It was a bright, sunny morning, unseasonably warm for November, when fifty-some staffers from the community’s social service agencies jumped aboard a bus for a day trip through the city hosted by the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan (JHSM). Backpacks, snack packs and water bottles in hand, they came from Jewish Family Service, JVS, Jewish Senior Life, Hebrew Free Loan, the JCC and the Federation for a rare look at Jewish Detroit through the lens of its history and the origins of its organization.
“Our purpose is to help bring our shared history to life,” explains JSHM Director Wendy Rose Bice. “The tour, a service of the Jewish Historical Society, was requested by the Jewish Assistance Project, an initiative of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, in effort to illuminate and chronicle how Michigan’s Jewish residents have shaped and transformed our community.”
With a blend of facts, personal anecdotes and humor, guides, Sharon Alterman, Federation’s Archivist, Gerald Cook, JHSM President, and Mike Kaskey, docent and board member of JHSM, took the group on a six-hour excursion through the city from the Riverfront to Belle Isle, from Grand Circus Park to Comerica Park, from Downtown to Midtown, from Indian Village to Boston-Edison and on to Curtis and Meyers.
On Belle Isle, while gazing at the extraordinary architecture of the Belle Isle Aquarium designed by Jewish Detroiter Albert Kahn, the group heard the story of Blanche Hart and Ida Koppel, the two women who took indigent children out of the city onto the island for a day of fresh air, thereby starting The Fresh Air Society in 1902. Children today know that Jewish agency by the name of Tamarack Camps.
Driving over I-75, near Comerica Park, the group paused to imagine a slower pace of life and a bustling Hastings Street, the Jewish neighborhood and business district that once flourished where the freeway now dominates traffic patterns through the city. Hastings Street was the area where the Eastern European Jews settled and where their fellow Jewish Detroiters erected storefront buildings and the earliest service agencies, Hebrew Free Loan and the United Jewish Charities (now United Jewish Foundation, an arm of Federation), among them.
In the more than 160 years since the first Jewish religious services were first held in the home of Sarah and Isaac Cozens, many extraordinary synagogues have been established and built, congregations have moved, neighborhoods have changed. And Jewish life has continued to renew itself, as evident today in exciting new developments and a resurgence of business downtown, a thriving Wayne State campus in Midtown, a growing congregation of young adults at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, a house on Brush Street called Moishe – a rent-subsidized residence for students and young professionals seeking to re-establish a Jewish community in the heart of town.
What has not changed over the passage of the years is the compassion of Jewish Detroiters – caring for one another, working to provide whatever is needed, be it financial assistance, emotional support, educational and professional resources or recreational outlets. This is our heritage, our Jewish community agencies, our Jewish Detroit.