A Professional Friend and Confidant
What does Erin Stiebel do? More like, what doesn’t she do? You’re looking at a Partners Detroit Young Professionals Educator, NEXTGen Detroit Board member, Director of NCSY’s GIVE, Great BIG Challah Bake MC, Wexner Graduate Fellow, matchmaker, one of the Jewish News’ 36 Under 36 and mom to three under five. Phew, we’re exhausted just reading that.
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
July 1, 2018
Erin Stiebel isn’t from here, but you’d never know it by looking at her calendar. Her weekdays are booked solid with coffee and lunch dates. Her evenings are filled with board and committee meetings, social events and impromptu visitors. Every Friday night, her Shabbat table is full. So how’d she get to be so popular in her non-native Detroit?
She might credit her work as an Educator in the young adult division of Partners Detroit, or her involvement with NEXTGen Detroit, or one of the many other organizations and initiatives she’s a part of here in the community. But, if you know Erin, then you know it has far more to do with her contagious personality and commitment to community than it has to do with any official business. And if you don’t know her (yet), read on. All things will be revealed.
“Make for yourself a teacher. Acquire for yourself a friend.”
“The majority of my day is spent investing in people. Every week I meet with between 8 to 14 young adults. It could be sitting down with someone to discuss his or her dating life. It could be talking about Jewish customs surrounding death and mourning with a young adult who recently lost a parent. It could be making a shiva call, dropping off dinner for someone who just had a baby, visiting someone who is sick or helping someone find the right trip to Israel. It could be anything, but it’s about showing up when someone needs you and giving unconditional investment and interest,” said Erin.
“Partners Detroit wants to be a resource for anyone who is going through any sort of life transition, anyone who is looking to grow, anyone who has questions and hasn’t been able to find the answers. I personally find that when you have a relationship with someone, you’re able to ask questions more openly and freely. In a one-on-one conversation, you can accomplish a lot more than you can in a group setting.”
Erin began working at Partners Detroit in 2014, two years after moving to the area. She describes Partners as the place where Detroit comes to learn. The organization works with people looking to bring Judaism into their lives on a deeper level and provide them with the resources, trips, conversations, friendships and connections to do just that.
“We try to be a source of Torah and Jewish education for whoever is looking to engage more Jewishly. In the young adult division, we host informal events like BBQs, cooking demonstrations, even a roller skating event over Chanukah. I also give classes on topics that I think are relevant to people in their 20s and 30s in various stages of young adult life.”
Over the years, Erin has given classes on Judaism and pregnancy for first-time expectant moms, now offering a follow-up Mommy and Me Lunch Bunch class once a week that looks at Jewish pearls of wisdom on parenting. She’s done challah bakes and “Shabbat in an Hour” cooking classes. She’s given lectures on davening and prayer and preparing for the High Holidays. She’s taught about giving charity and the ins and outs of tzedakah. That’s just to name but a few.
“Many young professionals are in a stage of life in which they’re no longer engaged in their campus Hillel, and many are not yet married, so they don’t necessarily have a synagogue they’re affiliated with. They’re in this stage of limbo trying to figure out what their Jewish identity looks like,” said Erin. “To be able to come to a Shabbat meal or engage with other young Jewish adults who want to have a Jewish identify and want to define what that looks like for themselves, that’s a very powerful opportunity. We work to create a space for young professionals where Judaism is celebrated and where asking questions is admired. Our goal is to help them engage more in their Judaism in a way that’s personal and meaningful.”
“I strongly believe that we are blessed to be a part of this rich Jewish heritage and it’s a loss for people to not be given the tools to engage in that heritage in a way that speaks to them. As Jewish people, we’re always on a journey, and journeys involve mountains and valleys of highs and lows. At different stages of life, people will be more tapped into their Judaism or less so, but I think always having a constant relationship with our Judaism is critical. I’m so happy to be able to help people figure out what that relationship looks like at different stages in their lives and help them experience a positive Jewish moment.”
“Will you come for Shabbos?”
