Meet Sherri Ketai, Israel Camper “Mom,” Jewish Detroit ambassador of goodwill, passionate and compassionate community builder, incoming Federation campaign co-chair, city booster at the center of the D.
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
October 1, 2014
“Can I get you some fruit, something to drink?” The consummate hostess, Sherri Ketai offers us the contents of her fridge as we sit down mid-afternoon to an interview in her home. Her hospitality is genetic as she admits in self-effacing good humor, “I’m a Jewish mother, I have to provide.” It’s the first week in September and already she’s made her famed “chicken soup for a crowd” — in preparation for the 70-plus friends and family members who will come to her table to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.
Goal oriented, passionate about her work, self-described as a “little bossy,” Sherri is a natural leader with the skills of a polished professional. Make no mistake about her career as a full-time volunteer: a former executive in sales for Sprint and the Apple spin-off Claris, at 51, Sherri is expert in managing her multiple roles in the community.
As Teen Mission Chair and immediate past Co-Chair of the Partnership2Gether Michigan Steering Committee, Sherri traveled to Israel twice over recent months, representing the face of Federation. In August, she was part of the decision-making team on the ground to assess Federation’s trauma relief efforts throughout the crisis of the seven-week war with Gaza. As incoming Co-Chair of the Detroit Federation’s Annual Campaign with Jeff Forman, Sherri will take on her most challenging role to date – leading Federation’s community-building fundraising effort with the goal of more than $30 million for 2015.
At Federation, Sherri has worked diligently, moving up the volunteer ranks in numerous capacities including Chair, Israeli Camper Program, participant in the Sherman Campaign Leadership Program, Assistant Co-Chair of the 2005 Family Mission, Member, Penny B. Blumenstein Leadership Institute; Chair of the It’s a Mitzvah Program and the Leadership Development Committee. She will continue to serve on the Israeli Camper Program Committee (as her sister, Stacy Doctoroff, will step in as chair). An Executive Board Member of Federation and Board Member of Hebrew Free Loan, Sherri also is an active volunteer for Friendship Circle, Camp Make-A-Dream, Forgotten Harvest and YAD Ezra. Previously, she has been active with the Society for Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, and a Board Member of JARC, NCJW and Hadassah.
In addition to her work in the Jewish community, Sherri is a city booster supreme with her husband, Jim, Managing Partner at Bedrock Real Estate Services. Sherri and Jim live in Franklin and are the parents of three sons, Josh, 23, a recent grad of Eastern Michigan University, and Adam, 21, and Evan, 19, both currently students at U. of M.
On family life and early influences
myJewishDetroit: Sherri, you’re a Detroiter, a Spartan, a part of a big family, with most members still in Michigan and staunchly committed to the city. Aside from “good luck,” is there a secret to keeping the family together?
Sherri: It’s true, we’ve always been fortunate to be a close-knit family. My parents were born and raised in Detroit, I was born in Detroit (Sinai Hospital), grew up in Southfield, went to Birmingham Schools and on to college in East Lansing. I left for Chicago after graduating from Michigan State, but early on, I made a pact with my younger sibs – brother, Marc, and sister, Stacy – that we would raise our families together to the best of our ability. It was important to us to have that solidity, because we grew up with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins nearby. It was the only life we knew, but it was so influential in our lives that we wanted the same thing for our own families.
When Jim and I got married, we got lucky again. We merged! Our families are together for every holiday. Every birthday. Every simcha. With the kids in school now, it is very important to me that the out-of-staters among their friends at school have a home-cooked meal and a place to go to, so our holidays are completely out of control now. It’s not unusual to get a guest count up to 80.
myJD: How did you meet Jim?
We met at a wedding. I was living in Chicago at the time and hosting an engagement party, along with a number of friends, at my parents’ house. Jim was the best man’s good friend – the brother of the groom. We’ve been married 25 years. Happy years!
On volunteerism and community involvement
myJD: You have a long resume of community work, how did you get your start?
I started with the life lessons taught at my grandfather’s knee. I would say that my grandparents – Eve and Sam Solomon (of blessed memory) – always have been a huge influence in instilling the values and utmost importance of family and community. It was my grandfather, in particular, who always encouraged us and taught us by example that being Jewish and a community leader means that you always find a way to give back, always give ‘til it hurts’ and always make sure that our people are taken care of.
myJD: What brought you to Federation?
Though my mom was active with ORT and my dad was involved with B’nai B’rith, I honestly can say that my own community involvement started at Shaarey Zedek when I was an adult with young children. Back when our kids were in religious school, Joanne Aronovitz, my dear friend (and partner in crime in many community ventures) suggested that we co-chair the PTA at the congregation. That was the start for me, and from there I got to Federation – chaired the Women’s It’s a Mitzvah program. Then step-by-step, I began to understand what was going on in our community and develop the knack for taking charge, organizing my efforts and delegating responsibility to others.
myJD: That sounds like the resume of a professional volunteer.
And that exactly is what I call myself: a professional volunteer. I love this work. I feel good about it. I feel it’s the right message to my kids and to everyone I know. We all have our roles, and this is mine.
myJD: Who do count among your mentors?
We are so fortunate to have so many strong women as leaders in our community. Marcie Orley has been a major influence. She was a next door neighbor and the one who really brought me into Federation in a way that made the difference for me.
Jane Sherman also has been a role model in all respects: As a participant in the Sherman Campaign Leadership Program, I’ve had the good fortune of watching Jane in action and seeing her spirit and passion.
