As Jews, we’ve seen this before.
We have been singled out. Persecuted. At the threshold of sanctuary, we have been sent back to the hands of our oppressors only to be murdered.
We have been strangers and therefore are commanded to remember the stranger who sit at our gates.
Only, in Detroit, Iraqi Chaldean nationals are not strangers to us. They are our neighbors whose kids are classmates to our kids. They are the business owners, the cashiers who happily greet us at the check out lines at the supermarket and drug store. Over the decades, the Jewish and Chaldean communities have built bridges with interfaith programs and projects.
It was only natural then that so many in the Jewish community responded to the news that 114 from this community are being detained for possible deportation back to Iraq – a place that is now foreign to these people – with anguish, legal counsel and moral support. We stand with them because we know what happens with silence.
Here is my coverage of the Jewish response to the roundup of our Chaldean neighbors in the June 29 issue of the Detroit Jewish News.
When news broke on June 11 of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) roundup of 114 Iraqi Christian immigrants with fears of deportation, the phones at the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC lit up. Executive Director David Kurzmann said his agency received fearful calls from rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community asking what they could do to help.
“As soon as the arrests happened, we received dozens of phone calls asking how to support our Chaldean neighbors,” Kurzmann said during a phone interview and again reiterated at a June 21 anti-deportation rally held outside the U.S. District Court Clerk’s office in Detroit.
“As Jews, it is very distressing to hear about this,” he said. “We recently commemorated the anniversary of the return of the St. Louis to [Europe], where Jews seeking refuge in this country were turned away and sent back to their deaths. The U.S. risks repeating this same dark mistake. The Jewish community knows the tragic consequences of shutting down pathways to safety for people in harm’s way. We must not let this happen again. ‘Never Again’ is as applicable today as it has ever been.”
On June 21, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith listened to a class-action lawsuit filed by area attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union designed to postpone deportations to Iraq, where Christians have faced brutal persecution, torture and death in recent years because of the rise of ISIS. Goldsmith concluded the detainees would not be deported to Iraq until at least June 28.
Inside and outside the courthouse, and in the days leading up to the filing of the lawsuit, Jews and other ethnic minority groups reached out to the Chaldeans with legal, moral and social support. But until the deportation ruling is appealed or reversed with reopening of individual cases, the fate of the detainees is grim.
Still, leaders in the Chaldean community are holding out hope their loved ones, now being held in a detention center in Youngstown, Ohio, will be released and expressed appreciation for the support of other minority communities.
“There is no community like the Jewish community,” said Martin Manna, Chaldean Chamber of Commerce president. Since the arrests, Manna has received many calls of concern and support. Rabbis have phoned in asking how their congregants can help. The Chamber retained the legal services of former Sen. Carl Levin, now with Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP.
“You would have thought it was his own child in danger of being deported from the way [Levin] responded so quickly,” said Manna, adding that Levin worked with other attorneys and the ACLU to file the lawsuit with the federal court to postpone deportations.
Temple Israel Rabbi Paul Yedwab, one of several local rabbis who reached out to Manna with support, said he cannot understand why the Chaldean population is being targeted.
“Our own government officially recognizes there is a genocide right now being committed against Iraqi Christians, so how can we possibly send them back?” Yedwab asked.
As a congregation, Temple Israel informed members about the situation and encouraged them to attend the June 16 and 21 rallies. Also, “hoards” of congregants are on standby offering to volunteer in any way they can to show their support for the families affected by the arrests.
“While we are coordinating closely with the JCRC/AJC and many of our members have offered up pro bono legal services, there is a bit of a feeling of helplessness. This truly lies in the fate of the legal system,” Yedwab said.
Bradley Maze, a lawyer at George P. Mann and Associates in Farmington Hills, is representing five of the detainees and is hearing from other Chaldeans fearful of being detained in the future. Maze said he is working to file motions of appeal to reopen their individual cases to delay or reverse their order for deportation.
“My clients have served their time for minor crimes they committed decades ago,” Maze said. “They are now completely rehabilitated and contributing members of society with jobs and families. They check in with immigration officers every six months like they are supposed to, some even within the last few weeks. If they are sent back to Iraq, the Iraqi government cannot guarantee their protection as Christians, and my clients fear torture or worse by ISIS.”
Maze noted the irony that many involved in the class-action lawsuit — from Michigan ACLU Executive Director Kary Moss who filed the lawsuit to attorney Margo Schlanger, former civil rights chief in the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration, to Judge Goldsmith — are all Jewish.
“The notion of people being taken from their homes in front of their families and thrown on a bus conjures up scary images for Jews,” said Maze, who has practiced immigration law for a decade, six of those years working as an immigration attorney assisting refugees at Freedom House. “The ethos of helping the refugee is part of the Jewish family legacy. It is Jewish tradition.”
