If ever in doubt that matchmaking through JDate works, check in with Reesa and Ben Handelsman. Ben from Evanston, Illinois, and Reesa from Farmington Hills, Michigan, met online in college in 2003. He was a senior at Indiana University and she was a junior at the University of Michigan and from the start they just knew — they were meant for each other. With the sparkle and charm more expected of newlyweds, they still reminisce about their long distance romance, their three years in Boston – where Ben started his real estate career while Reesa earned her law degree – the proposal on Mackinac Island, the wedding in St. Thomas and their ultimate decision to move to Detroit to start their family.
“We knew that we wanted to come back to the Midwest after Reesa finished law school and Detroit presented a great opportunity for us,” says Ben. “We believe that we are living proof that you can move here from a big city like Chicago or Boston and not just survive, but thrive.”
Indeed Reesa and Ben have thrived in Detroit. A Cum Laude graduate from the Boston University School of Law, Reesa is a partner at Wachler & Associates, a health law firm in Royal Oak. Ben is a real estate agent with a distinctive entrepreneurial drive (HomesByBen.com) at Max Broock Realtors in Birmingham. Beyond building their careers, Ben and Reesa are the proud parents of two boys, Gavin (2½), a Beth El preschooler, and Shane (8 months).
Deeply committed to the Jewish community and generous in sharing their time and energy, the Handelsmans have been active with Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit, starting back in 2009 when it was still known as YAD (Young Adult Division). Currently, Ben serves on the NEXTGen Board as Co-Chair of the Business Hub with the goal of helping other Jewish professionals make strong connections and build relationships. As Ben describes, “We are in the process of designing a new type of programming to bring in experts to help Jewish professionals gain skills in networking, brand building, relationship development and other elements to take their business to the next level.”
In a rare hour at leisure carved out of their busy day, Ben and Reesa met for coffee and a chat with myJewishDetroit.
Ben: I like to tell people that Reesa and I met on JDate. You could say it’s the 21st Century wave of the future. We met online and hit it off from the very beginning. We dated long-distance for a year while Reesa was still in Ann Arbor and I was living in Chicago. When Reesa got into Law School, we moved to Boston together. For me, it was a no-brainer; I just wanted to be with her.
Reesa: Three years of living on the East Coast was exciting. But we both know we wanted to come back to the Midwest. Opportunity brought us back to Michigan.
On family background and Jewish community
myJewishDetroit: You both grew up in strong Jewish communities. Tell us a little about your families.
Reesa: I grew up in Farmington Hills. Both of my parents are physicians, and I have a sister and a brother-in-law who are also physicians. So I kind of broke the mold heading into business and law.
My family is the fourth generation at Adat Shalom Synagogue and that connection always has been important to us. My parents (Drs. David and Adrea Benkoff) continue to be very generous with their resources and their time. My mom is a docent at the Holocaust Museum; she’s been very involved in that area, and has been for many years.
It’s interesting: growing up in the Jewish community here, you don’t realize how close-knit and involved the community is. Coming from Farmington Hills, and then being a student at U. of M., I didn’t realize that our community isn’t representative of most Jewish communities around the country. In Boston, I discovered a very different community, where people weren’t as close-knit or involved and for that reason it was more difficult to break in, especially for people who had just graduated from college or who were not married with kids.
Our experience in Boston made returning here to Detroit – and the re-immersion into the Jewish community – all the better.
Ben: I should mention first, that my grandparents on my mother’s side were Holocaust Survivors from Riga, Latvia and Lithuania. Literally, I learned at my grandfather’s knee how important our religion and culture is and how lucky we are to continue our traditions as part of our life.
My grandfather is Boris Kacel. At 93, he’s what everyone would want to be in their 90’s. He travels around the world, meets lady friends, goes to the gym and is a really cool guy. And he actually wrote a book about his Holocaust experience, From Hell to Redemption. Writing the book was an amazing process for him. He and my grandmother had a beautiful home, but he wrote the book in his unfinished basement, so it could bring him back to that place where his memories still lived.
My grandfather was an electrician. The way he started was in the concentration camp when a Nazi officer broke a lamp and asked whether there was anyone who could fix it. My grandfather volunteered without the slightest idea how to fix the thing or what to do. But he made it up as he went along and basically became this officer’s electrician. And that’s what kept him alive during the war.