Then there’s Penny Blumenstein – and her leadership program, which drew me even further into Federation and the commitment to work on a larger scale – which led to requests from Nancy Grosfeld and Beverly Liss for me to chair the Israeli Camper Program.
And there’s Terri Farber Roth – she’s unbelievable and a close friend now. We traveled to Ethiopia together and she was my roommate on Federation’s recent Solidarity Mission to Israel.
On Israel: Federation’s Partnership and Camper Program
As most people who work with me know, my heart has been in the Partnership for a very long time and it’s been a joy to serve as Chair of the Israeli Camper Program, the Sue and Alan J. Kaufman Family Teen Mission and the Israel Steering Committee. In those roles – along with Federation’s Family Mission in 2005 – I’ve been to Israel at least 15 times.
We have done so much great work building friendships in the Region, but one of the real game changers has been the Israeli Camper Program. When it started 13 years ago, we were recruiting kids from all over. Our process now is more selective, designed to build young leaders and lasting relationships in the Region. And, I can tell you from personal experience and the experience of so many other families here, that the impact for every one of us has been profound. Our campers now have families they know and visit in the Region. We are growing community in Israel that feels like a family, and our visits back and forth feel like homecomings.
I say with pride: the magic is working.
myJD: What was your experience in Israel during the conflict with Gaza?
You hear it and see it on TV; but the distortion is just terrible. Until you live it and experience it, you have no idea what people were going through. What we saw on a day-to-day basis was our Federation dollars put to immediate work. Without our support, the emergency services that take care of the children, the elderly and the frail would not have been in place. And, wherever we traveled, our first instruction off the bus was the location of the bomb shelter and the next words were ‘we can’t thank you enough for being here.’
On community leadership
myJD: From the standpoint of leading Federation’s 2015 Campaign, the fundraising engine of Jewish Detroit, what do you hope to accomplish?
First, I am honored that I was asked. It’s vital that we make sure to take care of our community. Whether our individual focus is on the elderly, families in distress or our community infrastructure – maintaining the facilities that are housing our 17 wonderful agencies — we have to take care of everybody, and in whatever way I can, I am happy to do my share.
What I bring to the table is my experience from our work in Israel – that practical, “can-do” spirit, if you will. We’ll always have a lot of work ahead of us, but when we share our passion and enthusiasm, the work can be fun as well. I’m excited to get started on what comes next at Federation. Because with the team in place, I know it’s going to be a fun ride.
myJD: What’s next for Federation?
NEXTGen is a biggie, growing in numbers every year. My vision is to continue to help support those numbers. To know that young adults now have a place to go where they can give back — and where they can find one another and share great experiences — that’s exciting to see. What NEXTGen is doing is unbelievable. I hope to bring that same energy to all of Federation.
Detroit has been the hard luck story for so long. Well, not anymore! We’re making our move. And we’re doing it in a very positive, fun way. And, of course, NEXTGen is just part of the picture. We can be equally excited about what Women’s Philanthropy and Alliance continue to do – as well as the vision of the Centennial program – along with our partner agencies, we’re all collaborating to take care of our future.
On Detroit renewal: making history
myJD: Sherri, as one who is literally married to the vision of Detroit’s resurgence, what do you see down the road for the city?
Overwhelming pride. It’s a great time to be a Detroiter. It’s hard to express because I’m living it, and I’m watching the transformation of all these magnificent buildings that were abandoned now being brought back to life. Take One Woodward, for example: today it’s sparkling, it’s magnificent, bright energetic . . . not since the turn of the last century has there been a greater movement – a moment in time for our city. Our confirmation is the fact that we’re attracting a lot of young people back into a diversity of new business enterprises.
Bedrock continues to be front and center of the movement – now with renovations or plans to re-imagine 67 buildings – each with the initiative to create the most eco-friendly, best experience every tenant has ever had, making use of every square foot in an organized, yet fun way. And it’s not just about the buildings; it’s about growing, giving people the opportunity to succeed in their own way.
Restaurant: Wright & Company: new downtown and fabulous. Beverly Hills Grill: always solid. And a shout–out to Jim Bellinson and Zak Sklar, bringing back a new Beau’s Grillery on Maple.
Place to meet for coffee: The Roasting Plant downtown. Starbuck’s in the burbs everywhere.
Building in the Detroit skyline: One Woodward – just incredible. The Chase Building is another favorite, (noting that buildings downtown are now changing all the time.)
Quicken Building Interior: dPOP! is spectacular.
City Vistas: The rooftop on the M@dison Building. Compuware Building on the basketball court, looking out, you can see all of Woodward.
Place to take kids or visitors: Downtown! For lunch, walking tours, biking on the riverfront, the Dequindre Cut, Eastern Market.
Favorite vacation place in Michigan: Charlevoix. In Israel: Tzipori in the Partnership Region.
Sports: Snowboarding, tennis, hiking, biking.
Jewish Food: Chopped liver, made with my grandfather’s old grinder, my sister-in-law’s kugel. And chicken soup, a family favorite.
Jewish Expression: “a gutte neshamah” — meaning a good heart or spirit.
Guilty pleasures: Spa time. Supper club with friends. Traveling with “the girls”— college friends.
Never leave home without: Neosporin! Used for everything. Dry lips. Cuticles. My go-to item.
Steven Jobs, by Walter Isaacson