants just about as well as he knows the building. Like his counterparts working in other synagogues, he echoes that the best part of his job is watching the kids grow up over the years and coming back to temple with their own children.
Charles Criss keeps Temple Emanu-El is in top shape.
Rabbi Emeritus Joseph Klein would play an “informal” game with Criss each week, and each week, Criss would beat him at it.
“A day before a special event or program, I would remind Criss of what I needed set up,” Klein said. “No matter what, he would be way ahead of me and with a smile he would say, ‘Already done.’”
Though he cannot attend services at church as much as he would like — as the week’s busiest day is Sunday when Hebrew school is in session — over the years he said he received much “spiritual guidance” from the clergy and others at Temple Emanu-El.
“I have had the opportunity to be spiritually uplifted when I sit back and listen to the services, and I have been honored with the duty of serving as a pallbearer at funerals of congregants. Because of this, Rabbi Klein described me as an ‘honorary Jew.’”
A Spiritual Feeling
Marvin Brown of Southfield worked in the landscaping business when he got a call from Alan Yost, executive director of Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills, about a custodial position the day before Christmas Eve in 1984.
After working for 33 years in a Jewish environment, words and phrases like shalosh seudos and mezuzah easily roll off his tongue. A cook at heart, a favorite part of Brown’s job is preparing meals, especially breakfast for morning minyan.
Over his years at Adat Shalom, Brown said he has prepared the building for “thousands” of weddings and bar mitzvahs. During one bar mitzvah party, the synagogue lost power. Brown stepped in and saved the evening by walking back and forth to get diesel fuel at the Shell gas station on Northwestern Highway every hour or so to keep the backup generator running.
Marvin Brown is a cook at heart and loves preparing minyan breakfast at Adat Shalom.
When Brown started his job, he did not know much about Judaism and the rules of keeping kosher. He didn’t realize that bringing in outside food — including ribs from his favorite barbecue place in Detroit — is completely forbidden. But now, as the primary food shopper for the synagogue, he knows how to select food with the correct kosher certifications and how to cook without mixing up the meat and dairy utensils in the synagogue’s kosher kitchen.
Brown said he gets a decent amount of vacation time, including Christmas and Easter. And when Brown needed hospitalization in 2005, the nurses on his floor asked him if he was Jewish because of all the Jewish clergy who continually paid him visits.
Brown was raised in a Baptist church. Though he says he does not get to church formally, he says the rabbis over the years like the late Rabbi Efry Spectre and the late Cantor Larry Vieder taught him that he can also “have church” right in the synagogue.
“I grew up listening to gospel choirs,” Brown said. “Though I don’t understand the Hebrew, when they really get to singing around here [during services], it sounds very nice.”
Some synagogues are bigger than others and require a crew of maintenance staff to keep the building running. With 15,000 square feet of space and the ability to host 1,500 worshipers, Congregation Shaarey Zedek is one of the largest in the Detroit Metro area. The custodial staff, headed by Keith Armbruster, facilities director, keeps busy throughout the year by not only preparing the building on Shabbat and for special occasions, but also for large community functions that can host hundreds of people at a time.
Keith Armbruster at Shaarey Zedek
Armbruster, 60, of Livonia just celebrated his 40th anniversary last October working at CSZ. He says the unique architecture of the synagogue poses certain challenges, such as using a catwalk 100 feet above the sanctuary to change the lightbulbs and carefully maintaining the one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures, woodwork and custom-made large wooden doors that adorn the building. Thankfully, he said, the soaring stained glass windows do not need cleaning.
“It is a challenge getting up to that catwalk,” Armbruster said. “It is like climbing a mountain to get up there.”
Over the years, he has most enjoyed meeting the many interesting and prominent members of the Detroit community who have been members of CSZ. A good day for him means receiving good feedback when a special occasion or function goes off without a hitch. Most of all, he has enjoyed learning about Jewish traditions and takes pride of the knowledge he has gained over the decades.
“In my social circles, I am kind of like the rabbi to all my non-Jewish friends,” Armbruster said. “When someone has a question about something Jewish, they always come to me.”
At Beth El Shabbaton, Joey Weisenberg will empower guests to unlock their musical and spiritual potential.
(originally published in the Detroit Jewish News)
To harness the community-building power of singing, Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Township welcomes the young and the young at heart to lend voices both harmonious and imperfect to a Shabbaton featuring renowned musician Joey Weisenberg. The uplifting event will be Feb. 26-27 at the Bethel Community Transformation Center (BCTC), 8801 Woodward Ave., the former home of Temple Beth El in Detroit.
Weisenberg, 34, the creative director of the New York-based Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music and author of Building Singing Communities, will introduce melodies and methods of singing that blend Old World Chassidic niggunim with old-time American flair.
Working in the context of Renewal Judaism, Weisenberg has worked for the past decade to empower communities around the world to unlock their musical and spiritual potential, and to make music a lasting and joy-filled force in shul and in Jewish life. Now residing in Philadelphia with his wife and four young children, Weisenberg grew up in Milwaukee in a family with Midwestern roots that trace back to before the Civil War.
His parents were both trained musicians, and he grew up listening to classical piano from his mother as well as classical flamenco guitar from his father. Raised in a multi-generational traditional Jewish home, he remembers going to Shabbat services with his grandfather in nine different synagogues that spanned the spectrum of Jewish observance.
“My grandfather taught me there is something to be taken and learned from every denomination of Judaism,” said Weisenberg, who ditched a pre-med program at Columbia University to pursue the life of a professional musician, composer and teacher. “Above all, people connect to music because it does not speak in dogma but instead speaks in the language of the soul. [Singing] is the way we all become a collective heart, and we all become strings of David’s Harp in harmony.”
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
Weisenberg’s musical career started with playing guitar as a studio recording session artist and then touring the country and parts of the globe with musicians playing Brazilian samba, American blues and Klezmer.
After a while, he wanted to see what would happen if he moved the singing and playing music offstage to be where the people are, and to bring the audience into joining in with song. As he travels around the country teaching Jewish communities how to energize prayer through singing, including pockets of Jews in Alaska, Weisenberg wants to dislodge the notion that music and singing is just for kids.
“Some of the best teachers I have learned music with are two and three generations older than me,” Weisenberg said.
Rachel Rudman, 28, Temple Beth El program director, says the Shabbaton, the first of its kind in Detroit, is a way to “create bridges between suburban synagogues and younger, urban Jews.”
She said hosting the Shabbaton in the historic Beth El building enables TBE to reach out to millennial Jews seeking a neutral space to practice a highly spirited form of Jewish prayer. Weisenberg can deliver just the thing, she said.
“I have had several opportunities in my life to learn from and sing with Joey,” said Rudman, who recently returned to her native Detroit in 2014 after living in New York.
“When services are conducted in a tight circle and everyone is looking at each other and investing their voice in the prayer, you feel the energy coming from the people next to you. It really becomes a spiritual experience.”
The Shabbaton will begin with Kabbalat Shabbat services at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and finish with Havdalah, plus an extended song session on Saturday evening. Participants are welcome to bring sleeping bags and air mattresses to spend the evening. Services on Friday and Saturday will be a cappella style, but Havdalah and beyond will include drumming and strumming of guitars so participants are welcome to bring their instruments as well as their voices.
Cost is $36 for the entire Shabbaton or $20 per day and includes homecooked vegan meals and lodging at BCTC. For more information, contact Rachel Rudman at rrudman@tbeonline. org or (248) 325-9706. *
This winter, the headlines have been filled with two bleak stories coming out of Michigan: The Flint water crisis and the crisis in Detroit Public Schools.
At the center of both stories, the ones hurt the most are kids. Our kids.
In the sick-outs of Detroit, teachers have rightly refused to teach in buildings with overcrowded classrooms, schools that have no heat, or mold, or infested with rodents. They are doing this not for selfishness but they believe that their students deserve better.
