Born and raised in Denver, avid skiers, Esther and Richard Zekman, both 39, never imagined that their medical residencies would turn to a permanent residency in Franklin, Michigan and a natural affinity for Jewish Detroit. “We moved to Detroit in 2000 strictly for our residency program with the full intention of moving back to Denver after completing our training,” says Rich. “Fifteen years later we are still here and have no plans to leave. Southeastern Michigan is our home.”
With their pagers never far from reach, Esther and Rich readily admit to keeping long hours at work.
“We are a team,” says Rich.
“We could never do what we do without one another,” says Esther. “If we’re not on the same page, pulling in the same direction, the wheels can fall off pretty quickly. So we lean on each other all the time to be where we need to be, to be available for one another and to be home for our three active little boys, Aaron, 9, Jonah, 7, and Asher, 3.”
“Being married to another doctor has advantages too,” says Rich. “The fact that we went through medical school together and started our careers together helps take the pressure off because we can relate to one another’s time constraints.”
Runners – and would be marathoners – the Zekmans met at the Denver JCC– working out. As Rich observed, they were “destined to be together” – two premed students in their junior year at Colorado State University (CSU), enrolled in the same classes and, coincidentally, taking on board positions at the CSU Hillel. Together, they became active on campus, as part of the group that revived Jewish student life and as founding members of the campus group Students for Holocaust Awareness. “Hillel was what brought the two of us together and strengthened our relationship,” says Rich.
Self-described as “driven,” the Zekmans are well matched in all that they do. Both earned their medical degrees from the University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kansas City. Rich, a Medical Oncologist, and Esther, an Obstetrician-Gynecologist, have each established a busy private practice affiliated with Michigan Health Care Professionals. As Hillel Day School parents and members of multiple congregations, they have been active in the community, assuming broader roles with Federation’s Israel and Overseas Couples Program and the Israeli Camper Program. This year Rich is participating in Pathways to Leadership and, together, the Zekmans are on board to co-chair Federation’s upcoming Maimonides 2015 Israel Mission scheduled for October.
On growing up in Jewish Denver and Choosing Jewish Detroit
myJewishDetroit: For two people who practically grew up together, how is it possible that you did not meet until college?
Rich: We were born six weeks apart, grew up 10 minutes apart up in the same city, but in two very different Jewish cultures. As children, our paths never crossed. I grew up in a secular environment and my family belonged to Temple Emanuel, a large Reform congregation in Denver. Esther grew up in a Modern Orthodox home.
Esther: My mother became more religious when I was very young. She owned the only kosher deli in town and worked hard until she retired. She now lives in Karmiel, Israel with my stepfather. My brother and his family live in Ra’anana, not far from Tel Aviv.
R: Though we had two very different backgrounds in Denver, here, in Jewish Detroit, we’re very comfortable to “meet in the middle.” Are we Conservative? To be honest, we don’t put labels on our Jewish practice. Esther feels comfortable with the mechitza (partition in a shul) and maintains a kosher home. We are affiliated and feel welcome at both Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield and The Shul in West Bloomfield.
We have found that this community is a great fit for us. If you’re Jewish in Detroit, it doesn’t matter how or where you relate to the spectrum of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism, because we tend to see ourselves as one Jewish community. We find ourselves at many different events at various synagogues and feel at home wherever we go. That’s one of the many things we always have liked about this area.
E: In choosing a job for Rich, we sat down and thought hard about where we wanted to raise a family, and finally asked ourselves why leave the opportunities we’d already found in our career, our home life and within the Jewish community right here. We wanted our children to have an opportunity to go to a top-notch Jewish day school and be raised with good Jewish values. We have been very impressed with Hillel Day School and are happy we chose this school for our kids.
On career choices
myJewishDetroit What early influences drew you to medicine? What drew you to your specialties? Both demanding!
Esther: I knew I wanted to go into medicine at a young age. I helped manage an internal medicine practice at the age of 16 and had the opportunity to learn some medicine from my boss while working. I watched the childbirth of her office manager (whose job I took over while she was on maternity leave), which sparked my interest in OB-GYN.
Throughout medical school, I explored many other fields but always came back to OB-GYN. I enjoy the dynamics and diversity of the field. I love working with my hands and knew I wanted to enter a surgical specialty. Following my female patients through their stages in life is exciting. Much of my office practice deals with preventative medicine. It is rewarding to teach my patients how to live a healthy life. It is the most privileged job to help life come into the world.
Rich: Honestly – I didn’t know what I wanted. My best friend was a premed student, so I followed that direction, but the more I learned about physiology, the more I loved it. I didn’t realize I was going to love the field of medicine until college.
And then my father was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia during my first year of medical school. That was the initial reason I concentrated on oncology, but later developed a passion for the field. After being a close family member of people with cancer (dad and sister), you deeply understand the horrific realities of the physical, psychological, financial and spiritual burden cancer takes on the patient. I have been inspired by my Dad, my sister, Liz, and many of my patients. Being an oncologist gives me perspective that I would not otherwise have. It is hard to complain about much in my life after seeing what others have to go through on a daily basis.
On Detroit: first impressions
myJewishDetroit: In many ways you have chosen Jewish Detroit twice, first as a place to work, then to stay and raise your family. What surprised you most?
E: Coming from an outside area, Detroit has an edgy, tough reputation. What we didn’t realize was how genuine and friendly people are here. We have come across so many outstanding people since moving to the area, from acquaintances at work, to our numerous friends, to strangers we meet in the service industry.
R: First impression — heads in the sand, it was all about medicine! I did my clinical rotations at St. John’s Detroit Riverview, a downtown hospital that has since closed, and there I saw a lot of pathology in patients in lower socio-economic situations, where people generally have more health problems. I saw a lot, and it was great training.
And to see how much has changed and all the things happening now – it’s like night and day, compared to when we first came here.
E: Obviously we miss the surroundings and outdoors of Colorado. We get back to see our family. But Michigan has a lot to offer as well. One if the most important things to us is the warm and nurturing Jewish community in which to raise our family. We also enjoy what Michigan has to offer such as Big City fun and the relaxing and beautiful Up North. We also like the proximity to two other world class cities, Chicago and Toronto, just a few hours away.
On family life
E: Balancing our work and family life is tough as there are not enough hours in the day. Sometimes work and family meld together, as our kids are no strangers to the hospital. When Aaron was little, we had several family time meals in call rooms.
For now, we try to do it all. Work hard, play hard. Strive to do our best for our patients and for our children. Being parents is by far the best thing we have done in our lives. As rewarding as our careers are, nothing beats being a mom and dad.
myJewishDetroit: Some advice to working parents?
E: Make the time for your kids, especially when they are small. Make it quality and make sure they feel loved. You also need to make time for each other. Communication and balance are essential to a healthy relationship.
R: Having an outlet helps with the balance; our kids’ activities, sports and celebrating the holidays – that’s what keeps me in balance. We also try our best to make it a priority, when we’re home at night, to put the pager away if we can – try to leave work at work.
myJewishDetroit: Biggest challenges?
E: Not having family nearby is hard on us and for our kids. My sister and grandmother still live in Denver and my father lives in Santa Fe. Rich’s sisters and mom and their families live in Denver – so we have to have a big life event to get everyone under one roof.
We tend to be creative, making our own traditions with friends who have become family to us.
myJewishDetroit: What got you involved with Federation?
R: Our friends! To be honest we didn’t know a lot about Federation. But over the years, we have come to know lot of people in the Jewish community through our children’s friends at school, our synagogue and through work. Our first introduction to Federation was when our friends, the Sobols and the Biedermans invited us to participate in a Federation’s Israel and Overseas Couples Group. It was a great experience.
One activity has led to another and now we’re making plans with Renee Horowitz to co-chair the next Maimonides Mission in the fall. This will be my first trip to Israel. Esther has been to Israel twice, first on a high school trip and then with her brother on a backpacking trip. We’re rookies, really.
E: As part of the Jewish Federation programs, we have become more aware of the revitalization occurring in Detroit. We have planted our roots in this region and have optimism that Detroit’s future is bright. We want to support the growth that has occurred. We want our children to feel a connection and have reason to want to be here once they are adults. We appreciate what this community has to offer and hope that others outside of the region, and people who are from here, realize what a gem of a community we have.
myJewishDetroit: What do you tell people considering moving back to Detroit or moving here for the first time.
R: Actually, we get the question in reverse – with people asking us all the time when we’re going to move back to Colorado. I tell them to come out here and check out our city and move here.
Sure, the mountains are great, skiing in Colorado is great – but the community here is fantastic.
Restaurants: Beverly Hills Grill
Place to meet for coffee or drinks: Mitchell’s Bar and Ocean Prime Bar; we often meet at the Starbucks at Beaumont, with a quick call “Are you still rounding? Let’s meet at Papa Joe’s (in the hospital food court.)”
Building in the Detroit skyline: Ren Cen
Place to take kids/ visitors: Up North: Boyne Mountain, Mackinac Island, Nubs Nob, Traverse City; Nearby: Franklin Cider Mill and the Michigan Science Center
Sports: Rich likes to play basketball; Esther is a runner; both love to ski
Jewish Food: For Rich, it’s matzo balls and latkes; Esther favors her mom’s homemade challah and homemade horseradish (actually, anything her mother makes)
Jewish Expression: Esther: Oy!; Rich: Mishugash (a code word at work)
Guilty pleasure: Cider Mill donuts
Never leave home without: iPhone and pager
Rich: Living a Life that Matters, by Harold Kushner nd Still the Best Hope, by Dennis Prager Esther: OB/GYN Board re-certification material – and shopping catalogues.
The family skis in Colorado every year.
Rich was a walk-on linebacker for the CSU Rams and now coaches the kids’ flag football.
Esther runs 5K races with the kids and is training to run a half marathon in May.
Rich ran a marathon in honor of his father at Traverse Bay Shore ten years ago, crossed the finish line and has never run again.