By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
November 29, 2018
Together since their sophomore year at U of M, married for 11 years, Alicia and Jeff Chandler already have beaten the odds. “Statistically, it’s far less common to find a Republican married to a Democrat than it is to have a Jew married to a Catholic,” Alicia notes. Never at a loss for words in discussing their different religious or political perspectives, Alicia and Jeff are in full agreement on their approach to parenting. “We may disagree on which candidate to check on the ballot or how to dedicate our time outside of work and family,” says Jeff, “but what brings us together is a lockstep belief in our family values and the priorities involved in keeping our commitments.”
So exactly how does a family with a strong Jewish-Catholic identity work? Jeff sums it up best in the word committed. “I might augment that with a hyphen: over-committed,” Jeff adds on second thought, “but that describes our lives on both the family front and the career front.” Members of both Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills and Holy Name in Birmingham, the Chandlers have chosen a “double-time” commitment to the religious education of their children, given Jewish studies and Catechism in equal measure for Brady, 10, and Morgan, 8.
Rising stars in community leadership, Alicia and Jeff both balance a wide range of professional and communal roles. A graduate cum laude from Harvard Law School, Alicia is a practicing attorney for Trinity Health as General Counsel for the Continuing Care Division. Additionally, she serves as President of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC (JCRC/AJC). A member of the Federation Board, she is currently a Fellow in the prestigious Wexner Heritage Program for Jewish Leadership. A University of Michigan graduate in Organizational Management with a broad background as an underwriter, Jeff is Executive Vice President of Surety, VTC Insurance Group – a company founded in 1953 – where both he and his father are now partners. An active supporter of Alicia’s communal activities, Jeff also devotes his energy and resources to the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan and to the ACE Mentor Program – a nationwide organization providing hands-on experience and trade opportunities for high school students in Architecture, Construction and Engineering.
Alicia and Jeff: On long weekends at work
With not much bandwidth for an interview with myJewishDetroit, Alicia and Jeff found an hour for reflection on their busy lives, starting with a snapshot of their weekend as the news from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh reverberated through the Jewish community on Shabbat, November 3, 2018:
Alicia: Jeff and our son, Brady, were on a trip up North. My daughter and I were heading to Windsor for a bowling date when we heard about Pittsburgh. So right there, the question looms: how do you tell your children about tragedy that hits close to home? Because of my role with JCRC/AJC, I was immediately called upon to work with our JCRC/AJC Executive Director David Kurzmann who was helping to reach out and work with our media contacts, along with Federation’s security team, to start planning our response in the community.
That was my Saturday. Moving on to Sunday, I left for Chicago – another JCRC/AJC responsibility – to attend the annual Midwest Diplomatic Marathon, where 10 of us from Detroit and about 50 representatives from the Midwest were scheduled to meet with the Consulates from about 25 countries. Back on Monday to our community grieving; we spent much of the day helping plan the media coverage. Tuesday, I was in attendance for the vigil at Temple Beth El – in addition that evening, I had a Federation board meeting and a Wexner Heritage meeting already on my calendar. As you might imagine, one of the many things I’m thankful for is that Jeff is so understanding of how much time I dedicate to the community.
Jeff: Both of us have busy schedules, but we always find the time for each other when we need it. The emotional impact of the events of that week aside, we do what we have to do to support our family. Sometimes that’s work, and sometimes it’s solo parenting for the weekend or taking the kids to school an extra morning.
A: It’s always interesting in an interfaith relationship to address the different dynamics in the lived experience of spouses as it has to do with anti-Semitism or feeling under attack. Interfaithfamily.com has done some good work on this subject, but I will say when we finally were able to connect on Tuesday, Jeff had a lot for questions about our security at Temple and a new appreciation of what it means for us and our family to stand in solidarity in Jewish places.
On interfaith love, marriage and parenting
myJDet: Please share a little about your family and educational background.
J: My grandfather was a Detroit policeman; my parents both grew up in Detroit in the area around Seven Mile and Gratiot, the neighborhood of Assumption Grotto, where they attended school and mass. My dad went to Northwood University on an athletic scholarship; after graduation from high school, my mom made her way into the working world, then worked for the Secret Service briefly before she decided to retire to raise my brother and me. After college, my Dad went into the insurance business; he has worked in that industry ever since, joining VTC in the early 1990’s where he is now the senior partner. I am privileged to be partners with my dad, and we’re fortunate to have my younger brother work for the company as well. It’s an interesting family dynamic – to be business partners with family members.
