Advocate, Activist, Agent of Change
Jewish Detroiter and quintessential communal professional, David Kurzmann returned to Detroit in 2015 to join the JCRC/AJC as its Executive Director after nearly a decade of service to the Chicago Jewish community. With credentials proven to be impeccable for the job, David, 31, is the youngest in Federation’s agency network of top executives.
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
September 28, 2017
All roads lead to Jewish Detroit, or so it would seem for JCRC/AJC Executive Director David Kurzmann. “A third-generation Detroiter, I’m a product of this community,” he claims. “That is to say, I had the great opportunities my parents, Danny and Lisa, afforded me.” David is a graduate of Hillel Day School, a member of the founding class of the Frankel Jewish Academy, and holds a B.A. in Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies and Political Science from the University of Michigan. And all that is just for starters.
David’s entry to the world of Jewish communal work put him in the right place at the right time in his first job out of college – working as Program Assistant at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, three months before the museum’s grand opening. For two event-filled years at the museum, he facilitated public programs and other outreach initiatives for widely diverse audiences in the community.
Prior to joining JCRC/AJC, David worked as Assistant Regional Director at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Greater Chicago/Upper Midwest Regional Office. At ADL, he facilitated the agency’s “Confronting Anti-Semitism and Words to Action,” programs to empower Jewish students to address bias in their communities. His responsibilities also included campus outreach, law enforcement initiatives, Jewish communal security programs and the Glass Leadership Institute – a young leadership development program.
Now at the helm of JCRC/AJC Detroit, David is also an active volunteer in the broader community, proud to serve on the boards of the Interfaith Community Leadership Council (IFLC) and New Detroit. At home in Royal Oak, David and his wife, Katie, are new parents, still discovering the joys of first words and first steps in the first year of life of their daughter, Sari.
David Kurzmann on what JCRC/AJC stands for
myJewishDetroit: In five words, describe your agency.
I’ll try: We’re Community. Representatives. A Voice of Advocacy in Action.
In other words, the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC stands for the Jewish community – in relation to the community at large in Greater Detroit, in Israel and around the world.
JCRC/AJC an agency of the Jewish Federation — which means our role is to take action, specifically to build relationships that strengthen ties with our diverse neighbors.
We’re a complex agency in a complex world: Every day and especially in times of crisis, JCRC/AJC is the public affairs voice of a vigilant Jewish community – and an enduring advocate for Israel – committed to building bridges within the community – through media and government relations.
And above all, JCRC/AJC is volunteer-driven. We can’t do justice to our mission without the support and vision of our leaders, and the hands and hearts of our volunteers.
David: On family background, education and early influences
I am the product of the institutions of this community – and of the wisdom of my parents to send me to Hillel Day School, and to then take the leap of faith with the dream of the Jewish Academy which was just opening its doors in the fall of 2000.
I always assumed that I would go to Groves High School, but, instead, we took a chance, along with those first pioneering students and their families. And when you start with a strong Jewish home life, where Jewish holidays, traditions and family are sacred, and put my two formal educational experiences together – Hillel and the Academy – add the informal Jewish education of Camp Ramah in Canada, you get the basis of a very “solid Jewish citizen,” to say the least.
I must add that Camp Ramah will always have a special place in my heart as the most important Jewish institution in my life. That was where I formed my love of living Jewishly. My dad served as Chair of the Board there for years. And, most significantly, that’s where I met my wife, Katie. We were fellow campers starting at the age 10, stayed long distance friends through high school and college – and married six years ago. Our family still maintains a summer cottage in the area.
myJD: What was your experience as an activist in college?
By the time I got to the University of Michigan, I was already on a path towards a career in Jewish communal service. We were a Maize-and-Blue family, but Ann Arbor is where I came of age.
For me, campus life at U of M was a new landscape, so different from the bubble where I grew up in West Bloomfield, 365 days a year living among members of my own community. After the Second Lebanon War in Israel in the summer of 2006, we came back to campus hearing this narrative that Israel had committed mass atrocities and human rights violations. I couldn’t stand by and just listen. I was compelled to stand up, speak out, apply all that I had learned from firsthand experience at home and in Israel, and get involved.
So, fast-forward a couple of years, thinking about my career path, I realized I couldn’t leave all that passion behind on campus as an extra-curricular activity. I needed to keep going with the work I had started.
myJD: Were your parents active volunteers in the Jewish community?
