Patti Aaron

by Vivian Henoch

“Volunteering is the ultimate win-win. Doing good feels good!” says Patti Aaron, who will be honored this month as the recipient of JCRC’s 2013 Activist Award. For nearly three decades, she has put her skills and passion to work for the benefit of many. The youngest child of Betty and D. Dan Kahn, Patti grew up watching some of Detroit’s most inspiring and entertaining leaders and never forgot how much fun they had.

Patti at the greenhouse at Henry Ford Hospital
Patti at the Greenhouse at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital

Patti credits her sister, Andi Wolfe, with introducing her to ORT, whose mission resonated with Patti’s conviction that education is the most reliable gateway to economic self-sufficiency. To that end, she has held numerous leadership positions on local, national and international levels of the organization. Patti was instrumental in establishing the David B. Hermelin ORT Resource Center in the Kahn JCC.

To Patti, tikkun olam is a mandate to repair the whole world, not just the Jewish corner of it. As a mentor, tutor and lay leader, she has committed extensive time and resources to organizations that strive to build bridges of understanding and collaboration with people of diverse faiths, culture and socioeconomic status. JCRC’s focus on addressing the community’s most challenging social issues was a natural fit for Patti, who served as a board member and chaired the Jewish Coalition to Defeat Proposal 2 (for Affirmative Action).

A former Vice President of the Jewish Community Center, Patti is a recipient of the JCC’s Susan Alterman Young Leadership Award. Patti now serves as a Trustee of the Jewish Women’s Foundation and volunteers with Jewish Family Services and Washtenaw Literacy as an ESL teacher and tutor in Ann Arbor. Turning her attention to issues of food justice, environmental sustainability and individual health, Patti most recently established WholeHeart Group, LLC, a company that produces events focused on professional development, health and wellness and community building. She is currently an Advisory Board Member for Project Healthy Schools, a program of the University of Michigan Health System.

A native Michigander, Patti resides in Ann Arbor. She received a Bachelor of Science in Medical Technology from the University of Michigan and held positions at Detroit Receiving Hospital, DMC’s Children’s Hospital and Perry HealthNet (a division of Perry Drugs). Patti’s children, Nicole 25, Amanda 23, and Bryan 18, are her inspiration and motivation for all she does to leave the world a better place.

On growing up in Jewish Detroit

myJewishDetroit: Patti, for many young people in the community, your family influence on Jewish Detroit is known primarily as a name on the JCC building in West Bloomfield. Please share how your parents, D. Dan and Betty Kahn, and other community leaders inspired you to take up the causes for which you’ve worked so passionately over the years.

My father was an active leader for Israel Bonds and Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) so, as a child, I ended up attending many fundraising events with my parents. I might have had the choice to stay home, but I was highly motivated by the ever present dessert table! I expected to be bored, but was pleasantly surprised to see my father and David Hermelin having a ball while building awareness and raising money. They both enjoyed using showmanship to ‘sell’ the organization and their sincerity, style and positive message was infectious. Lesson learned…promoting a good cause can (and should) be fun and rewarding for everyone.

Growing up with a family business (Production Tool Supply) also made its mark. My father’s work always came home with him, and for many years (very pre-computer), he crafted the company’s catalogs on our ping-pong table, cutting photos of tools and blocks of text with an Exacto knife, and piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle before sending them on to the printer. He was hands-on and uncompromising in his work and taught me the power of targeted marketing, of ethical business practices and the importance of building lasting relationships with customers. Those lessons have deeply influenced my professional, volunteer and personal life.

myJewishDetroit: In what ways do you see Jewish Detroit changing from that “great” generation and those golden years?

Every generation has the opportunity to be a ‘great’ generation and I’m delighted that Jewish Detroit has an inspiring and creative group of new JD activists and leaders!  The methods may be different, the inventive use of social media as an example, but the desire to help is palpable, and there is just as much need, both locally and globally. What resonates most for me is the desire to redefine what we call “Jewish causes.” I’m inspired by what I see in a young Jewish community acting to engage a greater Detroit population and focused on a collaborative approach to revitalization.

On the David B. Hermelin ORT Resource Center

myJewishDetroit: You have a long history with ORT and credit your sister, Andi Wolfe, with introducing you to the organization. What has kept you with ORT all these years? What are some of your proudest moments?

It was Andi’s volunteerism that inspired me when I was in my 20’s and finally had the time, the interest and the freedom to make my own choices about organizations where I could best use my professional skills.

Patti Aaron at ORT
At the David B, Hermelin ORT Resource Center in the JCC, West Bloomfield

I was a new mom when Andi suggested I attend a Women’s American ORT (WAO) meeting with her. At that time, 1988, women’s organizations like WAO, Hadassah, NCJW and others were in a major state of transition. They were all on the brink of taking major steps towards reinvention – because women were returning to the workforce in droves and had less volunteer time or need for the connections that were made through membership and volunteer organizations.

In ORT, I found a natural fit and outlet for my energy and professional skills in marketing and sales and a organizational staff in place to make things happen. ORT’s mission resonated with my core values of helping individuals to achieve economic self-sufficiency via marketable job skills education.

myJewishDetroit: Since its establishment in 2003, the David B. Hermelin ORT Resource Center has helped hundreds gain the computer and office skills they need to succeed in the workplace or keep up with technology for personal use. How did the Center come about in Jewish Detroit and can you share with us plans for future developments?

Metro Detroit has been home to generations of loyal and generous “friends of” ORT supporters, but ORT never had a programmatic presence in our community.  In the late 90’s there was great interest in starting one. The economy had started to shift and the need for workforce retraining was being touted by everyone from local business owners to President Clinton. Years of due diligence, both within the Jewish and broader community, confirmed that an ORT technology training center would be a definite asset.

It took more than the ORT community to understand that a programmatic presence would be of value. I get much of the credit for bringing this center into existence, but it could not have happened without the support of a number of key decision makers and influencers, among them, the visionary lay and professional leadership of the JCC and Jewish Federation.

Hermelin ORT also was blessed with a talented and tireless director, Shaindle Braunstein-Cohen who created curriculum and partnerships that best served our community. The collaborative effort which brought about Hermelin ORT reflects how ORT operates globally; in partnership with municipalities, international aid organizations and funders to bring about the best program with a curriculum that serves the needs of a community, as well as the individual.

As a result of the economic tsunami which hit Michigan, the demand for for Hermelin ORT’s training (and retraining) programs was far greater than anticipated.  The Better Jobs Opportunity (BJO) classes (free to unemployed and underemployed individuals) were filled to capacity with long wait lists. The diversity of the students was unprecedented – from ‘no collar’ to white collar workers. Those who’ve never learned to work with a computer and those who had always relied on assistants, but now find themselves having to learn a skill they never thought they’d need.

Hermelin ORT’s close and productive relationship with JVS has been critical to its success. Today, Hermelin ORT is a proud member of the JVS family. Hermelin ORT continues to do what it does best, provide specific job skill and office technology training. JVS requires this training as part of its complete package of services for people who are in transition or losing their job by helping them to get work or get retooled for work.

At the ORT computer training center
Computer training: ORT in action

On social activism and the JCRC

MyJewishDetroit:  In your long and distinguished career as a community activist, it seems you joined the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council at an opportune time as well. Tell us a little about it. 

JCRC’s work on behalf of the Jewish community has always inspired me. It is absolutely essential to have a media savvy team of professionals to ensure that the Jewish community is fairly represented in the public domain. I am  particularly inspired by JCRC’s intergroup relations work – building bridges of understanding and collaboration that promote a just and civil society. The people whom the JCRC attracts to its leadership table are smart, talented, politically diverse and tuned-in. Despite a wide array of opinions, they share a deeply felt commitment to JCRC’s mission, respect one another and are willing to discuss, to learn, to understand. They epitomize what JCRC stands for.

It was an honor to be asked to serve on the board and to chair the Jewish Coalition to defeat Proposal 2 (the creatively titled Michigan Civil Rights Initiative – MCRI).  Unfortunately, Proposal 2 passed and Michigan’s constitution was changed to outlaw the preferential treatment of minorities (by race, color, sex, or religion) in getting admission to colleges, jobs or other publicly funded  institutions.  The constitutionality of the proposal is still being challenged, but I believe its passage was chilling to those, like me, who believe in the true meaning of social justice and the innumerable benefits of diversely populated public institutions.

On food justice and WholeHeart

myJewishDetroit: From job training to social justice to food ethics –your leap to food reform and healthy choices for underserved populations seems to be a natural development for you. Tell us more about your involvement with WholeHeart group.

I’ve always felt a deep spiritual connection to the natural world. Growing food is a meditative and rewarding experience for me, so my engagement with organizations focused on equalizing access to healthy real food is not a surprise.

I established WholeHeart Group after moving to Ann Arbor and meeting many terrific people responding to the inequalities of race and class that permeate our food system. After a brief foray into food production, WholeHeart is now focused on its original intention – to be a conduit for people to gather, learn and grow (literally and figuratively) together. We produce events that inform, empower, activate and build supportive communities that aim to address a variety of social challenges.

In May 2014, WholeHeart will sponsor Elevate Ann Arbor, the first in a nationwide series of conferences focused on personal and professional development, health and wellness and philanthropy.  Stay tuned for more details!

On Detroit’s resurgence

myJewishDetroit: As a lifelong Detroiter, involved in so many organizations, what do you see as the city’s greatest opportunity or challenge?

The opportunities in Detroit are numerous and I certainly have respect for all those currently planting the seeds for healing and regrowth. The challenge is to take all the new energy working to help the city and to channel it in a way that honors and engages those who have been living in the city all along.

myJewishDetroit: What do you tell young people considering moving back to Detroit or into the city for the first time?

If you see yourself as an entrepreneur, if you see yourself as creative force, if you value the quality of life that comes with a sense of heartfelt community and collaboration, come to Detroit. But please know that our city is not a blank slate, as is so often stated. I would rather say that Detroit is a complex landscape where you can add own personality and presence to enrich the community already in place.

On passing the baton

myJewishDetroit: How are your children involved in social activism?

Nicole, Amanda and Bryan are extremely proud to be part of the legacy left by my father, and I’ve no doubt they will make their own indelible mark in their own unique way. They’ve had plenty of great modeling, both within the family and from our community. Each has already put in much more volunteer time than I had at their age!  Each has an independent, smart and creative mind and a big heart so I’m certain they will continue to be part of making the world a better place.

On favorites:

Restaurant: Vinology in Ann Arbor

Coffee hangout: Mighty Good Coffee, downtown Ann Arbor

Grocer: People’s Food Co-Op and the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market

 Jewish food:  Betty’s (mom) Kugel

Healthy snack: Fresh, locally and organically grown fruits and veggies

Food blogger: Mark Bittman
Reading now: In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler