Complicating the Narrative of Detroit’s Revitalization

Posted by: on Mar 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

Once hailed as the Paris of the West, Detroit was a city whose industrial prosperity rose with the advent of the automobile and peaked during the 1950s. What followed has been a story of economic decline, leaving Detroit with a 138-square-mile footprint, 40 miles of dispersed vacancy, and some of the most racially and economically segregated suburbs in the country. Since the 1850s, Jews have been a part of this history. As the first established Jewish community in the city, German Jews had enough capacity to support Jewish-targeted social agencies in the face of housing, employment, and social discrimination. Decreasing anti-Semitism, particularly after World War II, combined with Jewish efforts to attain upward mobility, led to the development of well-organized and well-funded Jewish institutions.

In the early 20th century, increased mobility and economic stability of Jewish individuals and institutions, a discomfort with otherness, and the desire for security made it feasible and desirable for Jews to migrate out of their neighborhoods as a growing population of blacks moved in (Sugrue, 1996). Yet, when urban migration took the form of a suburban exodus in the early 1960s, a minority of Jewish community members looked on with regret as their anchor institutions and their peers uprooted and relocated, this time beyond the city–suburb divide. Marty Herman, the most recent past-president of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS), was an active participant and board member of Adat Shalom after he moved to Detroit in the 1960s. He recalled with disappointment that synagogue’s departure from its northwest Detroit neighborhood, accompanied by a promise to maintain a presence in the city. When that promise was not fulfilled, Herman became affiliated with IADS in the 1980s, which by that time was one of a few Jewish congregations to maintain a Detroit home (personal communication, September 13, 2011).

Although the metro-Detroit Jewish community has continued to focus philanthropy on the city and has maintained several urban service-based organizations for decades, younger generations of suburban Jews have largely been raised apart from the city. The narrative of Detroit handed down to us has long been that of an economically depressed, racially homogeneous, and heavily blighted inner city with little to offer upwardly mobile young adult Jews. However, a minority of young adult Jews, like ourselves, have been drawn to the city because of an activist impulse to participate in the development of a socially just Detroit.


In 2009, as a direct response to southeast Michigan’s dwindling young adult population, the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit began a conversation around the role played by urban centers in retention of young adults. Without a strong, vibrant, “next generation” Jewish community, the Federation leadership reasoned, there would not be a generation to give back to Federation. Yet before cultivating a community that would sustain the future, Federation recognized that it would need to rebrand both itself and its nearest urban center: Detroit. With a pot of only $50,000, Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit CEO Scott Kaufman, along with a selection committee and a young adult entrepreneur, Jordan Wolfe, founded Community NEXT (CNXT) (Scott Kaufman personal communication, September 2, 2011).

CNXT’s first year focused on attaining buy-in from suburban young adults and Federation’s leadership. Faced with the persistent perception of Detroit as dangerous and destitute, the institutional Jewish community began to tap into the burgeoning counternarrative of Detroit as a blank slate and a place of opportunity. CNXT’s second year, largely focused on economic development, seamlessly shifted from the suburbs to the city, aligning well with the Quicken Loans move downtown and growing investment from major financial players (Wolfe, personal communication, September 8, 2011).

Excited by the story of Detroit’s revitalization, numerous national Jewish organizations have set up shop in the city in the last year. With heavy CNXT involvement, Moishe House found its way to Detroit’s rapidly gentrifying cultural district. Unlike other Moishe Houses around the country, built to support young Jewish communities, the Motor City Moishe House was created to attract young Jews to Detroit where they may not have otherwise moved.

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice and Repair the World are piloting programs in Detroit. Bend the Arc has chosen a small group of young Jewish entrepreneurs, nonprofit professionals, and lay leaders to complete an 18-month program that includes leadership training and justice education. The group will ultimately carry out a project slated to benefit Detroit. Repair the World is striving to make service work accessible to suburban Jews, with an initial focus on literacy. Their Manager of Detroit Service Initiatives, Ben Falik, explains that in his view, service-learning happens naturally when one combines a foundation of meaningful work, strong community partnerships, and a diversity of participant voices (personal communication, September 27, 2011).

Earlier, in 2008, a handful of young adult Jews, predominantly activists living and working in Detroit, had learned that the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (IADS) was likely to close because of financial instability. A number of these young adults joined the board, galvanized the support of suburban and urban family and friends, and fought with the incumbent leadership to keep the synagogue from closing.  Having moved downtown before CNXT’s Detroit push, we first became involved in the synagogue primarily because it provided an opportunity to shape Jewish life in Detroit, where most of our work occurred outside of a Jewish context. Yet, as we struggled to mold the synagogue to fit our needs, we came head-to-head with the fallacy of the blank slate narrative. We realized we could not shape a community of our own without taking into account the community already in existence (Oren Goldenberg, personal communication, September 8, 2011).


The institutional Jewish community’s renewed engagement with Detroit is a promising step. CNXT, Motor City Moishe House, and Repair the World have all encouraged volunteerism as a means of connecting with the city. Motor City Moishe House has held volunteer service days with numerous Detroit-based organizations. CNXT created a Social Justice Task Force hoping to encourage volunteerism among young adult Jews, which was ultimately dissolved. Yet, much of this work excludes any educational component, does not examine impacts on communities served and those serving, and often consists of single-day projects as opposed to longer-term engagement.

Rather than continuing to engage the “blank slate” narrative and volunteerism, service-learning has the potential to emphasize Detroit’s community assets. Through partnerships with strong grassroots organizations and a solid curriculum around Judaism and justice, service-learning encourages building relationships between disparate communities. Learning does not naturally emerge from volunteerism, and community service is not a proxy for social change. Service-learning emphasizes history alongside revitalization with a focus on educating those serving, not on doing service for a community otherwise deemed deficient.

Earlier this year, we learned that the majority of IADS’s neighbors are low-income tenants, many with Jewish landlords and living in ill-managed Section-8 housing. We decided to connect our Jewish community to the tenants’ self-led union, as a means of building our communal awareness of the landscape of downtown Detroit and of Jews’ presence there, both past and present. Further engagements such as these, tantamount to service, are necessary if our Jewish community hopes to play a positive role in Detroit’s future.  The true opportunity in Detroit lies in changing our expectations of a healthy city from one that hinges only on economic prosperity to one that grows with the voices of all those affected by change. Through cultivating strong relationships and complex educational experiences, we can build – in tandem with those who have long called this city home – a healthy urban area that works for all its residents.


Sugrue, Thomas J. (1996). The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

You might like our own Ben Falik’s Detroit Discussion Do’s and Don’ts!