Though the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center did not directly represent any of the 114 Iraqi detainees, Ruby Robinson, MIRC supervising attorney, said his organization provides guidance on court filing procedures and processes to parties filing immigration lawsuits, including the lawsuit filed last Wednesday by the ACLU designed to postpone the deportations.
“All of the detainees entered the U.S. lawfully but committed a crime before they were eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship,” Robinson said. “For 20 or 30 years, they served time for their crimes and have since lived their lives, starting jobs and families and checking in with immigration officers like they were supposed to. Because things have gotten so bad in Iraq, many of them didn’t think anything like this could ever happen. Now, all we can do is assist their attorneys to figure out the best strategy of what can be legally done to postpone deportation.”
While some in the Jewish community offered their legal services, others have offered moral support by attending impromptu rallies, such as the one held outside the court where a diverse crowd stood in solidarity with Chaldean Christians, who waved American flags and bore red crosses expressing their anguish of the thought of their loved ones facing possible persecution if deported to Iraq. They spoke directly on the podium or listened to the distress of family members who fear they will never see their loved ones again.
Iraqi American Deavin Konja of Franklin came to support his uncle Najah Dawood Konja of Clawson, who is being detained even though he won an appeal with a federal court to open his case two days before he was picked up and detained June 11.
“By that Monday morning, we filed for his release; it was ignored completely and has been ignored ever since,” Konja said. “He served time for his crime he committed over 30 years ago. He was one of the few that should have been immediately released because of the federal appeal on his case. We know our attorneys are doing everything possible.”
Lori Lutz of Bloomfield township came to the rally with Detroit Jews for Justice and held up a sign bearing a quote from Exodus about the commandment to “remember the stranger.”
“Today, this is too reminiscent of rounding up groups of people throughout our history and deportation, not letting them stay in a safe place and possibly sending them back to a place of real danger,” Lutz said. “As Jews, we have seen this before and we cannot let it happen again.”
Chaldeans, including several who spoke at the anti-deportation rally, said they campaigned and voted for Trump because of his campaign promises to protect Christians in the Middle East.
Yet the recent sweep of arrests of Iraqi nationals in Michigan is the result of a revised executive order on the initial January executive order banning entry from seven Muslim majority countries into the United States, including Iraq.
After quiet negotiations, the U.S. and Iraq negotiated a new policy that removed Iraq from one of the banned countries and also eliminated the priority of allowing Christians and other religious minorities over Muslims, according to the Washington Post.
U.S. law states that any non-citizen, including legal residents, who commits an “aggravated felony” under U.S. immigration law — a term that includes serious crimes as well as many nonviolent offenses and misdemeanors — is deportable, the Washington Post story stated. An example of a nonviolent crime could be drug trafficking or possession of marijuana. However, for the past several decades, immigration officials and federal judges have been slow to carry out deportations or completely stopped deporting Iraqi nationals because the situation on the ground was deemed too dangerous and the deportees would be put in harm’s way.
The Iraqis who face deportation do not have visas to live in the United States. Many of them lost their green cards because they were convicted of crimes. Because of their past criminal record, they are targeted by President Trump for deportation regardless of their nationality, the Washington Post story said.
Nationwide, there are approximately 1,400 Iraqi nationals in the U.S. who have final orders of removal.
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.
My first short-lived job out of college I worked for a small weekly newspaper in a rural county in New Jersey. So rural that the grounds for the county fair, complete with livestock competitions with pigs and cows, was right out the back door of the newsroom.
That weekend, the staff worked a booth to promote the paper and increase circulation. I was in charge of blowing up helium balloons and handing them out to children who stopped by to visit.
With each child I gave a balloon, parents were sure to ask that child in a prodding manner:
“What do you say?”
It seems the thing you teach your kid to say, that kindest phrase, cannot be said enough in life.
Just saying thank you. Showing gratitude for every experience, some good, some not so good, but recognizing that each moment teaches and shapes you.
In addition to nurturing this practice in our children, for saying thank you for getting material things when they are younger, we hope that as our kids grow into adults, they keep saying it for the intangible things too.
So there I was, out at the Crofoot, a nightclub in Pontiac, Mich., trying to make eye contact with my 17-year-old son as he opened for touring folk-rock bands The Mountain Babies and The Cactus Blossoms, mouthing the words:
WHAT DO YOU SAY?
Now, I am not saying that he did not say thank you to his audience, or to the headlining band. But you just can’t say it enough.
This is the summer that my 17-year old son, soon to be a high school senior, truly hustled to get out his music as a solo guitarist and songwriter. The band that he and his mates tried so hard to get off the ground during sophomore and junior year never took off. There were too many conflicts. Too many SAT prep classes and cross-country meets. Too many mothers filling up weekends with family obligations.
This summer, he did not get a job at Kroger, or Old Navy, or a summer day camp. It was not from a lack of trying.
What he did get were a few paid gigs.
So I just want to say, thank you.
Thank you to the Teen Council of Detroit and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit for fostering creativity through your rap and songwriting workshops, your uncensored teen Open Mike nights.
Thank you to the Farmington Civic Theater for letting my son busk (yes, this is a verb that you learn when you know a starving up and coming musician) on a couple of Friday nights for dollar bills and pocket change, and a free drink and two movie tickets.
Thank you to Goldfish Tea in Royal Oak and all the tea sipping folks there who listened and cheered for my son on open mike nights.
Thank you to The Hopcat who, though he was underage, let my son open up your open mike night a little early at your upstairs bar before he had to get thrown out. And, of course, thank you for Crack Fries.
And all along the way, I am thankful for the friends here, people I did not have in my life only three short years ago since moving to Detroit, who not only have come out to hear him play, but who ask me when he is playing next.
So, my son, I know you are never more comfortable than when you are up on stage playing, but when you are up there, you know what to say, and you cannot say it enough. Plug the band for whom you are opening. Give praise to your audience. You just cannot do it enough.
While I’m at it, I would be humbly thankful if you check out my son’s music here.
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.
With the #Pope visiting the United States, and the Jewish High Holiday season in full swing, I wanted to share with you an article I wrote published in the Detroit Jewish News’ High Holiday edition.
Two days ago, my wonderful congregation spent 26 hours in intensive prayer, fasting and reflection. Prayer is hard work. It does not come easy. That is why I am thankful to those in the community – in my synagogue, and in yours, or maybe in your church, temple or mosque – who volunteer their time to learn how to lead prayer.
Have you ever led a prayer service? If so, how did you learn? Why did you decide to lead? Did it feel different than sitting in the pews? I’d love it if you comment below.
During the Middle Ages, an unknown cantor, humbled at the task of praying on behalf of the entire congregation so that God would inscribe them into the Book of Life, penned the prayer Hineini, meaning “Here I Am.”
Before the invention of the printing press, leaders of tefilot, or Jewish worship, carried the weighty responsibility of keeping an entire congregation engaged and focused.
Fast forward several centuries, and not much has changed. Although the words of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy are widely available in printed machzorim or even transmitted electronically onto large video screens, it is still the task of the leader to be the shaliach tzibbur (lit. “messenger of the community”) in shepherding today’s Jews through the most prayer-intensive time on the Jewish calendar in an increasingly secular society.
Throughout Metropolitan Detroit, many consider it an honor to volunteer leading services alongside professional clergy as an ultimate expression of contributing to the Jewish community.
Rachel Jacobson, 28, of Silver Spring, Md. each year returns to her hometown congregation of B’nei Israel in West Bloomfield to be with family and to lead various parts of services. Inspired from her years in Jerusalem learning from pioneering women leading tefilot in egalitarian congregations, she was one of the first female prayer leaders for the B’nei Israel during the high holidays.
“I never was formally trained to lead,” said Jacobson. “It is something I picked up over the years in school, at Camp Ramah, and living in many different Jewish communities. It is when I can do my best praying because I am not only responsible for my own davening, but for the congregation before me.”
Jacobson credits her singing ability to her school days performing in musicals, though it is not necessary to be able to carry a tune in order to lead tefilot. But just as in show business, services must go on, even when the prayer leader is sick.
“Sometimes I think God does not want me to daven,” Jacobson jokingly said, thinking about leading Rosh Hashanah services while fighting a cold. “It is moments like that when I really must remind myself that I am not up there (on the bimah) to sound pretty. I am an emissary of all the congregation’s tefilot to deliver them to God. That is what leading prayer is all about.”
When Clergy get sick, congregants step up
Last Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Norman Roman of Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield found himself not on the bimah but in the hospital. It was then that the congregation showed its strength and proudest moments according to congregant Diane Siegel Di Vita of Northville, who helps coordinate monthly lay-led services at Kol Ami throughout the year. She said the entire executive board filled in to lead the services and deliver sermons under the facilitation of Cantor Tiffany Green. Rabbi Roman’s stepson Chad Rochkind delivered the Yom Kippur sermon.
“What happened at Kol Ami last year was very community affirming,” said Green. “It was important for our membership to see fellow members stepping up to the plate at a moment’s notice, and showed how they care for their community through their leadership,” said Green. “Leading prayers shapes and grows our small congregation. It shows that our members care about what happens here.”
In an effort to bring to his fellow congregants the meaningfulness of the season, Bruce Plisner, an active congregant at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, designed with Rabbi Mark Miller a one-hour text study for Yom Kippur afternoon that will focus on the central themes of the day: the sounds of the shofar, fasting, repentance and forgiveness.
Plisner, 68 of Farmington Hills, said that Jews for generations have recited prayers such as the Ashmamu and the Unetana Tokef but may not know their origin or significance. Through text study and rabbinical and contemporary commentaries, he hopes to enlighten the worshippers by offering them something less passive and more participatory.
“During Yom Kippur, we say certain prayers over and over again which few people understand what or why we are saying them,” said Plisner, who said he tries to get to services during the year as much as he can to usher and lead. “We thought it would be meaningful to take a different approach to reading about the prayers through rabbinical interpretation. We will also examine the tradition of fasting and through various texts, will explore who fasts and who is pardoned from fasting.”
In synagogues and temples that do not have a chazzan, rabbis such as Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield rely upon a deep core of capable and willing congregants to lead prayers. This year there will be some new Torah readers joining the ranks of volunteers, he said.
“Leading tefilot is a big part of our congregation’s culture,” Rubenstein said. “Leading gives people the opportunity to be invested and involved in congregational life. It makes services more enjoyable, not only for the High Holidays but throughout the entire year.”
All over the country this summer, you could hear a plea of GenXer parents to their Millennial children that sounded something like this:
“Get off your screen. Stop playing Angry Birds. Go outside and look at some real birds.”
Screen addiction is as real as that YouTube video of a person walking into a fountain in a shopping mall because they had their head down in their smart phone. Jane Brody, health blogger for the New York Times dedicates many posts to overuse of mobile devices. In July, PBS aired the documentary Web Junkie, which followed Chinese families taking the draconian step of sending their gaming-obsessed teens to a rehabilitation center not unlike a center for drug addiction.
In 2010, a Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded “the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Excessive screen time is bad for a child’s physical health and mental wellbeing. Childhood risks include obesity, a rise in blood sugar, poor posture and the inability to develop proper socialization skills. GenXers, who are the last generation to talk to their friends through a telephone lassoed to the kitchen wall with a corkscrew cord, find a chasm between themselves and their Digital Age native children wider and deeper than any other in history.
Do we let our teens Skype in their bedroom with members of the opposite sex with the door closed? How do we trust our children to independently stay on task and complete their homework on their tablets, now a mainstay school supply, when distractions are only a click away?
WEANING AWAY FROM THE SCREEN
The methods of curbing screen time vary for each family. Some have short-term experiments like kicking the habit for a solid week. Others find that observing Shabbat provides a weekly refuge from every ping and tweet from their mobile devices.
Whether they spent it in day camps or overnight camp, hiking out West or splashing in a neighborhood pool, summertime is the perfect time to rein in a child’s screen habits and think about ways to continue minimizing screen time into the fall.
Brandon Solomon, 15, of West Bloomfield says he uses technology “a lot.” The rising Bloomfield Hills High School sophomore plays video games with his friends up to four hours daily, either hanging out in person or over the Internet. During the school year, he keeps track of homework assignments on his smart phone. Calling Facebook a “bit old school,” he prefers texting and using social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to stay in touch with friends.
The day before a 35-day Tamarack Camps Western travel program that would take him and more than two dozen area Jewish teens to hike, raft and camp out in national parks like Bryce, Zion and Yellowstone, his phone broke.
“It was just as well because we weren’t allowed to take them along anyway.” Between their treks out in the wild, the teens traveled for long stretches at a time by bus. Without their phones, instead of texting to friends far away, they were better able to get to know the kids around them through old-fashioned conversation.
When they weren’t chatting, they read, looked out at the passing landscape or just slept. Now that he is back in civilization, Solomon said he learned a lot about what life can be like away from a screen.
“I realize now that playing video games is not a very productive hobby, and I’m going to try very hard to cut back on that,” Solomon said. “This coming school year, I will try to be more in touch with my friends by getting out, taking a walk and riding bikes. It would also help to be more in touch and on top of my homework.”
TOO MUCH TEXTING?
A few weeks into the trip, the teen tour stopped in St. Louis, Mo. Solomon noticed a group of local teens who texted and stared down at their smart phones screens as they shuffled down the street.
“They looked like a bunch of zombies!” Solomon said. “It made me realize: That is how I look most of the year when I have my phone.”
Indeed, teens prefer texting over talking on the phone or in person. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, half of children aged 12-17 send or receive 60 or more texts a day on average, and researchers at the JFK Medical Center in New York found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts from bed. Does all this texting and the abbreviations that go along with it signal the downfall of the written English language?
Kim Lifton, president of Wow Writing Workshop LLC, says not so. Lifton teaches college-bound students how to be reflective as they approach their college essay and application.
