If you ask Gabe Neistein what he loves most about his work, he’ll tell you straight up: it’s the community. “By every definition, Detroit is a true community. Considering how big the city is, it’s pretty impressive how many intimate connections you can make here.”
The son of Howard and Amy Neistein — longtime Jewish communal professionals, both on staff at the Jewish Federation — Gabe considers himself a born-and-bred “Tamarack kid” and member of the Federation family. The oldest of three sons in the Neistein family, Gabe was eight when Bob Aronson — Federation CEO at the time — recruited his dad from the Milwaukee Federation to become Planning Director here. His mother, Amy, has been equally involved in the community, first with the Neighborhood Project, then as Director of Federation’s Israel and Overseas Department and now as Director of Women’s Philanthropy. “I practically grew up in the Federation building,” Gabe says. “I can still picture every one of my parents’ previous offices, where my brothers and I would hang out after school.”
Never far from his roots at Federation, Gabe is very much his own man, a natural leader with a passion for his work — at ease in multiple roles, whether on staff at Tamarack, fundraising, pitching in with NEXTGen, staffing a Birthright or Teen Mission, building Jewish community through Moishe House or moving to his apartment in Rivertown, loving the pace and pleasures of life in the city. “If you ask me, I want to stay in the city . . . forever,” says Gabe. “I see myself as a lifer in Detroit.”
In a recent break in his busy day, between meetings with Tamarack staff, board members, alumni and prospective donors, we catch up with Gabe for a little introspection.
Five words that describe you:
“Let’s see — off the top of my head — I’d say: Loyal, passionate, fun loving, outgoing . . . Spartan!”
On family background, early influences and education
myJewishDetroit: Tell us a little about your family, your Jewish education, what traditions have been passed down to you?
I was born in Phoenix about nine months before my parents moved to Milwaukee, where we lived for eight years. That was 23 years ago, but we always gauge the time by my youngest brother’s age: Zach had just been born. As a family, we still have very fond memories of Milwaukee. We have close friends whom we visit there, we’re huge Packers fans, but I consider Detroit my home town, the place where I grew up.
I went to Groves High School and attended Temple Kol Ami Religious School; having a Jewish education was always very important to my parents.
Tamarack was a big part of my life as well. I was a camper there for eight summers, starting about age 10. My brothers were campers and counselors too. My mom was a camper and counselor at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Mississippi (my parents were actually married there!) — so a love for Jewish camping had been instilled since birth – and had we not liked it, it I’m sure it would have been forced.
What kind of student were you?
I always did enough to get through. I always loved history and was involved in sports and other things, but never had a specific career path or goal to study. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a writer, was interested in journalism. MSU was a good fit for me.
Community-wise, I wasn’t really involved as a teen. I found my path in my mid-20s and it’s taken me on great journey so far.
I never thought I’d go back to grad school, and here I am; studying in the library most nights of the week working on a Masters. I’m certainly a better student in grad school than I ever was high school or undergrad. After a six year break between undergrad and grad school, I’m ready to take my passion for Detroit to another level with some institutional knowledge around community building.
On career paths and the Tamarack journey
From journalism and sports communication in college, what drew you back to Tamarack and community service?
In college, I had my heart set on being a beat writer for the Detroit Tigers. That was a very narrow focus, but anyway, I wrote for the Lansing State Journal sports page throughout college. When I graduated, I found that it was a tough time to be a journalist; newspapers were (and still are) going out of business. I wasn’t prepared to leave Michigan, only to write obituaries for a paper about to fold who knows where.
Then I discovered I had other passions. My first job out of college was with the Detroit Pistons in community development. There I was, in sports, working for this great organization, learning about the greater Detroit community. As I started pivoting my career toward more community-driven work via NEXTGen Connect (and here’s where my family background starts to seep in), Justin Jacobs, founder of the nonprofit ComePlayDetroit, grabbed me with the offer to join him. And there I was, back in the offices of the Federation Building where my good childhood friends, Adam Blanck and Benjy Gordon, were starting to organize the first Pitch for Detroit, a softball tournament conceived to bring young adults back to the city. When they asked me to get involved, I jumped on it. I worked on Pitch for Detroit for six straight years – including a year as Project Manager which overlapped with my job at Tamarack.
I credit the experience with Pitch for Detroit for spurring on this love for the city that I feel and what has turned into my deep commitment to the community. Pitch was something we did together as friends who shared this vision of what we wanted Detroit to be for the next generation. Who better to work with than the people you grew up with?
So, Tamarack was the next natural step for you?
We’re talking about so many close connections: Federation, NEXTGen and Pitch for Detroit, not only share some of the same players and the same community partners, they also share the same space. Literally. We were all in the Federation building. In 2011, Deena Lockman, Tamarack’s Development Director, recruited me as an Associate. I was ready to jump at the opportunity.
In your tenure as Alumni Relations Director, how has Tamarack Camps changed? What most excites you?
We’ve undergone some changes and taken on some exciting projects – like building the Clara and Irvin Charach Tamarack Museum, developing Tamarack’s Young Adult Advisory Board and adding a sustainability program. But what I love most about Tamarack is that we’ve never lost sight of our mission: to provide a Jewish camping experience to every child who wants one. To keep that promise, we put a lot of our energy and resources into our scholarship program. This year, for example, we’ve expanded scholarships so that anyone who wants to go on the travel trips can join us.