Friday nights have become Erin’s favorite part of the week since she started hosting Shabbat meals for Partners Detroit young adults. Some weeks she and her husband, David, have two people, and some weeks they have 22, but every week is special, not only for the guests, but also for the Stiebels.
“For David and me, it’s such a win when someone agrees to come for Shabbos. Everyone brings their own traditions and personalities to our table, enhancing the entire Shabbos experience. It is so rich for my children to grow up in a home where people from all over the Jewish spectrum walk through our door and have a seat at our table,” said Erin. “I love showing people that Shabbat can be accessible and that it’s something they can do in their own homes with the same spirit and delicious traditional Jewish foods. It’s a chance to unplug and reconnect with the people in your life.”
Pulling out all the stops once a week is a lot of work. But Erin has a system and more importantly, she loves it.
“Sometimes people are like ‘How do you do this? It’s like making Thanksgiving every week.’ And I’m like, ‘Yea, it kind of is, but once you’re making a kugel, it doesn’t matter if you’re making it for four people or 40 people.’ I do have my easy, go-to recipes, and I like a good, one-pan recipe so I don’t make myself nuts. When I’m cooking for Shabbos, I’m feeding people who want to feed their bodies and their souls. It’s really the highlight of my week, and that’s why I implore everyone I meet to come for Shabbos dinner. To me, the greatest compliment is when someone says, ‘This was so great. I can’t wait to come back again.’”
Time at the Shabbos table isn’t just about eating. It’s also about laughing, schmoozing and for the guests and the hosts to make connections and get to know one another, organically or otherwise…
“Much to the chagrin of many, David and I love doing icebreakers at the Shabbos table. We have everyone go around and introduce themselves and tell a little bit about themselves. My favorite icebreaker question is ‘what was your first screen name?’ because the answers are usually hilarious. But with this new, young generation who didn’t use AOL Instant Messenger, it’s getting a little harder, so I may need to find a new favorite question,” said Erin. “What we’re really working on now is finding a song that everyone knows and everyone will sing along to. A lot of our guests don’t read Hebrew or aren’t familiar with some of the traditional Shabbos table songs, so we’re currently taking suggestions.”
A New Last Name and A New Place to Call Home — In Under a Week
Erin moved to Metro Detroit in 2012, just five days after her wedding. “It was that horrible winter where everything was ice and you couldn’t leave your house without slipping and falling.”
Her husband David, who is originally from here and a member of Frankel Jewish Academy’s third graduating class, left Detroit for a number of years, unsure if he would return someday. He attended college at MIT in Boston, moved to Chicago to start his career and then left to study in Israel at Shapells/Darche Noam for almost a year. When the two got engaged, David had just returned from Israel and accepted an amazing job opportunity based in Detroit.
“I was living in New York, and we thought David would be able to work remotely. When his new employer informed him that he was actually needed on site in Detroit, we had to make some major changes to our plan. I said to David, ‘if you’re making me move to Detroit five days after our wedding, we’re at least getting a house, because they’re like $12 there!’”
The couple house hunted for a while, and after not being able to find Erin’s $12 dream home (her New York understanding of Detroit real estate wasn’t totally accurate), they began their married life in an apartment in the heart of the Orthodox community in Oak Park.
“I couldn’t believe that I moved out of my apartment in New York to move into another apartment here. But we paid for our whole apartment what I paid for a room in a three-bedroom in Washington Heights, so that was a win. It was a wonderful apartment in a wonderful complex, and we made great friends that we’ll hopefully have forever. It started us off on the right foot and it gave us time to choose the neighborhood that was right for us,” said Erin.
Erin grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and couldn’t image that a community with as much warmth and inclusivity as her hometown existed. That was until she got a phone call from a stranger her first week in Detroit.
“We got a call during our week of sheva brachos from a young women neither of us had ever met before. She said, ‘Hi, we heard you just moved to town, and we’d love to have you for Shabbos dinner.’ I said to David, ‘We got invited out, that’s so cool!’ We went, and she and her husband are still some of our favorite friends in town.
But that was far from the last invitation. In their first year of marriage, Erin and David were invited out for every Shabbat meal — lunches and dinners. People in the community were so excited to welcome a new, young family to town that they were fighting over who got to host the Stiebels each week.
“I think it’s such a testament to this community and the chesed that goes on here,” said Erin. “If someone is new, this community wants to make them feel welcome. If someone has a need, this community wants to take care of it. Nobody needs to be alone for anything that they are going through, because everyone is here to embrace and support. I learned very quickly as the recipient of this kindness and thoughtfulness, that this is what you do here.”
Erin and David had no relatives when they first came to Detroit. Since then, David’s sister and her family have moved back to the area, but at the time the newlyweds were on their own. When they welcomed their first child, a baby boy, the generosity of the Detroit community once again overwhelmed them.
“The Friday night after our son was born, we had a shalom zachor at our house. My mom was in town visiting and was all ready to go to the store and the bakery and buy all the food for the party. Our neighbor told her, ‘Don’t go, people will bring things.’ And I said, ‘Maybe people would bring food to you, you’re from here. We’ve only been here a year. We have some people who may bring things, but we’re going to need to supplement.’ So my mom went out and bought tons of cakes and chips and soda,” said Erin. “Then at two in the afternoon, someone stopped by and dropped off a cake, and I thought, ‘Oh good, I’m glad we got a bunch of food.’ Then the next person stopped by, and the next. By the time Shabbat started, over 50 people had dropped off food. Our house was full.”
Now the couple lives in a house in Southfield with their three boys, Alexander, 4.5-years-old, Solly, 2.5-years-old and Louie, 10-months-old.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to live here when we first got here. I didn’t know anybody here, and that was very hard. But in good old Erin fashion, I made sure to talk to anybody and everybody I could meet, and to get involved wherever I could,” said Erin.
“I love my involvement in the NEXTGen Detroit community and being able to sit on the Board and meet young adults who are so passionate about bettering the greater Metro Detroit community. I love having a voice in the Orthodox community — both in the Modern Orthodox world as my children attend Farber Hebrew Day School, and in the Yeshivish community, as my oldest son will be starting Yeshiva Beth Yehudah next year. Being able to work in the community on so many different levels — on committees for synagogues, MCing Great BIG Challah Bake, all of it is so important to me.”
Yea, let’s talk about the Great BIG Challah Bake for a minute. If you were one of the hundreds of women who attended Aish’s Great BIG Challah Bake, Erin may look familiar. She played Master of Ceremonies for the event two years in a row at the Royal Oak Farmers Market.
“The Great BIG Challah Bake is a perfect example of how amazing this community is. Being able to stand up on that stage and look out into a room that is full of hundreds and hundreds of women who are from every pocket of the Metro Detroit community, all coming together to engage in a Jewish activity and say, ‘Am Yisrael chai. We’re all a part of this big picture. The tapestry is not complete without me being here,’ — to me, that is the ultimate.”
“I feel richer when I am able to be part of the greater Jewish community. I would never be content just sitting in my bubble. I have to be able to engage with everybody. I have to be able to meet people who are different from me and learn from them. I always tell my kids: We can learn something from everyone we meet and become stronger in who we are as a result of it. We must know what we stand for but also be open to those who are different than us. Being able to create that balance isn’t always easy, but makes for a much richer way of living.”
Joining the Federation Family
“Two years ago, I was convinced by a good friend to attend EPIC, NEXTGen Detroit’s annual fundraising event. It was during my year of mourning after my father, z”l, passed away, so I couldn’t stay for the whole event. I went with the intention of attending the portion of the program where they present their case for giving to the Jewish Federation and leaving right after. I was so moved by how the young adults in the presentation spoke about how the Federation impacted their lives that I knew I had to get involved. That was the beginning.”
There’s a long-standing tradition of Partners’ staff members being on the NEXTGen Detroit Board. Rabbi Shragie Myers, a NEXTGen Detroit Board member for two years, was promoted to the Executive Director of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah two years ago. Because of his new position, his time became incredibly limited so he made the decision to roll off the Board when the year came to an end. It was the perfect time for Erin to take her newfound inspiration and apply it to a seat on the NEXTGen Detroit Board of Directors.
“I think having a career in the Jewish community can often make us think, I did my part. I work in the Jewish community, so now I can sit back and let somebody else take care of the rest. But I do feel strongly that if I want the community to evolve in a certain way for me and my family, that I need to have a voice in the conversation. It’s not enough to do my work from 9 to 5. If you care about something, and you’re invested in something, you need to give of your free time as well,” said Erin. “By getting involved in NEXTGen Detroit, I got a fuller picture of the community, and I can see where else I can be of value and of service.”
In Silver Spring, Erin grew up in spaces with Jews of all denominations. And as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, she loved the inclusive environment the program provided. So she was thrilled to find Jewish diversity though her work with the Federation and NEXTGen Detroit.
“I always tell people who are not from here that what’s so beautiful about this community is that everybody can get involved and everybody can have a voice. And that everybody who is involved is so passionate about how this community is growing. If you’re someone who wants to make an impact and strengthen a community, if you come to Detroit in this moment, you will be able to do that.”
Summers Spent GIVING Back in Israel
Since high school, Erin has been involved in NCSY, the youth group of the Orthodox Union. Her parents were involved in NCSY when they were growing up in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina. And even though she grew up in an Orthodox community, her parents felt that the inspiration that NCSY could give Erin outside of her yeshiva day school education would be something valuable.
After high school graduation and a gap year in Israel, Erin started staffing NCSY programs. In 2009, she became the director of the NCSY program GIVE (Girls’ Israel Volunteer Experience), taking girls from all over the U.S. to Israel for six weeks to do volunteer work across the country.
“We work with the elderly, the disabled, soup kitchens, food pantries, Ethiopian immigrants and more. It gives the girls the opportunity to see Israel through the eyes of the people, and not just as a tourist. And it’s a very powerful experience, whether they’ve been before or not. They’re seeing how Israel runs on chesed and partnerships and people coming together to help one another.”
When Erin began, GIVE was sending 29 girls to Israel each summer. Now, the program has grown to almost 100 girls, from both Jewish day school and public school backgrounds.
“The girls have an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really learn about the special tool box that was given to them by G-d. If one is artistic, she can paint a mural at a school in an underprivileged neighborhood. If one grew up speaking Russian, she can go into a nursing home in Israel and speak to one of the residents who may not speak Hebrew. The tools we often take for granted are just the things that make us special and allow us to uniquely contribute to the fabric of the Jewish people.”
Now what do you do with all that “free” time?
Free time? Hanging out with my kids is the best way I spend my ‘free time!’ Playgrounds and Paw Patrol are my jam these days.
As an out-of-towner, though, I feel like most of my free time goes to maintaining relationships with friends and family that don’t live here through phone conversations and FaceTime. We FaceTime my mom every night during dinner with my kids.
I also dabble in matchmaking. I’ve got four happily married couples under my belt. I feel like I’ve been blessed to get to know a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, and I try to connect them to each other when I can. I just recently got involved with a shidduch initiative here in Detroit.
Favorite places to go around here?
The kosher, drive-thru Dunkin Donuts. Come on, it’s kosher and drive-thru! It’s really dangerous actually, it’s where all of my hard-earned Jewish education money goes.
We love going to the zoo, they have an awesome splash pad there. And it’s so close to where we live.
We also love walking around downtown Detroit, especially the River Walk. And we love the Science Museum. We’re still exploring, but basically we follow Chef Cari’s food truck. Those hand-cut fries are just something special.
I personally enjoy walking around Birmingham, it makes me feel really fancy. On the other end of the spectrum, I love Meijer. I can’t praise that store enough. It’s literally everything you could ever want. I could spend all day in there.
David grew up here in the Bloomfield Hills area, and his grandmother was a sculptor. A lot of her statues are around Detroit. So, we go on adventures to find the sculptures with our kids and show them how her legacy lives on.