A: Jeff and I both come from the similar entrepreneurial backgrounds. My grandparents lived in Detroit, moved to Oak Park and Southfield, where my parents were raised and where the family was active in Workmen’s Circle. My grandfather was a scrap metal dealer, and he passed before I was born. My other grandfather owned an Amoco station at 9 Mile and Coolidge and my grandmother opened a clothing store. More than likely, my grandmother’s store influenced my parents’ decision to go into retail and open their store, Rear Ends. My sister followed my parents’ footsteps into the business, and I followed a completely different path. My father fired me twice before I finished high school and likes to call me the “black sheep of the family” for going to Harvard Law school.
myJDet: How did the two of you meet?
A: We met on the porch of Jeff’s fraternity house at a party during Welcome Week of our sophomore year. Within two weeks, we were dating, and we’ve been together ever since.
Coming to college from Utica Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township, Jeff had never met a Jewish person before he got to U of M.
J: Before she met my family, Alicia literally didn’t know the roads in Detroit went higher than 14 Mile.
A: We had been dating for three or four months, when Jeff invited me to his home to meet his parents – up on 24 Mile Road. Jeff left a few details out of our introduction. As my father-in-law likes to tell the story, Jeff was running a little late, and right before I arrived, he casually announced, “I have a new girlfriend, she’s Jewish, she’s liberal and she’s from West Bloomfield, don’t say another word about it.” [I am actually from Farmington Hills, but Jeff didn’t know the difference.] And with that, he jumped into the shower. From the start, we had no idea how our relationship could possibly work. All we knew is that we were happy together.
J: When we graduated from U of M, we were focused on next steps in our careers. We didn’t want to move “for” one another, but also didn’t want to move so far apart that our relationship couldn’t work. I was looking at work in Chicago, New Jersey and Connecticut and Alicia was looking at law school in Connecticut, Boston, New York. We settled on Hartford for me and Cambridge for her.
A: . . . and within my first year at Harvard, we committed to this idea of a multi-faith life as part of our identity moving forward. For either of us to give up our religion would never have felt like the right choice for the long run.
myJDet: Did you study each other’s religion?
J: I never enrolled in a Jewish studies course and Alicia was never slapped by a nun with a ruler, but we’ve been going to services with each other for two decades. There have been a zillion meaningful moments, but for me, the first time I realized our relationship could work was the Christmas Alicia went to services with my grandfather. The differences in our religions are stark, but when you share the experiences of a service, you find many similarities as well. You stand up, you sit down, you give thanks, you talk about the sermon or homily, and you become a family.
A: Working for Trinity Health, a Catholic organization, has certainly helped me to deepen my understanding of the Catholic faith and its social teachings.
J: Faith is a journey, as are relationships.
A: Jeff and I also make a point to be involved in our children’s religious education. We don’t just show up, drop off, and pick up the kids at religious school. We have a lot of discussion with the faith directors and their teachers, so that we understand what they are learning, how they’re learning it and what the rituals are. And I’m the first to ask if I don’t understand something and Jeff is the same way.
J: There’s no template for multi-faith parenting. It takes work. So far, we’ve been lucky that our congregations have been welcoming, encouraged and encouraging! When people see the effort we put into it, I think they are more willing to put in the effort too. As I have found, going to Jewish services – hearing the readings of the Torah – has deepened my understanding of the roots of my own faith.
A: I will add that our children are really engaged with their religious studies and have never once complained that we send them to Temple Beth El on Sunday and Catechism after school on Mondays. I think our children know that we’ve really embraced this life and they’ve embraced it wholeheartedly.
myJDet: The December holidays must keep you busy.
J: When there’s an overlap, we’ll light the menorah on Christmas. But we try not to conflate the two holidays. We intentionally keep the stories separate and emphasize the meaning of each holiday to make sure that one doesn’t get lost in the other.
On professional and communal commitments
myJDet: Alicia, what drew you to Trinity Health?
A: I had been a commercial litigator, not finding the work particularly fulfilling, and Trinity opened an opportunity to work in an environment where the focus is on faith and healing. The work is rewarding. And, given my Jewish communal responsibilities, I’m also thankful to work in an environment that has been flexible. I feel blessed to be in a job that has allowed me to be President of JCRC/AJC, a role that has been the most wonderful fulfilling experience. Additionally, as I’m working my way through the Wexner Heritage program, I find that my professional life, my family life and my community life are starting to blend very well together.