She said with training, teens have no problems creatively expressing their thoughts in their writing. Abbreviations commonly used in texting do not find their way to the essays she edits. However, if you are her student, do not text that essay to Lifton to edit. She embraces texting, but she has her limits.
As far as texting, this GenXer sees it as a communication tool just as her generation used the phone to keep in touch with her United Synagogue Youth pals in various cities across the Midwest when she was in high school.
“I remember my mom scolding me that I would never develop good communication skills because I spent so much time talking on the phone,” Lifton said. “Today, I keep up with these same USY friends on Facebook. It is the evolution of communication, but these tools must be used in moderation.”
What concerns Lifton and other professionals who work with teens is not their grammar but interacting with people in real-time. Some local therapists say that when both teens and adults are overly reliant on texting, they are just venting their feelings and frustrations and are not necessarily having a quality two-way conversation. In seeking immediacy in responses from others, teens are also having difficulty with working things out on their own.
Abby Segal, LCSW, does not always have her cell phone with her. When she sees patients — often teens coming to see her to work through anxieties associated with overuse of technology — her phone is off. According to Segal, the digital age is causing us not only to lose our ability to be present with others without distraction; we are also losing the comfort of solitude. Many of her young clients fear they feel excluded from their friends if they do not immediately answer their texts. Several have been so sleep-deprived from late-night texting or video game sessions that they overslept through their appointments.
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more,” Segal said. “Getting out in the neighborhood on a walk with a friend — that is the kind of communicating kids need the most.”
A NOVEL EXPERIMENT
Jen Lovy of West Bloomfield made national news on Good Morning America this summer when the show learned how in March of 2014 she and her family decided to avoid screens for an entire week. Lovy was “fed up” with the amount of time her three sons, then ages 8, 9, and 11, spent with their technology. So, they kicked the habit for a week. Doing homework, however, on a computer was OK. During the experiment, there was a snow day, plus one of her children caught a late-winter bug that left him home sick for a few days. Still, they
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more.” — Social worker Abby Segal
managed by building with Legos, reading and working on some crafts projects.
“One important lesson my kids learned is that they did not die of boredom,” Lovy said. “And we actually got outside to enjoy the snow.”
The unplugged week showed the Lovys just how much they normally used their screens. After the week, the kids went back to plugging in, although Lovy said she tries her best to limit nonhomework screen time to an hour.
Miriam Svidler, LLMSW of Southfi eld, who works as a counselor at the Cruz Clinic in Livonia, said it is no wonder that kids have a hard time being pried away from their games. According to Svidler, games are designed to make the brain feel good, and this is why children and teens display great irritability when they are asked to stop playing. Noting the extremely addicting nature of computer games and the constant updates on one’s social media newsfeed, Svidler advises no more than two hours a day of screen time if that screen is used for things other than homework.
“Game programmers know exactly how to design a game to make our brains feel good when we use them and bad when we are abruptly torn away from them,” Svidler said. “You need to tell the child that restricting screen time is not a punishment but a motivation to find other pursuits or to spend time with other people face to face.” Svidler advises that sometimes getting that last text from a friend can be reassuring before bedtime. But teens should not rely on texting as a main form of communication with friends.
“It is always best for a teen to have open communication with their parents,” Svidler said. “But if that one text from a good friend can help them get through the night before bedtime, that is OK, too.”
Like many Jews who have become observant, Svidler knows that Shabbat, a 25-hour rest, can be the best weekly break from technology. “For 25 hours, I am able to be present and in the moment, which I have learned is hardest thing for teenagers to do,” said Svidler, who gradually became Shabbat observant through her adulthood. “Before Shabbat, if I want to be with my friends, we make a plan, pick a place, and they just have to trust that I am going to be there.”
When it comes to teaching and learning prayer, Melissa Ser, director of education at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, said there are a multitude of apps and technology to help students young and old. But trying to fi nd that meaningful moment during religious services, she added, becomes increasingly more challenging. Too much screen time is only partly the reason.
“We do not know how to slow down,” said Ser, who takes full advantage of the time Shabbat gives her and husband, Sam, to enjoy a day of unplugged time with their three children. “The world has picked up pace so much in the last few decades, and one no longer has to search and research to fi nd answers. The art of prayer asks a person to dig down into various layers of thinking, and this is something we are not accustomed to doing anymore.”
The Future is Bright for Detroit’s Conservative Jews. Motor City Youth Group is “Chapter of the Year”
When I taught Hebrew school and looked at the sweet yet glazed-over faces of my students, I would gently yet firmly reassure them: “KIds, please. I get it. Hebrew school may not be your thing. But don’t ever let your feelings about Hebrew school cloud your love for being Jewish. There is a better Jewish life after Hebrew school and it is youth group.”