This winter, Michigan made international news because of Flint. There is now confirmation that state workers purchased gallon after gallon of purified water to drink iin their offices as recently as January 2015 as they assured Flint residents that the water coming out of their own tap was safe to drink. It is a pretty safe bet that every child in Flint will have some degree of lead poisoning – poisoining that will forever alter their ability to learn and develop normally.
These two stories scream out injustice towards the poorest and powerless population in our state: black kids and their families.
Is it any wonder that we then hear the cries of injustice and the charges of systematic environmental racism? It is hard to turn a blind eye or ear to injustices put upon our children.
You may say: “Wait a minute, not my kid. Those are someone else’s kids. We live somewhere with great schools and wouldn’t you know it, but we can actually drink and brush our teeth and bathe with the water coming out of our tap.”
But these kids indeed are our kids. They live right up the road in the same state.
This year, my suburban kid is getting ready for his Bar Mitzvah. His Torah reading has one of the most significant lines in the whole Torah: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice you shall pursue.
Justice. So important it had to be said not once but twice. How do you pursue it? How can one person, one kid, living in a nice suburban cul de sac world, face down injustices that have gone on for decades? What can really one person do?
Sitting pretty here in suburban Detroit, it is pretty easy get comfortable in our isolation, our separateness or “otherness” from those living in our urban cores. I have come to know something after living in the Detroit ‘burbs for almost three years: the disconnect between urban and suburban, between the haves and have nots is palpable.
Sitting pretty here in suburbia can make one feel powerless to turn the injustices around. And downright angry. But sitting around will do nothing. We may not be able to solve everything, but we have to contribute and try something.
There are bridges we can build, and one, in fact, is built right in with PeerCorps Detroit. PeerCorps is a year-long mentorship program inviting Jewish teens, b’nai mitzvah students and their families from all denominations to build deep relationships with one another and perform community-based work in Detroit.
Last year, my son participated in one Track of Peer Corps’ community building work in Detroit. Every other week, he would trek with a van full of other middle schoolers and their high-school aged mentors to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit. There, he helped out with the younger kids in after-school care, played with them, read to them and most of all, got to know different kids in a different part of the city and to realize they all like to do the same things together.
This year, as he studies for his Bar Mitzvah reading which concentrates on pursuing justice, he will be tutoring elementary-age kids with Mission:City.
These are just two areas in where Peer Corps is building bridges into Detroit and doing what we can to let people living in the city know that someone cares and, however seemingly small a step we are making, we are trying to make it a step in the right direction.
To learn more about Peer Corps, come to Gesher Day at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Sunday, Feb. 28 to find out here how you and your middle-schooler can be a bridge between urban and suburban Detroit.
Sitting on the Floor. Thinking about Jerusalem’s ashes of yesterday and tomorrow. But please not tomorrow.
Today is Tisha B’Av. I am well into my fast.
Now is the time of the day when the stomach really starts to grumble. Mornings of a fast are okay. That is the time when the faster says to themselves: What is eating anyway? Eating is more habitual than anything. I even made it to my garden to do some work this morning.
I am not observing an absolute fast this Tisha B’Av – literally meaning, the ninth of the month of Av. I’ve been drinking water and coffee throughout the day. But still, now that late afternoon is here, the hunger is sinking in. But I will dig in deeper. Mentally, I have not taken a fast from thinking deeply, and my troubled thoughts I allow to linger on this day, the saddest of the entire Jewish calendar.
Last year’s memories of Gaza’s war with Israel linger. Last week’s agreement with Iran, and what disasters it could hold for the future of not just Israel but the whole world, weigh heavily on my mind. As it should with yours, dear reader, however or wherever this lovely summer day finds you.
The outsider must see observers of this fast day pretty much as religious fanatics out of their mind.
Are you the average outsider? I’ll test out my theory. Check it out; Here is the crux of this day and the reason why some Jews fast and mourn today:
Over two thousand years ago, we the Jews had the Great Temple in Jerusalem.
On this day, a bit over two thousand years ago, on this very same day a few hundred years before that, not one but BOTH Great Temples were destroyed. One built by King Solomon, then another one five centuries later, built by King Herod . Both destroyed. The city of Jerusalem ransacked, on the same day.
Lots of other bad stuff happened to Jews on or around this day.
Through the centuries, some of our greatest leaders were killed in and around this date.
Through the centures Jews were expelled, from Jerusalem, from England, France and Spain, in and around on this date.
Because of that, that is why we fast. And in the days leading up to the fast, we don’t have fun in pools. Or chow down on burgers at barbecues. At the height of the summer.
So now is your turn to respond: You are in mourning in 2015, in modern times, for the destruction of a building? And the destruction happened
HOW many years ago? But that was then and this is now. That has NOTHING to do with today. Seriously, get over it!
My I am getting dizzy now.
I’m a religious nut, right? You’re thinking this. But the older I get, the more the messages of Tisha B’Av have to do with today.
In all honesty, I didn’t even know about Tisha B’av when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island. It was a summer holiday, and let’s just say that with an afternoon congregational Hebrew school education, it is safe to say that any Jewish commemoration that takes place in the summer is glossed over. Even not taught.
I only learned about it from friends who went to Jewish summer camp. So when my own kids went to summer camp, I decided to observe Tisha B’av.
You start the fast at synagogue sitting on the floor. Mourning brings you mentally to a lower, less comfortable place and you want to match this mood physically. So you sit on the floor.
It is customary for the sanctuary lights to dim. Some bring flashlights or light candles to follow along in their prayer books.
Then, in a mournful melody, a leader or a group of leaders chant the entire book of Lamentations. Eicha in Hebrew.
The imagery in Lamentations is so very sad and graphic. There is no comfort. Gd has abandoned His Chosen People to be starved, stoned, burned, raped and humiliated by our worst enemies. There is no one to comfort them and no one to answer Jerusalem’s cries.
There are mothers sitting in the ashes of what were once the glorious golden-paved streets of Jerusalem. The passage of babies suckling the empty breasts of their starving mothers always gets to me. I can hear the cries of the starving in the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem as the Romans attempted to starve them out from behind the walls. You can smell the burning and feel the heat.
“The tongue of the suckling cleaves to its palate for thirst. Little children beg for bread. None gives them a morsel.”
Fast forward a few centuries. Are the images that the author of Lamentations paints in the reader’s head any different or remote than those from the ghettos of Rome? Prague? Warsaw?
The foes set upon our sanctuaries…Our steps were checked. We could not walk in our squares.
Is it any different now? As Jews are afraid to openly show their Jewish identity and safely walk in the streets In Paris? In Brooklyn? Even Jerusalem?
And the hardest lesson to swallow from the book of Ecclesiastes, is that the Jews of Jerusalem had no one but themselves to blame for their destruction. Gd turned His face from the because of their baseless hatred and pettiness towards one another. We were punished because, according to the author, we showed no regard for priests (we had priests, not rabbis during the time of the Temple) and no respect for tradition or our elders.
And how is this different now? In an age where commitment to Jewish education falls to the bottom of priorities, upstaged by everything else from soccer to scouting? Where learning about Jewish history has been scrapped for a bare-bones Jewish education that leaves nothing more than some tutoring lessons to learn how to pronounce some transliterated gibberish for a kid’s big day on the bimah?
I am hungry now. But the hunger has not made me melodramatic. I’m speaking from true experience here. And this is going widely unreported, why I don’t understand. Are we afraid to admit that in our comfortable complacency we are failing to transmit to the next generation their rich heritage?
Ask your typical Jewish kid if they can name one Jewish leader from modern times or ancient times. Ask if they know what countries border Israel, Ask them what Hebrew letters spell basic words like Shalom, Shabbat, and even Moses, and you might get a lot of blank stares.
Will these same kids, once they get off the bimah and for the most part, exit their Jewish education and find themselves in college five years, will they know how to answer in college to cries that Israel is a pariah of a nation, an apartheid state? Who will teach them their heritage and history then?
“The mouthings and pratings of my adversaries…Our pursuers were swifter than the eagles in the sky.”
