Proud West Villager
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
January 1, 2015
Ask Leor Barak why he loves Detroit and, without missing a beat, he can rattle off a dozen answers. Born in Detroit to Israeli parents, raised in the Detroit burbs, Leor has followed his heart back to the city where he is a proud resident, a community leader, a new business owner, a musician. . . and a full-time real estate and business lawyer serving investors, individuals, LLCs and nonprofits.
Charismatic, passionate — a natural leader with more than a decade of legal, public policy and community experience – Leor received the Spirit of Detroit Award from the Detroit City Council in 2010. Additionally, he has been a driving force in the resurgence of a vibrant and diverse Jewish community centered at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue where he has served as Board President since 2011. His civic and community posts also include Vice-President of the West Village Association and Community Development Corporation, Trustee of JVS and Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.
A graduate of the University of Michigan with a BA in Political Science, Leor earned his JD from Wayne State University Law School and most recently completed his MBA at Kettering University. A self-taught, multi-instrumental musician and songwriter, Leor is the lead singer and guitar player in his band, 7Layers which he describes as “eclectic blends of funk, blues, rock, ska and danceable beats you can groove to.”
The air is crisp and clear, a perfect day to be downtown to take photos. Bathed in sunlight, the Ren Cen commands the Detroit skyline as we turn onto Jefferson, heading east to meet Leor at his home on Seyburn in West Village. It feels good to be in the city, to note the energy and vibe of the neighborhood along the row of new eateries and the splash of flowers of a new mural on Agnes. This is the kind of neighborhood that beckoned one to stay, to live, to invest, to build and to envision a bright future. Where else but Detroit? Just ask Leor.
Where else but Detroit?
myJewishDetroit: Leor, name 10 things you love about living in Detroit.
Leor: Detroit’s music legacy and talent pool; Detroit’s industry and cultural history; Detroit’s art and creativity; Detroit’s festivals – WinterBlast, Jazz Fest, Dally in the Alley; Jewish Detroit (talk about deep roots and community!); Detroit’s neighborhoods and West Village in particular; Detroit’s amenities – Belle Isle, the Riverwalk, Dequindre Cut; Detroit’s new developments and opportunities for business – like my neighborhood pizza shop on Jefferson; and last, but most important, my family! Detroit is my hometown.
On family background
From Israel to Detroit, from the Cass Corridor to the ‘Burbs
Leor: I love telling the story about my parents. When they first came here from Israel in 1978, they moved into the Cass Corridor because of its proximity to Wayne State University, where my dad was working on his PhD in Mechanical Engineering. They didn’t know at the time that Cass Corridor had the reputation of being one of the most dangerous places in the nation. It just made sense for them to live within walking distance of campus and it never occurred to them to commute from a distance of thirty miles away.
Then and now, it makes economic, environmental and social sense to live close to where you work or go to school. As my dad finished his PhD, of course, our family moved to Oak Park, then to Southfield and finally to Bloomfield.
myJewishDetroit: Were your parents born in Israel?
Leor: Actually, my parents were both immigrants from opposite extremes. My dad was born in Morocco and when he was just six years old, both of his parents died. As a Jewish child consigned to an orphanage in an Arabic community, the prospects for him were very poor. He eventually was brought out of Morocco, first to an orphanage in France, then to Israel as part of an international Jewish program.
My father’s original name was Felix Ohana — he got the name Barak in Israel because they wanted the children there to grow up with an Israeli name and identity.
So there’s my dad – an orphaned Jew who never liked to claim he was Moroccan. . . and my mom, born to a wealthy family in Romania under the communist regime. Her family tried to leave, but not before her father was imprisoned and tortured. Ultimately, they fled to Israel with little more than the clothing on their backs.
Though they came from very different family backgrounds, my parents were both Jews from the diaspora who were not safe in their respective home countries and who came to Israel to escape persecution. They met in Haifa while my dad was in the Israeli army and my mom was working a kiosk. We still have family in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Yerushalayim.
On early influences, growing up in Jewish Detroit
Leor: You know how there’s this really tight-knit Jewish community in Detroit? Well, my family was never really connected like that. We strongly identified as Jewish, but not religiously so.
I went to Lahser High School, while most of the Jewish kids in Bloomfield went to Andover, so I didn’t really have all that many Jewish friends.
I can’t say that I got my community ethic directly from my parents, but their childhood stories and challenges being Jews certainly influenced me. Also, my experiences and observations growing up in Bloomfield really informed my decision to go to law school. I consistently witnessed African American and Hispanic drivers being pulled over, while whites were less regularly stopped. I was naive, but it was confusing to me for a lot of reasons, one of which is that Bloomfield was mostly white. So I started asking questions, and began to realize that racial profiling was going on. I wanted to do something to change that and I went to law school originally to become a criminal defense attorney. I switched paths since then, but I’ve never lost my empathy, sense of identity and solidarity with the Black community and their struggles. As Jews, we should be the first to stand up for the rights of those who are oppressed and underprivileged.
On city life in Detroit
Leor: After law school, I was determined to buy a house in Detroit. Everyone thought I was insane. My parents were so set against the idea, they offered to help pay for a house in Ferndale, Royal Oak, anywhere but here in the city.
It was 2008. Sure, there were some Jews living in Detroit, but not many people my age buying houses and living around downtown.
I knew what I was looking for. I had this matrix in my head. I wanted a location near downtown, but in its own neighborhood enclave. I wanted a house with character, preferably a historic property. I wanted to be on a main transit route, close to shopping and amenities. I needed a stable community, some density and a potential for some kind of commercial development. So West Village was it.
I found this beautiful old “castle” – a duplex built in 1906 listed at $88,000 and bought it because it fit the bill and I wanted to be a part of the community here in Detroit. I also feel I had the foresight in knowing that the West Village neighborhood had potential. Today, there’s new business development, a commercial strip with new restaurants like Detroit Vegan Soul and Red Hook. And my parents are no longer worried about my decision. They love the neighborhood and feel at home here.
On the Downtown Synagogue
myJewishDetroit: For someone who claims to have little religious background, you’ve emerged as a deeply committed Jewish communal leader. How did you get involved with the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue?
Leor: For me, it’s always been about Detroit. It’s ironic that I moved to Detroit not thinking there would be a Jewish community — and frankly not caring all that much, and then, by happenstance, getting involved in a synagogue.
It was something that just happened because the last free-standing synagogue in the city was an institution on the verge of closure. This was an opportunity for those of us who stepped up – along with Oren Goldenberg, Courtney Smith, Lydia Thomas and a few others — to breathe new life into this amazing place.
In 2011, the Downtown Synagogue received generous dollars from the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation and The Jewish Fund to enable our growth. Just recently, we were awarded the Robert Sosnick Award of Excellence, based partly on the criterion of collaboration with other organizations. We were honored to win that award this year because it validates our diversity, our partnership – and fellowship – with so many different organizations and individuals in the city.
Today, the Downtown Synagogue has a full calendar of programs and events to serve its growing membership; we’ve made improvements to our building and added staff support; and we continue to garner the attention and support of the greater Detroit Jewish community with which we often collaborate. Additionally, we have nearly completed a strategic plan to further develop the Synagogue as a hub of Jewish life in Detroit. As much as we’ve accomplished, we have much more work to do and look forward to the continued support of the community.
On labors of love, pizza and music
myJewishDetroit: As a real estate and business lawyer, you’ve had a hand in many developments in the city. Have you any personal projects going on?
Leor: My day job as a real estate and business law attorney means I assist clients with buying, selling and leasing property, drawing up contracts for LLCs and nonprofits and occasionally litigation resolving land use disputes or other contract issues. Beyond a busy practice, I have three very different pursuits.
Recently, I bought this disaster of a house for $2,500 directly behind my duplex on Seyburn. It’s a historic house that was going to be demolished and turned into a parking lot — and for the love of the neighborhood, I was not going to let that happen. It’s going to take a lot of work — and a few years — to bring that house back to life, but I’m determined to do it. I might make money on it in something like seven years!
Another venture: I’m the new co-owner of a long-standing carry-out pizza restaurant at the foot of Belle Isle, re-opening early next year. I’ve been passionate about the pizza and calzones from this place — Garalinos — for years, but they closed down recently. The pizza was and will continue to be high-quality New York style, of which I’ve always been a fan. I passed the place a few months ago, saw a handwritten for-sale sign on an old pizza box in the window, and called the guy to inquire. One thing led to another, and here I am. I have a business partner who is great to work with and as excited as I am to bring the place back!
Lastly — and maybe my first passion — is music. I taught myself to play in college — started on the bass, but really progressed on guitar in college after winning an amplifier in a pool game. (It’s true, I would not be playing music if it weren’t for playing pool.) I learned quickly, formed a band and started playing gigs. I took a break for a few years while in law school and beyond, but I got serious about it again recently and couldn’t be happier with the progress and development of my band, 7Layers.
A few years ago, I named my band Kavanah — a beautiful Hebrew name meaning “intentionality.” However, no one pronounced it right, always mistaking it for Cavanaugh, like the Irish name or former Detroit mayor. So I knew the name needed to change. I can’t say exactly how the name 7Layers came to me, but one day, during a subcommittee meeting at the Synagogue where we were discussing plans to remodel the kitchen, the name just popped into my head and stuck. We don’t have seven members of the band, nor do we plan to. The name fits our spirit and our vision of a fusion of eclectic musical styles — funk, rock, latin, reggae, dance, hip-hop and others. It is very accessible music and easy to enjoy. We put on a killer show.
Place to meet for drinks or coffee: Craft Work in West Village
Building in the Detroit skyline: Wayne County Building with its gorgeous, copper statues and the Book Building with its green roof
Place to take kids or visitors: RiverFest for the Hydroplane Races, Belle Isle Slide, the Carousel on the Riverwalk
Vacation place: The Dunes or Marquette in Michigan; the Golan Heights, Lake Kineret or the Sea of Galilee in Israel
Sport: Futbol – that’s right, not football; billiards if you can count that as a sport
Jewish food: Jachnun – a Yemenite Jewish pastry served on Shabbat morning in Israel
Jewish expression: Sababa! A catch-all word in Hebrew meaning cool, okay; Chaval al ha’zman (Literally, what a waste of time. Sarcastic, meaning awesome.)
Guilty pleasure: Facebook (Hate it, like crack, on it because I have to be.)