Personally, I owe my life to United Synagogue Youth’s high school and middle school programming. Whether it was learning how to do The Time Warp or Rock Lobster at a dance, or finally mastering the WHOLE Birkat Hamazon (Grace after meals) while singing it with hundreds of my closest friends, It taught me how to life Jewishly joyfully. Kudos to the Motor City Chapter of USY for winning for the second year in a row Chapter of the Year for the organization’s Central region.
This ran in the May 21, 2015 issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Please subscribe.
Motor City USY wins honor for second year running
| Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Recently recognized by the Central Region of United Synagogue Youth for membership growth and inter-generational religious programming such as “McKabbalat Shabbat,” members of Detroit’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth recently arrived home from their regional spring convention in Cleveland bleary-eyed yet happy to have clinched the “Chapter of the Year” award for the second year running.
Motor City USY, affectionately known as “MCUSY,” is witnessing a resurgence in membership growth and dynamic programming designed to engage and energize the youngest members of Metro Detroit’s Conservative Jewish movement.
The chapter has attracted about 65 official members in grades 6-12, and a little over 100 individuals have attended at least one USY or Kadima program in the past year, according to adviser David Lerner. Highlights of the year included a Purim limousine scavenger hunt, monthly volunteering at bingo games with adults with developmental disabilities in cooperation with JARC, and an “Iron Chef ” kosher cooking contest for students in the middle school grades.
The Conservative movement in Detroit has invested much in its youth engagement and informal education in the last several years with its Ramah Fellowship and by hiring a full-time USY adviser. For the past two years, this post was filled by David Lerner. Lerner is stepping down from his post, and this summer will begin his rabbinical studies at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I have been so inspired working with the teens and witnessing their passion and ability to form a community around Jewish life and values,” Lerner, 32, said.
“I have merely served as the facilitator and supporter to all their passion and great ideas. They have worked hard through their frustrations to create so many positive outcomes over the past two years.”
Lerner hopes the organization will choose a new adviser who has an established relationship with the organization and can continue its upward direction.
In the last two years, Lerner said he focused on growing and strengthening programming and outreach at the high school level. In coming years, he said the focus should be on growing the organization’s Kadima group for grades 6-8 and Junior Kadima for grades 3-5.
Local area Conservative rabbis also place a high value on the way USY blends social and religious aspects to get teens enthused about Judaism.
Rabbi Aaron Bergman at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills attributes the chapter’s recent success to collaboration across all of Detroit’s Conservative synagogues and professional staff who are connected and invested in the teens.
Rabbi Aaron Starr of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield — where Lerner also worked as director of youth and young adult programming — echoed this sentiment of working together to create meaningful experiences of Jewish learning and fostering friendships for teens.
“As Conservative Jews, we are committed to developing passionate, educated young adults devoted to finding spirituality within Jewish ritual, meaning within Jewish life, and a commitment to repairing our broken world,” Starr said.
“Most of all, the teens who are part of MCUSY are exceptional leaders and, in them, I see a bright future for the Jewish people.”
Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent
a different coming of age.
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
A group of students sits immersed in Torah study on a recent Wednesday at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Their teacher, Rabbi Rachel Shere, guides the lesson based on carefully selected texts that delve into the theme of coming of age. In preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, the students listen intently and offer their insights about what it means to become a full-fledged member of a community.
No one squirms, asks to go to the bathroom or raises their hand to take a break for a drink of water. Some sip coffee. Others have a tinge of gray in their hair or beards.
Decades older than their teen counter-parts, there is a sizeable population of Jews in the Detroit Metropolitan Area as well as around the nation who are choosing to have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life. While learning Hebrew and the complexities of chanting Torah may be a bit more challeng-ing, older b’nai mitzvah students can bring a wealth of perspective and life experiences and a deeper appreciation for Jewish study than their younger counterparts.
Nationwide, there has been some discus-sion in Jewish circles as to whether or not the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is outdated. Many teens and families see the ceremony as the final day of involvement with Jewish education, rather than as an entry point of a fully participating adult in Jewish communal life.
Additionally, the status of becoming a Jewish adult and taking on the mitzvot of Judaism is recognized with or without a ceremony and all its extra fanfare. The first “belated” b’nai mitzvah ceremo-nies were held at Brandeis University in the 1970s, according to MyJewishLearning.com. Recently, Reboot, a New York City-based organization doing outreach to unaffiliated Jewish millennials, launched an initiative called reBar that asks this age group to re-examine their Jewish identities and their own Jewish coming-of-age ceremony — if they had one at all. If it did not have much meaning the first time around, would they give it another try, along Jewish learning and living, now that they are at an age when they may be thinking about starting families?
Though reBar is active in several U.S. cities, the initiative does not have any activity in Detroit yet. Whether they never had a bar or bat mitzvah, as in the case of women of older generations, Jewish converts or those looking to recharge their Jewish identities, Jewish adults in Detroit are dedicating themselves to study, finding community and being recognized on the bimah in a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
For those seeking adult b’nai mitzvah instruction in Detroit, Adat Shalom and Temple Israel of West Bloomfield have established two-year courses. The clergy take turns teaching weekly courses in a group setting. Subjects include basic Judaism, laws, customs and holidays, and Jewish ethics as well as Hebrew literacy and reading the Hebrew of the selected Torah portion and learning Torah trope in the final six months. Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park is planning an adult b’nai mitzvah program in late 2015 or early 2016.
Adat Shalom’s current class is preparing for a ceremony May 24 in time for Shavuot. The next group of students will start classes in January 2016; new students are welcome. Hazzan Dan Gross teaches with his fellow clergy at Adat Shalom. He said having an adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony timed to Shavuot is symbolic for a group of adults publicly demonstrating their commitment to their Jewish identity and their role in synagogue life as well as their efforts to learn an ancient tradition and carry it into the future. Adults come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Gross said he is very appreciative of the effort students put into learning Hebrew and chanting Torah.
“Everyone comes to class with different lev-els of reading Hebrew,” he said. “As teachers, we have to be cognizant that everyone is at a different pace and sensitive to the fact that, as an adult, it may be harder to memorize the musical motifs of the trope. But what makes learning with adults enjoyable is that they truly form a chavruta, a community of learn-ers who support one another.” Continued Commitment A few of the course’s graduates have gone on to become regular leaders of daily services or regular Torah readers.
Allison Lee, 54, of Walled Lake, a graduate of the 2013 Adat Shalom class, takes pride in her newly acquired skill of chanting the Ten Commandments. Growing up, Lee had a minimal Jewish education and rarely attend-ed synagogue with her family. Several years into marriage, her husband, son of a Lutheran minister, strongly urged that she delve into the teachings and traditions of Judaism. The desire to raise their daughter, Lydia, as a Jew also accelerated the rate at which she learned.
“Through the years, it was my husband who encouraged me to explore my religion, and little by little we would take on traditions, like lighting Shabbat candles, having holiday meals and keeping a kosher home.”
Lee and Lydia became fast study partners. Both mother and daughter celebrated their bat mitzvot within the last two years. “I feel such pride when I chant Torah,” Lee said. “I think, ‘Wow, I get to read the voice of God.’”
She offers this advice to adults on the fence about having an adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremony:
“If you have the slightest modicum of curiosity, go for it. You will be swept away by the amount of knowledge and a feeling of identity and community you will gain.”
The adult bar/bat mitzvah preparations at Temple Israel involve weekly two-hour classes with concentrations on Jewish study, celebrating Jewish holidays as a class and improving Hebrew literacy. The second year focuses on the Torah service, learning its prayers and preparing a Torah service, according to Rabbi Arianna Gordon. Approximately 21 students are involved in each learning cycle.
The current group of students will have a service to celebrate their emergence into Jewish adult-hood in October 2016.
“We have learners at all levels, including some who have recently converted to Judaism, and then some Hebrew school dropouts who are circling back to Judaism later in life,” Gordon said. “A lot of the classes involve personal reflective writing on their relation-ship with God and what about this journey to Jewish adulthood is important to them.”
Gordon said the most important aspect she wants her adult students to gain is a creation of their own smaller Jewish community within the larger scope of Temple Israel.
Jim Rawlinson, 75, of West Bloomfield was very excited to get a new tallit from his life partner, Paula Weberman, when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2014. Jim, raised as a Protestant in Vicksburgh, Mich., said he never met a Jewish person until his sophomore year of college. Though he regularly attended church as an adult, he disagreed with much of its teachings.
With little exposure to Jews or Judaism, reading Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi had an enormous impact on him as a high school student.
“It made me so curious to find out who were these people the Nazis wanted to eliminate,” Rawlinson said. “Later on, in my 20s, the Six-Day War broke out and it made me very upset that so many Arab nations wanted to attack the Jews.”
He spent his professional life as a photographer and learned more about Jewish life-cycle events after he moved to Metro Detroit and documented Jewish weddings and b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
“I noticed at these occasions, there was a stronger pull to family and community, a greater warmth than I had ever encountered in the non-Jewish community,” he said.
In 2009, Rawlinson began to attend services at Temple Israel when he decided this would become his spiritual “home.” As he explored the possibility of converting, he took introductory classes in Judaism and Hebrew. “At a certain point, I realized I wanted to explore Judaism from the inside instead of being an outsider.”
He enrolled in the class, where he felt accepted by his classmates. Alone at night, he studied Hebrew and his Torah reading for hours every night. And come this year’s High Holiday season, he will chant Torah on Yom Kippur morning.
“Becoming a bar mitzvah at this stage of my life has been fabulous,” he said. “I consider Temple Israel my home and could not ever imagine living in a community where I would have to travel a long way to get to a temple.”
Women Role Models
Doreen Millman, 81, of West Bloomfield was one of the first women to become a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in the 1980s. Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., when girls received a minimal Jewish education and only boys were called to the Torah, she credits the memory of conversations with her grandfather as an inspiration for picking up her Jewish studies later in life and becoming a bat mitzvah.
“He was born in a shtetl, yet he was a very forward-thinking person who believed girls as well as boys should have a Jewish education,” Millman said. “I thought I was crazy for doing it — I was up to my elbows raising my children — but I had a lot of encouragement to take on this challenge.” Milman said she enjoyed studying Jewish history and learning how to read Torah. Since her bat mitzvah, she has read Torah at Temple Israel on other occasions, including on Yom Kippur.
“I feel much more comfortable in services now,” said Millman, who attends a weekly Torah study group at Temple Israel. “When I go to services on a Shabbat morning, I can comfortably fol-low along with the Torah reading.” Other women also expressed pride in ownership of their Jewish learning and becoming a bat mitzvah to serve as a role model, and a study resource, for their own daughters.
Shari Stein of West Bloomfield grew up at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, also at a time when girls were not called to the Torah. It was only well into adulthood, and a few years shy of her own daughters beginning their bat mitzvah studies, that she decided to become a bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41. She said she did it not only to deepen her connection to her own spirituality, but also to serve as a feminist role model of “breaking barriers” for her children. “[A bat mitzvah] can be much more meaningful as an adult,” said Stein, who admits her years of Jewish education at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills equipped her with the skills to quickly learn and chant from the Torah and glean insights into the sacred texts.
Stein said that 10 years later, the significance of being publicly welcomed into the Jewish community has much meaning and carries through in her spiritual and professional life. A partner at a Birmingham design firm, she has given her talents to many charitable projects, including Yad Ezra.
“Judaism is a constant process of learning and growth, a practice of tikkun olam and of asking yourself what, as a Jew, can I do for my community?” ■
With an astute understanding of the power of delivering a smile, Lindsey Zousmer, a fifth-grader at West Hills Middle School, has got “magic” to do for disabled children receiving physical therapy at local hospitals.
Last month, she started a community service project called “Projects 4 Smiles” and is asking other kids her age to create small craft projects, such as bookmarks, bracelets or pins to give as gifts of encouragement.
To kick off Project 4 Smiles, Zousmer invited WHMS classmates in the fourth and fifth grades to come to school on Jan. 16 wearing funny hats and donating a dollar for supplies. Commun ity members may also donate any extra craft supplies they may have at home: decorative duct tape, buttons, extra scrapbooking supplies, glitter, beads, glue, markers, cardstock or string will do the trick. Drop off these supplies at the office at West Hills Middle School, 2601 Lone Pine Road in West Bloomfield, where a special Project 4 Smiles box has been set aside.
The idea came to Zousmer after shadowing her mother Stacy Agree Zousmer, a pediatric physical therapist, at work at Beaumont Hospitals on days she had no school. It was there that she watched children with disabilities struggle to accomplish simple tasks that most children her age can do with ease.
“My mom explained to me how some of these kids can be very successful even with the disabilities and/or the conditions they have,” Lindsey wrote in a letter to the entire West Hills Middle School community. “We want to encourage them and make them aware that they are just as capable as we are.”
Ultimately, she wants to collect enough crafted gifts and then video or photograph the expression of joy on the children’s faces to show her classmates back at school “just how happy they can make others when they give a small gift.”
The project is a product of Bloomfield Schools’ Primary Years Programme (PYP), which engages children in the district’s primary grades to be socially aware and responsible through action. Kathy Janelle, the district’s PYP coordinator, explained “education must extend beyond the intellectual to include not only socially responsible attitudes, but also thoughtful and appropriate action.”
Stacy Agree Zousmer saw how important it was for her own children to meet her patients and also to volunteer at the Friendship Circle.
Lindsey’s family extends many generations in Detroit. She is a descendant of the founders of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, who established the congregation on the principles of social consciousness. She attends religious school at Temple Israel, where she learned about the Jewish obligation to help those in need through g’milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. In her letter, she said her mom serves as her biggest example for caring for others.
“Not only is Lindsey a natural caretaker, but she also finds common interests with these kids because they are her peers,” her mom says. “She loves to help them realize their potential and feel good about themselves. At the young age of 10, Lindsey is truly beginning to understand what it means to pay it forward.”
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.