Absolutely. The pattern of community involvement in the Kurzmann family goes back to my grandparents. In my role today, I meet many people who tell me they remember my grandmothers – Marjorie Kurzmann and Carole Aaron (both of blessed memory) – who worked as volunteers with Federation’s Women’s Division and Hadassah. I learn about all kinds of things they were involved with that I never knew about. My grandfathers were active too, and passed those values down. Growing up, I saw my parents always involved as volunteers and community leaders with Hillel Day School, JARC, Camp Ramah and Federation. My dad was President of the Jewish Academy.
David: On his career path leading home to JCRC/AJC
myJD: What brought you back to Detroit?
Family brought me home.
After I graduated from U of M, I went to Chicago to follow Katie, who was my girlfriend at the time. That was a good choice! And Chicago was a good place to start my career, far enough from home to push me out of my comfort zone, but only 280 miles down I-94. In Chicago, I had career opportunities with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and then the ADL – two organizations where I developed skills in speaking, organizing events, community relations and working with students. But Chicago was never really home for either us. (Katie grew up in Rochester, New York). After eight years, Katie and I were done with city life. We felt it was time to move on and move closer to family. Coming home to Detroit was a natural choice that’s worked out for both of us. Katie’s Jewish network here closely matches mine – she’s just returned from Israel as a participant on the esteemed Becker Marcus All-Star Mission, geared specifically for Federation’s NEXTGen leaders.
myJD: How did you find your perfect fit with JCRC?
As an ADL staff member in Chicago, I knew the JCRC network, worked with JCRC in Indianapolis and Milwaukee on programs, where I understood their importance. But I didn’t know Detroit’s JCRC and, honestly, didn’t have much experience with the Detroit Jewish Federation.
So, when I decided to come home, I just started looking for opportunities. I called Scott Kaufman and talked to community leaders like Stanley Frankel and asked them what’s going on? Where can I make a difference? I was in no rush. It took a little time, but it was important for me to find the right opportunity. And I did.
JCRC is the perfect agency for me. And, I would underline the word agency. We are a Federation agency and a partner in every sense. It is an enormous privilege to get an allocation of community dollars – the result of the work that goes on – on a daily basis – in fundraising, and all that is involved in educating and cultivating donors. I like to think that I give back in the work we do, in our narrative and messages to the community. Working together, we are incredibly fortunate here in Jewish Detroit. It’s a great honor to walk into the Federation building every day – to get the support of our shared resources in marketing, accounting, security – and to be brought in with the team as a peer with the senior leadership and to collaborate in events. Whether it’s with NEXTGen, Women’s Philanthropy or Israel & Overseas — these are blessings that all come with being an agency of the Federation. It’s a special designation.
In your view, how have the roles of JCRC and AJC been expanded with the partnership?
I will emphasize that we have a partnership with the American Jewish Committee, not a merger of agencies. I was hired by JCRC two years ago. Several months into the job, the prospect of joining forces with AJC was brought to my desk. We were doing much of the same work, raising money independently. By combining our resources, we now have the premier Jewish global advocacy organization at our side and a thought partner at the forefront of many issues affecting the Jewish community. And we also have the voice of David Harris who is one-of-a-kind communal leader, whose messages and opinion pieces help inform the work we do. Together, it’s a great fit for our community.
Because of the partnership, several AJC leaders have joined our board – including our President, Alicia Chandler, a gifted young leader, currently in the Wexner Fellowship Program. In addition, I must acknowledge our former President, Dr. Richard Krugel, for advocating for the partnership and his confidence in us to pull it together. As I’ve learned, it always helps to have a Butzel Awardee in your corner.
myJD: Who do you count among your mentors?
There are many, but, specifically, there are two people whom I turn to for guidance, now that I’m sitting in the Director’s chair. There’s Kari Alterman – former Director of the AJC Detroit, now at the William Davidson Foundation. (The fact that she’s married to my cousin, Eddie Alterman, keeps her in close touch.) And there’s David Gad-Harf, a past Executive Director at JCRC, now at the Henry Ford Health System as Director of Corporate Relations. It’s so helpful have people who were in the seat prior to you to generously share with you their time, experience and perspective.
David: On advocacy, action and issues of the day
Israel: As the agency of Israel advocacy in our community, our job is to speak up, speak out and to seek partnerships to help local Detroiters understand why the Jewish community cares about Israel, why we raise money to support it, why we send all those missions there. Our conversations can get heated, but we strive to keep those conversations centered on facts and balanced. When we talk about Israel, we acknowledge its complexities and speak up when we have concerns. Our responsibility is to defend the security and well-being of Israel as the Jewish state and our homeland. That message is unequivocal—we cannot budge on that.
BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) against Israel: As much as it pains us that our students on campus are still dealing with the BDS movement against Israel, to date, no college has divested from the State of Israel. In fact, we’ve had a legislative victory on the issue here in Michigan. As a result of a concerted effort led by JCRC/AJC, and championed by Dennis Bernard, a Federation leader in government relations, Michigan became the 16th state in the nation to pass an anti-boycott bill into law.
Anti-Semitism: It’s not the primary mission of the JCRC/AJC to combat anti-Semitism; the organization responsible for that is the ADL (Anti-Defamation League). Anti-Semitism is the oldest form of hate – there’s an undercurrent of it that’s never gone away, but what has happened now – and I think we’re all wrestling with this – is this uncorking of the bottle, where toxic discourse has been normalized. In America, we don’t outlaw hate speech as some other countries do, but as Jews we are compelled to fight it . . . with more speech! Our words matter. Discourse and debate can and do lead to better understanding and work to mobilize the community.
Immigration: It’s a hot topic now, but immigration is a Jewish issue. As a Jewish agency, we’re not going to hesitate to take a stand for refugees . . . or speak out to protect immigration rights. At times, it feels like walking a tightrope – keeping the discourse about the policy and the issues, and not the politics and the people. But that’s what we’re charged to do day after day. While everyone else is going about their day, our job is to make sure our neighbors know that the fate of one community is the fate of all communities, and that the Jewish community cares.
Community Outreach: Look at where we live, look at our demographics in Detroit . . . how can we NOT engage our neighbors? Our interfaith outreach has been bold, particularly with the Muslim community. Mitzvah Day, for example, could have been kept as a Jewish volunteer activity, but we’re not the only ones who need something do to get us off the couch on Christmas Day and make a difference – so we engaged the Muslim community to volunteer with us.
Our challenge now is to expand that outreach. Certainly, we can point to individual successes and initiatives in engagement between our Jewish and African American communities – but in our community-to-community relationship, we’re not yet where we should be. We can do so much more.
Jewish Continuity: Some of the toughest issues we face as community are not JCRC/AJC’s issues alone. Our community is excellent in so many ways, but we are influenced by the national climate, issues like affiliation, assimilation and the role of our institutions in communal life. How will the next generation support our institutions? Does it see a home in its synagogues? Our agency is not about Jewish continuity, per se. We can help give Jewish people a voice, and keep individuals in the fold, but how do we grow and flourish? How do we afford our day schools, our Jewish camp experiences, our care for seniors, our safety nets in place for those in need or in crisis? What is the American Jewish relationship to the State of Israel? I think about these things not just as an Agency Director, but as a member of the community – as husband and a father, as one who cares deeply about our future.
Volunteers: Sometimes the challenge of being part of an organization like ours is that everyone is drawn to the promise of the new— the fresh new initiatives and grass roots projects. Our work is essential community work, steeped in our deep and abiding knowledge of the community. Bookstock, Mitzvah Day, our literacy programs in the Detroit Public Schools – these are all legacy programs run by a legion of volunteers.
To continue our work, and to grow, we need an influx of new volunteers. And that’s not to dismiss our more seasoned supporters. We are proud to have six decades of leadership on our Board. That is something I cherish, because we need the institutional memory of our devoted volunteers like Micki Grossman and Roz Blanck along with our new voices whispering in my ear – to keep pushing us forward.
By the very nature of my job, every single day, I’m reminded: it takes a community. And we’re all in it together.
Restaurant: Vinsetta Garage and the “Kurzmann Kitchen” (Mom and Dad’s home cooking)
Place to meet for coffee: Red Hook in Ferndale
Place to take kids: Apple picking at Blakes Orchard and Cider Mill in Armada, MI and the Eastern Market in Detroit
Summer vacation place: Skeleton Lake in Muskoka Ontario, home to Camp Ramah and the Kurzmann family cottage
Sports: Water skiing, swimming
Jewish food: Corned beef, pastrami – a good Jewish deli sandwich; but the kitchen is the center of Kurzmann home; we love to cook ethnic food and make a mean spinach paneer and pad thai.
Jewish Expression: “If you will it, it is no dream” – Theodor Herzl
Guilty pleasures: Donuts or a good apple fritter
Never leave home without: The baby!
Reading now: More Than Managing: The Relentless Pursuit of Effective Jewish Leadership, by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (A must-read for the JCRC/AJC Board, provided by our President and Wexner Fellow, Alicia Chandler)
Words to live by: “Life moves pretty fast, and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller, from the movie in 1986 – the year David was born