And now, we are faced with Iran becoming legitimized as a playing power, as a nuclear entity, in the eyes of the world. You don’t have to read every page of this deal to know this deal is a bad one. Will the world wake up in time?
“Our doom is near our days are done – Alas our doom has come.”
The way I see it, those words could have easily been written today.
Last night I had a dream.
Now, I know that sounds cliché, especially on a morning such as this where the world is waking up to the horrible event in Charleston, S.C.
It has been a long time since I have posted on anything outside my feature stories. But sometimes you have a dream so vivid which juxtaposes the events of reality so much I just had to write it down so I would not forget.
I was going to investigate some old house in Detroit that was said to have been part of the underground railroad.
It was a huge old tutor styled home with a wall around it, a circular driveway with ivy-covered landscape.
I knocked on the door and a very tall slender black woman in her 50s opened it to greet me. She had a dark purple dress on with flowers on it, very old-fashioned, as a dress taken from the 1940’s. Her hair was in corn rows and then coiled into a neat bun. She wore wired spectacles. She welcomed me in with a warm smile.
I told her I wanted to learn about this house’s history with the Underground Railroad.
She said she would give me a tour of the house, but first, invited me in for Shabbat lunch.
Told you this was a strange dream.
The house was a series of elaborately decorated rooms, all in the Victorian style. Think flowered wallpaper and intricately carved crown molding along the ceiling.
Each room was filled with people, black and white, seated around huge dining tables eating cholent (a thick stew served on Saturday afternoons) served in large silver tureens and studying Hebrew.
It was not clear if all those there were all Jewish, but they were all studying, singing, laughing and eating in complete harmony.
After a while, I approached the woman to tour the house again.
She led me up a broad staircase, and then a narrow one up to the attic.
We climbed up another ladder, and there, in a loft, were bunk beds where slaves would hide for a few nights or days on their journey to freedom to Canada. It was quite hot and the air stuffy in the attic and I imagined those who hid in that attic and how uncomfortable they must have been, hiding for their lives on their way to freedom.
I woke up this morning only to learn that a white man shot and killed nine worshippers at the Emanuel A.M.E. church, a church described by the Washington Post as a “site of struggle, resistance and change” for the past two hundred years.
The murderer sat there for an hour among his victims before he opened fire. What was going through his head in that hour? How could he not have a change of heart as he sat and listened to people studying the Bible?
An all-volunteer Salsa Dance group is heating up the salsa dance scene in Detroit. I am not exactly all left feet (you can actually see my left foot in one of the photos below taken by the very talented Jerry Zolynsky), but gave it a try one freezing February night. Here is what I found out for my cover story from the March 26 issue of the Detroit Jewish News.
Feel The Beat
Jewish dancers join the crowd for weekly salsa dance parties
by Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky
The temperatures outside the American Legion hall in Farmington, where YA Salsa holds its monthly socials, plummeted into the single digits on a Sunday evening this past winter. But with the dance floor heating up with more than 200 dancers, no one inside seemed to mind that a door had been propped open to let in the chill. On the last Sunday of each month, salsa enthusiasts gather for a dance social organized by YA Salsa, an allvolunteer organization dedicated to the growth of this dance style in Detroit. Within its circles is a dedicated group of Jews who love Latin dancing. They have found a great sense of camaraderie and exercise in the years they have danced and are always welcoming beginners to try it. To widen the appeal to the Jewish community, YA Salsa will host free workshops led by international salsadancing stars to JCC members March 27-28 at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield before its next social in Farmington. For more information go to www.yasalsa.org. Evening Of Fun YA Salsa socials start with beginner and intermediate lessons.
In the center of a circle of rotating beginner couples, “Mambo” Marci Iwrey, 52, of Novi capably leads the beginners though basic steps and how to work with a partner, when to hold hands and when to let go. A dancer all her life, she fell in love with the rhythms of Latin music around 15 years ago. Private and group lessons in studios around town eventually led her to salsa dance floors and workshops around the world. Now a longtime professional and volunteer teacher of salsa dancing, she defies anyone who hears this infectious music to sit still.