Growing up with Holocaust survivors really influences your perspective. To marry someone who was Jewish and raise Jewish children always has been a high priority for me.
Beside my grandparents’ early influence, I grew up going to a Reconstructionist congregation, so my religious background falls somewhere between Reform and Conservative. My mom was in the choir and involved in temple life, but after my Bar Mitzvah, my activities centered around other interests as most of my friends weren’t Jewish.
In college at Indiana University, there was a fantastic Hillel, and that connection suddenly became a key part of my life – meeting people, making friends. Hillel was really where the spark of Jewish life became lit for me. I served as Vice President of the Student Board for two years.
On career choices
myJewishDetroit: Ben, How did you get into real estate?
Most realtors don’t grow up thinking they want to go into real estate. It’s a calling that finds you. Originally, out of college I worked in computers and marketing. I became a commercial real estate agent in Boston and switched over to residential.
I love helping people. And that’s what I love about my job. I sold a house to young couple last year, and two weeks ago they invited us to a bris in their home. It was such an amazing feeling, a privilege really to be part of getting them into this home where they are now parents. The houses we live in are like the phases of our lives. For me, being a realtor is not just about the sale. I get the biggest rush from helping people transition into their new homes – essentially ushering them into the next phases of their lives.
myJewishDetroit: Reesa, what drew you to law?
Reesa: It’s a career choice that has been a natural fit for me. I have Bachelor of Business Administration and an interest in business as well. And I knew I wanted to merge the two. I think that the business background gives me a leg up on helping people understand the business ramifications of the legal advice that I give, and I structure a lot of deals where it’s helpful for me to understand the business aspect in advising people.
Ben: By the way, Reesa is a rock star!
She has just made partner at her firm. And she’s my best counselor too. I ask for her input on everything. Every letter I write, every piece of marketing I come up with. I have this expression whenever I’m doing anything: I call it ‘WWRD. What Would Reesa Do?’ She’s that little voice in my head.
On NEXTGen and moving to Detroit
Ben: We moved here with a clean slate. Hillel was a great experience for me in college in terms of meeting people, so we took that same approach here and connected immediately by going to couples’ events with Federation. We met people who have become our very closest friends today.
Now that we’ve developed these relationships and established ourselves in the community, we feel it’s time to give back. That’s why I became Chair of the Couples Committee on the NEXTGen Board last year, and lobbied this year to Co-Chair the business hub. It’s good for business, obviously. But it’s even better for the community to have a Jewish organization that works so hard to reach out to everyone in all stages of life.
Reesa: I can’t say enough about this area and how awesome it is to raise our kids here. Our son just started preschool and he’s in a Jewish preschool. It’s so adorable and amazing to have him come home, singing Jewish songs.
Ben: He goes to sleep, singing Bim-Bom. . .
Reesa: Having family here, and making all the connections we have, with all the opportunities and support systems in place in the Jewish community, has made us appreciate our decision all the more to move back to Detroit.
Ben: Detroit gets this rap – outside of our walls – of being a dark place, and that’s not the reality at all. I think the challenges this city faces has brought a call to action – that has inspired people to rise to improve the situation for the next generation. It’s really amazing to see as an outsider the pride people have in the city.
There are Jewish communities far larger than Detroit’s Jewish community. But the Jewish Detroit has a large voice. And that makes all the difference. Moving here was the right decision for us.
Restaurants: Café Muse, Slows Bar BBQ, Red Coat Tavern, Forest Grille, Zingerman’s
Places to meet for coffee: Great Lakes Coffee on Maple, Commonwealth Café in Birmingham
Building in the Detroit skyline: Cobo Hall, where Ben goes to the Auto Show every year. (Ben is a big car guy)
Place to take kids and visitors: Dream Cruise, Henry Ford, Royal Oak Farmer’s Market, DIA, Kresge Court
Vacation places: Italy and Scotland, Saugatuck
Sports: Football, basketball, Israeli martial arts Krav Maga
Jewish food: Kugel and brisket
Jewish Expressions: Oy vey (spoken many times with two little boys); Besheret is besheret (What is meant to be will be)
Guilty pleasures: Cupcakes! Custard & Co. at 14 and Woodward
Never leave home without: Ben carries a lucky guitar pick
Ben: The Hunt, by David Farbman
Reesa: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogol