True Jewish Detroiter
From Russia with Love
Regina Itkis Colton was only four years old when her family came to Detroit from the former Soviet Union, but her first memories of a welcoming Jewish community are vivid. “I still remember the day we arrived,” she says, “There were twenty of us – aunts, uncles, grandparents, kids – and, because we were such a large family, we made the news coming through the airport.”
In a speech delivered to a gathering of women at Federation’s Coffee Talk, Regina enumerated the Jewish agencies that have touched her life. Upon her family’s arrival, Jewish Family Service and JVS stepped in immediately to help work out the details of settling the family into their Oak Park apartment and helping her parents, aunts and uncles with English classes and their search for jobs.
When she speaks of her childhood, Regina recalls her first formative years at Yeshiva Beth Yehuda, summers at JCC Day Camp, then Tamarack Camps, BBYO and a semester in high school spent in Israel.
With a love of Israel instilled in her through her Jewish education, Regina joined Federation’s Young Adult Division Mission to Israel in 2000. Then, two months later, she met Darren Colton. Married two years later, the Coltons would become active Federation volunteers on a leadership track, joining the Grosfeld Mission and a Partnership Steering trip to Israel. With two young daughters at home, Talia, 4, and Aryana, 2 months, Regina remains a committed volunteer – newly elected to Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy Board and a member of ORT. She also has been active with ADL.
On first memories of Jewish Detroit
myJewishDetroit: In the decades between the late 1970s and 1990s, nearly 7,000 Jewish emigrants from Russia made Detroit their home. Regina, your family’s story touches upon much of the work of Federation and its partnership agencies during that time. Please tell us a little about your childhood in Jewish Detroit?
I remember my childhood as carefree and I give my parents all the credit for working so hard to provide for me and my brother. I never felt pressure to adapt to our new home they way my parents did. At four years old, essentially I was just a sponge, quickly learning everything.
Where did you live?
We first lived in the Northgate Apartments, in Oak Park, where there was a large population of Russian Jewish immigrants. Many people who have been here for 30-plus years started off there. I’ve known all those families – and their kids – almost all of my life, so I’d say I’m firmly rooted here. I’m a Detroiter 100%.
On Jewish education
How did the Yeshiva transform you and your family traditions?
I attended Yeshiva from kindergarten through the second grade. It was a choice my parents made to provide me an early Jewish education. In Russia, we were secular, non-practicing Jews. The Yeshiva opened my eyes to a new world and taught me the meaning of the Jewish practices that we had to suppress in Russia. And, I loved bringing that knowledge home.
On Jewish camp
How did your Jewish camp experience influence you?
I attended JCC Day Camp the summer after we came to Detroit. That was another transformative experience for me. Right there at the ripe old age of five, I fell in love with everything Jewish. I spent thirteen summers at the JCC in West Bloomfield – from a little “Aleph” camper to a counselor. I went on to Tamarack Camps and BBYO as well. I believe all three solidified my sense of Jewish identity and community.
How did your experiences in Israel influence your next choices?
In 1992, in my junior year in high school, I had the opportunity to spend a semester in the Goldstein Youth Village in Jerusalem. I believe that experience has marked my life-long love affair with Israel.
I’ve been to Israel four times since then: in 2000 with Federation’s YAD, 2005 with the Grosfeld Mission, 2011 with the Woman’s Mosaic Mission and with my husband on a trip with Federation’s Partnership Steering Committee. When I think back on my travels with Federation – at the things that I’ve seen and heard and the people I’ve met – I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.
When I’m in Israel, I feel connected to all the things I love about our culture, our food, our peoplehood, our survival and compassion. It’s all so tangible in Israel. You can breathe it, you can taste, feel it. It’s what keeps me yearning to visit as often as I can.
Regina, you’ve described the steps that have led you to the community roles you play today. Who do you consider to be your mentors?
That’s a great question. Honestly, I feel like I’m just riding the coattails of the many extraordinary men and women who have made our community what it is today. And those who are very involved now keep bringing new people into the fold.
Let me start with Scott Kaufman, Federation CEO: his innovation, his ideas and out-of-the-box thinking have enriched and transformed the Detroit Federation.
And the work that goes on in Women’s Philanthropy is great - due to amazing volunteers and lay leaders. Also on Federation’s staff, Jennifer Levine, Rachel Robinson and Megan Topper provide leadership, support and a fresh approach to each and every committee, event and project.
As for my role with the Jewish Women’s Foundation – I have the opportunity to serve as a Foundation trustee, through the generosity of my husband’s grandmother, Diane Colton (of blessed memory) as well as the continuing generosity of the family.
And, I have to say how impressed I am with NEXTGen Detroit. I felt like we were doing good things with YAD (Federation’s Young Adult Division) in its time, but those things don’t begin to compare to the ingenuity and implementation of the programs that they have brought in today. NEXTGen is a whole different beast.
What inspires you today?
What inspires me today is the very thing that motivated me when I first started volunteering – and that’s the tenet we hold as Jews that we are responsible for one another. Moving to this community, growing up here and now raising my family here has given me so many opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s my turn now – and part of our Jewish tradition – to give back.
What makes Detroit a great place to live, work and play?
You can talk about the revitalization going on downtown, the return of young people to the city, but I think it all comes down to connections. Whether you’re new to the city or you’ve been here all your life, you invariably find that Detroit is an unusually close-knit and welcoming community and one that is capable of remarkable achievement.
There’s a dichotomy between our size and our strength. Like the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp,” our Jewish community here is nowhere near the size of metropolitan communities like New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia or Chicago. And yet, our ideas, programs, strength and leadership ‘live large’ and stand out as national models. We are a community that provides unparalleled opportunities for people to raise their families, educate their children and to succeed. There’s a sense of community here that prevails, and it never leaves you.
I will add that we have the best seven layer cake you’ll find anywhere and there’s no better Greek salad.
Restaurant: Tough choice, because we love to eat. But sushi is a fave choice: so our vote would go to Mene Sushi in West Bloomfield or Mon Jin Lau in Troy
Place to meet for coffee: Our kitchen (We have an awesome machine!)
Building in the Detroit skyline: The RenCen: it’s iconic
Place to take kids: Detroit Zoo, we take walks there often and always visit the polar bears
Favorite vacation place in MI: Charlevoix
Jewish food: Kishka (believe it or not) and my mother-in-law’s mandlebrot, you will never have better
Jewish expression: Oy!