Who do you consider your mentors?
Certainly, there are the people I work with at Tamarack: Our Executive Director Steve Engel has gone out of his way to make sure I have opportunities to develop leadership skills, staffing Pitch for Detroit and a Detroit Birthright trip to Israel. I have Deena Lockman to thank for what I’ve learned about community relations and development. Bob Aronson, too, has been a huge influence and support for our entire family over the years. And there are Mickey Maddin, Darren Findling, Stacy Brodsky. . . Tamarack Board members and community supporters too numerous to mention.
And, thanks to Federation’s Israel Camper Program, our connections in Israel feel more like family as well. In our Partnership2Gether Region, Yoav Raban, who first came to Tamarack as a counselor, is now like an older, and much more handsome brother to me. Eviatar and Liraz Baksis – our community shlichim (Eviatiar is Federation’s Birthright Associate and Liraz works for UM Hillel) – have spent several summers at Tamarack. What we’ve created together through our friendships is very powerful. Essentially, we’ve grown and come of age together.
To what extent does your work at Tamarack still connect with Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit?
I was very close with the staff when I worked on Pitch for Detroit. Though the responsibilities of my job have changed, there’s still a good deal of overlap because we do a lot of stuff with the same groups of people. We look out for one another, and when they ask me do something, like fill a table for the EPIC Event, I’m happy to respond.
Another way I’ve been involved with Federation is through the PresenTense Fellowship, a national Jewish leadership development program facilitated in Detroit by NEXTGen to empower young professionals to launch community projects with the buy-in of their agencies. I’ve finished the Fellowship and chosen to launch the Tamarack Gear Share Project. Recognizing that camp is a large expense for many families, we raise more than a million dollars annually for camp scholarships, but the money doesn’t cover the packing list. This year, we plan to collect donated items – hiking boots, sleeping bags, rain gear and other equipment to fill the gap.
On living, working and playing in Detroit
I’ve been living in Detroit for six years – as long as I’ve been with Tamarack. Talk about community connections: When I first moved downtown, I lived in the Park Shelton in Midtown – owned by Michael Berger- who is involved with Federation and specifically the Israeli Camper Program. Other residents there included NEXTGen’s Tara and Jay Hack, Sarah Crane a former JCRC professional and my girlfriend, Ilene’s sister and Tamarack’s long-time dance teacher and ardent supporter, Harriet Berg.
Three years later, I moved to the Moishe House in Indian Village – another job in itself, hosting and welcoming young adults for programs in the city. I would say that my passion for communal work in the city has grown out of my shared experience with friends living at Moishe House.
What’s the best thing about living in the D?
Watching and being a part of its transformation. Detroit is really a fun place to live and it’s changing dramatically. We may not be the city of our dreams yet, but there’s a community working hard to get there.
We used to ask what kind of ways we can get people to move back home, and now we’re starting to see people move home. There’s so much to do and ways to meet and get involved now on a weekly basis. Now everyone’s doing things to engage young professionals. It’s exciting to be a part of it all.
What do you tell people considering moving back or to Detroit for the first time?
I would tell them that you can go to a lot of cities, be part of thousands of people, but you can come to Detroit and actually be part of something here. And, if you are looking for that, than this is the place for you.
Restaurants: Mudgies, Atwater Brewery (frequently), Green Dot Stables, Honest John’s
Places to meet for coffee or drinks: Detroit Sip, a new coffee shop near U of Detroit Mercy. (The whole area is starting to awaken as a new destination in the city.) Uptown, it’s Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company at the Maple Theater – good for community schmoozing and fundraising
Place to take kids or visitors DNR Outdoor Adventure Center on the Riverfront, DIA and Belle Isle
Favorite destinations in MI and Israel; Grand Rapids for ArtPrize; East Lansing for football and basketball; Yoav Raban’s Kibbutz, Ramat David, in Israel
Sports: Tigers, Packers, Spartans, Red Wings, Pistons – softball kickball, ping pong, bar trivia
Jewish Food: Mom’s brisket and latkes (I admit I don’t like Passover food)
Jewish Holiday: Rosh Hashana – a new start every year
Jewish Expression: I say oy a lot, a lot
Go-to Website: I like surfing Airbnb to see cool places to stay
Never leave home without: My laptop and a bag of Goldfish – armed for a long school night
More connections: Ilene Crane – a “significant” other part of my story. The Neistein-Crane family ties abound and go back to our childhood. Another member of the Federation family, Ilene’s mom, Stacey Deweese is Federation’s Director, Jewish Community Endowment Fund and a longtime friend of my parents. (We have a photo of my parents at Ilene’s bat mitzvah). Ilene and I have been friends for years, but we started dating in the summer of 2015 as a result of the Mifgash (meet-up week) after the May/June Birthright missions to Israel. So happy together!
On your nightstand: reading now. . .reading the whole series of Harry Potter (because Ilene is really into the series) I’m up to the fifth book: Order of the Phoenix.