“We are all here to dance,” she instructs. “Don’t be shy to introduce yourself to someone else and say you are a beginner as the evening goes on.” On the other side of the room, more advanced dancers, who seem to be more attached to the partners with whom they arrived, review dips and more complex dance combinations.
“The volunteers work very hard to put on these socials,” said Iwrey, who, when not dancing, works at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield as b’nai mitzvah coordinator. “We are all bonded here for the love of what we do, to bring the joy of dance no matter your race, religion or age.”
After an hour of instruction, the floor opens up for three hours of dancing. Some beginners hang around the sides watching the eclectic gathering of dancers while others brave it out and look for a dance partner.
Sherry Kraft, 34, of Southfield has a background in swing and ballroom dancing. She enjoys the social and less-formal aspects of salsa dancing compared to ballroom and started taking lessons in 2006. “When I started out, I had no idea there was such a large salsa community here in Detroit,” says Kraft, a photographer-turned ultrasound technologist from Southfield who says she enjoys meeting people of all backgrounds who have come together to dance and socialize.
Jeff Abrams describes himself as an “advanced beginner.” The 37-year-old computer technician said he has been attending salsa socials for two years now. “Dancing helps me relax from the stresses of everyday life,” Abrams says as he takes a break between dancing partners. “I love connecting with people through the nonverbal medium of music.” Abrams admits it does take some time to gain experience and confidence in this type of dancing, especially when you are the man.
“The pressure can be on because you are always thinking of what steps you want to try to lead next instead of just relaxing and enjoying the music.” Still, Abrams would rather be dancing over any other kinds of exercise because of its social aspects. “When you dance, you can forget everything else that is going on in your life,” Abrams says. “When I get home, my mind is clearer.”
It is hard to believe that it has been almost three years since I was in the shoes of this young couple, looking for a house in the Detroit area. Of course, our house hunt, and our whole relocation, was unplanned. And I never would have dreamed of inviting the camera crew of House Hunters along, but this brave couple did! The real estate market is heating up as fast as the weather here in the Motor City. Here is my story that was published in the Arts & Leisure section of the Detroit Jewish News last week.
Jeff and Michelle Bortnick were quickly outgrowing their Northville condominium.
For the first years of their marriage, Jeff ‘s former bachelor pad suited the couple nicely, and it was walkable to many of the town’s trendy amenities. But now they were a family with a toddler taking her first steps and needed a home with a backyard in a neighborhood with other kids.
Michelle, who grew up in West Bloomfield and is a teacher at Hillel Day School, wanted to move closer into the nexus of the Metro Detroit area’s Jewish community. So the couple narrowed their focus to neighborhoods in Huntington Woods, Berkley and Royal Oak.
Because Michelle grew up watching her father and grandfather constantly tackling projects around the house, Michelle had her heart set on an older home that she could customize with a bit of TLC.
“I love older homes,” says Michelle, 30. “I love the wood floors, the character and the charm. I’m not scared of taking on a fixer-upper.”
“I love new,” says husband, Jeff. As a co-founder of New Home Experts Realty, a realtor for buyers of new construction homes, Jeff and his partner, Louis Bitove, know their way around an architectural blueprint.
“You can still have charm in a new house,” Jeff adds.
Curious to know what they chose? Tune in to HGTV on March 18, when the couple’s home-buying experience will be featured in an episode of reality- TV show House Hunters.
A guy who didn’t even like being in front of the camera at his own wedding, Jeff was cajoled by Michelle and Bitove into sending in an audition video to House Hunters.
“We made a video of us showing off my expertise in new-home construction — plus our personalities” says Jeff.
“There was some friendly squabbling to show off our differing opinions and tastes in what we want in a home,” says Jeff.
“Lou was also included to be my ally in trying to convince Michelle that she wanted a newer home.
Within days, I couldn’t believe it, but they called us back to tell us they were sending out a filming crew from L.A.”
Jeff says he appreciated his business partner tagging along forthe filming.
“Lou was the voice of reason,” says Jeff. “He kept asking Michelle if she was worried about mold in older homes, and wouldn’t she like a shiny new home much more?”Michelle said that bringing a camera crew along for three weeks last August while looking at homes was not always, “but mostly a lot of fun.
“They took a lot of time adjusting their equipment to get just the right kind of light, but the crew was a lot of fun and they kept us laughing.”
Although the timing coincided with one of the worst floods in the area’s history, “the flood did not become part of the episode,” says Jeff. “To stay true to the feel of House Hunters, where sometimes you don’t even know what city or town a show is shot in, the focus is always on the characteristics and qualities of the property.”
With experience working for new-home builders, including the Toll Brothers and Centex Homes, Jeff can look past a bad paint color to determine a home’s worth and livability.
“I think we were chosen to be on the show because I can look at a home’s structure. If I don’t like a layout, I [know which walls] could come down [to create] a more open plan.”
Michelle’s favorite part of the experience was the fact that the camera crew filmed her daughter’s earliest forays in walking.
“We now have this time capsule of our daughter walking with a big smile through our empty new home.” Jeff and Michelle Bortnick’s episode of House Hunters debuts 10 p.m.
Wednesday, March 18 on HGTV. Visit hgtv.com for a complete schedule of additional airings.
“Hold this.” He whispered, shoving a clump of black curtain into my hand.
“When Frumma Sarah finishes singing, open the curtain from here very quickly so we can wheel her backstage,” the man in black ordered. “This will be your job at every performance.”
And just like that, I had my first job in community theater. While my son was doing his thing onstage being a shtetl boy, I had my part backstage helping Fume Sarah get offstage. And I did my job proudly, all the while pantomiming Frumma Sarah’s motions and words, with another stagehand who I had not met until that final tech dress rehearsal, every night I was not in the audience watching my son with pride.
I was a suburban mom. This other stagehand was a young woman at most in her 20’s. We had never met before that night, but though “The Dream,” we had an instant connection. And at that moment, I realized: I am not a soccer mom. I am a stage mom!
That was last year, the year my son came home buzzing about how he wanted to audition for Fiddler on The Roof with a local community theater group. He heard about it from a poster hung up at his new school. I drove him to every rehearsal and instead of dropping off and running home or going for coffee, I hung around.
This year, I was asked to serve on the board, and perform on stage, as a member of a long-standing mainly volunteer community theater group in the Detroit Metro Area.
As a transplant, getting involved in community theater has proven the best way for me to plug into a community. Now that the curtain has closed on our most recent production, here is a few things community theater has taught this newbie:
You cannot produce any old show you want – Planning to produce a show in community begins nearly a year before opening curtain. Music Theater International has strict licensing guidelines and a catalog of shows available for community theater production that is regularly updated. Nothing running on Broadway, or that is a Broadway national tour, can be produced. And licensing rights for some musicals, especially the Disney genre, are extremely costly. Being that our company is geared to be a family, multi-generational theater company also restricts our choices. Hair and R.E.N.T. are definitely no-nos.
Everyone counts: To the untrained eye, a theatergoer might think that the female lead with the canary-like voice or the dancer with the highest kicks or the tenor with the sweetest crooning is the most important facet of a musical theater production. But the ones you see on the stage, we are just mere puppets. It is everyone else: the sound engineer who follows the script line by line during every performance, whose fingers fly across the soundboard making sure your mike is hot only when it needs to be, the stage manager and their fearless tech crew who wheel stage sets around 180 degrees or pull the grand curtain open and shut within seconds, they are the backbone of any good production. As is the props master, whom months before opening curtain thought of every detail, and where it needs to be when not on stage, who matters. As is the costumer who hunts around at thrift stores and begs borrows and steals if she has to just the right costume from other community theater groups, who is up late at night sewing and resewing hemlines and taking in trousers, that’s who matters in a show. Not to mention (and OF COURSE they need mention!) the multi-piece orchestra that plays at your feet from the pit, whose musicians will even throw in their own laughter if a joke onstage falls flat. I don’t understand why they can’t join us on stage for a bow each night.
You gain an insane appreciation for people who actually want to do musical theater for a living – As much as I loved being in a performance, towards closing night I was wiped. How do people do this and keep it fresh, some for 3,000 performances in a row? Maybe it is because most of our company is slightly older than professional Broadway stars. But Broadway stars, for eight performances a week, have to give it all to their audience, even when they may not have it all that night. Even if they are under the weather. Or had a fight with their boyfriend. One night, while driving to rehearsal, I heard Seth Rudetsky on the XM Broadway Channel interview an actor who passed a KIDNEY STONE on stage while he played Horton in Seussical the Musical. After all, the show must go on, and the paying audience does not care if you are passing a kidney stone. When you need to be on stage, you must be on stage. Even if you have to pass a kidney stone. Or even pee. Yes, perhaps of all the things I learned about being on stage is that performers do not get to use the bathroom any old zany time they want to. For thousands of performances. Yet, they have to keep themselves hydrated? How is that all supposed to even out?
Hair and Makeup – This again speaks to the immense appreciation I have gained for professional actors, because this business is way too high maintenance for me, an otherwise hermit-like writer, when it comes to tending to hair and makeup prep that is worthy of the stage. To get myself ready for performances, I spent hours watching Youtube videos on how to create the perfect Gibson Girl updo from the Edwardian era. I found videos on proper contouring and learned how to apply blush not to my cheekbones but underneath. The first time I tried to apply my makeup, I looked more like a Geisha girl than someone who lived in River City, Iowa, but thanks to our volunteer makeup artist, a woman in her 40s who is also a national champion figure skater (!!), I got it looking just right.
Community Theater is not high school theater – You know where my favorite place in the theater is? Not on stage, under those hot bright lights, but deep backstage. Where the darkness is lit only by a string of lights. Where the smell of sawed wood and paint lingers in the air. Where you can find random things like an old stove or a stripped down Chevy Convertible from shows past. Graffiti that says things like “Best Cast Ever Guys and Dolls ’86” Because if only for a second, I can pretend I am backstage in my own high school. But this is not high school theater, even if this may have been the high school of others for many decades. It wasn’t mine. And as a transplant, few, if any of the audience members knew me, let alone knew me from high school. I also got that lonely transplanted feeling after performances, watching my fellow cast mates surrounded by adoring family and friends, awkwardly balancing bunches of flower and candy in their arms while they posed for a picture. When you are a transplant, this post-performance shower of adoration can feel a bit thin.
But this post is not about being a transplant. It is about showbiz! So let’s move on:
Breath Support, Personal amplifier – Just as a choreographer tells a dancer how to move their body, a great vocal director will tell you how to move your lips, teeth, tongue in such a way that you would believe that you never knew how to move your lips, teeth, tongue and even the roof of your mouth (did you know you can move the ROOF of your mouth?) before he taught you. Every note has choreography and a dynamic, and a good musical director will get this out of you if he has to beat it out of you to make sure you are sounding like a well-supported ensemble, a chorus capable of producing that building wall of sound. You might think that singing in the shower or singing in your car is singing, until you have taken actual formal instruction from a musical director. There really is a difference.
Community Theater truly is a community– My son discovered something that I learned this year. Yes, the cast and crew become like family. After all, in the intensive weeks leading up to opening curtain, you will see them more than your actual family. They are there for you – totally there – to celebrate your birthday, to say a community prayer of healing if you have a loved one in the hospital, to root for you if you are waiting on that job offer after months of unemployment. They are there for you to change you out of one costume and into another in under 90 seconds. Or loan you a favorite antique hatpin to keep your hat from flopping over your face, because, really, who owns hat pins in this century? They are there for you to hold your hand and wipe away a tear when it all becomes too overwhelming. And, if your cast is lucky enough to contain some medical professionals, they will do what they have to do to keep you healthy for those crucial last rehearsals leading up to opening night. Believe me. A month after closing curtain, and I am going through deep withdrawal missing my theater family. I cannot wait to do it all again next year!