J: A lot of my friends say it must be nice to be your own boss. I just remind them that I have thousands of bosses. Every client is my boss. Though it’s more responsibility and pressure, it’s also tremendously rewarding to have moved back from a large insurance carrier on the East Coast to join a business with family involvement. VTC Insurance Group is Michigan’s largest independent insurance and surety bond agency with the flexibility of a local firm and the capability of a national firm. But we’re still a closely-held business with deep roots in Michigan.
On interfaith advocacy and JCRC/AJC
myJDet: Alicia, in your article for the Huffpost, entitled “Rejecting Chrismukkah.” you quoted Rabbi David Wolpe: “The Shamash is the candle that lights the others. Be the Shamash.” Let’s start with those words and talk about your leadership role with interfaith advocacy in the community.”
A: My life is interfaith in two different ways: There’s my interfaith work, as it’s been involved with JCRC, as well as AJC before the merger; and there’s my interfaith homelife overall.
In my community work, one area of focus where I have seen some change is in Jewish-Muslim relations. Twelve years ago, when I first started this work, we would have never thought that the two communities would be as connected and as strongly tied as they are today. I think of Imam Almasmari from the Michigan Muslim Community Center, who stood up on the bimah at Temple Beth El to give one of the invocations for the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. Perhaps, more significant than that, at the Michigan Muslim Community Council Annual fundraising dinner, despite only a handful of Jews in the room, every speaker invoked Pittsburgh, prayed for Pittsburgh, and asked for people to give to the Launch Good Campaign, the Detroit-based Muslim charity raising money for the Pittsburgh Jewish community.
I believe my relationship to Jeff has helped deepen my insights into my communal role. The idea of people from different backgrounds coming together, bonding in friendship or falling in love is not novel. In reaching out, I’m also reaching in . . . tapping into my own experience.
Increasingly, I’m also trying to reach into the Jewish community to advocate for interfaith families. Through my work at Wexner, I have come to see there’s a role that I can serve in the community in speaking about our story.
On the power of faith
myJDet: There are many shades of meaning in the word “faith.” Through the lenses of your “separate” religions, how has faith deepened your connections to your families, your community, and the world?
J: At this point in my life, Judaism, Catholicism and my family are so intertwined, I don’t know that I can look at them through separate lenses. I don’t see one, without considering the other, in terms of the family – it’s a core value.
A: I think at the end of the day, we each have an abiding belief in G-d. So, even if we talk about that in a different form, we raise the children to understand that G-d created us.
J: There are times people struggle with the inherent conflicts of what we do and what we believe. Catechism and Bar Mitzvah? On the surface, it can look like there’s conflict embedded. We don’t hide the conflict or deny it or explain it away. We discuss it—this is what we have to do to understand one another.
A: I think the kids like that we treat them in a fairly grown-up manner; they feel very happy and comfortable in their skins.
myJDet: What can we all learn from your journey?
J: Obviously, we haven’t reached our destination. Again, it comes back to our commitment to the work of staying true to ourselves, our family and our heritage. If you are willing to put in the work at it and for it, it doesn’t have to be entirely an either-or choice.
Restaurants: Mabel Grey in Hazel Park (Our kids are foodies, too.)
Places to meet for coffee: J: Commonwealth. A: Great Lakes Roasting Company.
Buildings in the Detroit skyline: A: The Guardian Building (noting that my daughter started referring to RenCen as the Giant Alexa!) J: The Fisher Building. As a kid, I always thought of it as the beacon, a marker to a bigger world.
Places to take kids: For just the four of us, nature walks. We’re happy on trails in the woods.
Vacation place: Iceland for the most incredible family journey we’ve taken. Up North, we have a place in Evart, Michigan.
Favorite holidays: A: Passover & Christmas. J: Christmas. And Yom Kippur. To me there’s a solemnity to the service that I like.
Favorite foods: J: A good hamburger, venison, fondue (an interactive meal) with the kids.
Sports: Michigan football (our third religion). J: I just finished my first Spartan race – 9 miles, 27 obstacles.
Guilty pleasures: J: Peanut butter (by the jar) and Buddy’s pizza. A: I’m still hooked on The Big Bang Theory.
Never leave home without: A: My knitting (the way I stay off my phone).
A: The Map of Salt and Stars, by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. Just finished Fox Hunt, by my friend, Mohammed Al Samawi .
J: Republicans Buy Sneakers Too: How the Left is Ruining Sports with Politics, by Clay Travis
WORDS TO LIVE BY
“Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” – Oscar Wilde