David and Sky Brown

by Vivian Henoch

There’s Huntington Woods, there’s Palmer Woods, there’s Grosse Pointe Woods . . . and there’s into the woods with Kibbutz Detropia. A place as implausible as it is spiritual: just ten miles from Federation in Bloomfield Hills, down Telegraph Road – where the Rouge River runs through Ridge Road in the Riverdale neighborhood – this is Kibbutz Detropia: the homestead – and home base – for a growing Jewish nonprofit conceived and brought to life by Sky and David Brown.

Sky and David Brown: If ever there were two people bound to find their roots in Detroit within the growing network of Jewish organizations – including Hazon Detroit – to create “living labs” for a more sustainable, healthier community, Sky and David fit the vision like a glove.

Call them social entrepreneurs, pioneers, environmental activists, the very definition of “polymaths” – multiple learners open to new challenges and adventure. If you met David and Sky in the pages of a novel, for sure you’d read on.  . . .

David Brown, 37, is an Oberlin College grad in the visual and performing arts; teacher, poet, professor, chef, documentary film maker and true-to-life, fire-breathing, aerial-flying circus performer! On the ground, at public events in and around town or in the pages of the Detroit Jewish News, metro Detroiters might recognize David as the driver of Hazon’s signature Topsy-Turvy vegetable-oil-fueled bus – or the builder of Jewish Ferndale’s giant sustainable menorah.

Sky Brown, 38, Executive Director of Kibbutz Detropia, has an undergraduate degree in Criminology and Forensic Science from South University and a Juris Doctorate from The University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth; from a long line of teachers, farmers and lawyers, Sky is currently an assistant preschool teacher at Temple Emanu-El, religious school teacher at Shir Tikvah and WCCCD (Wayne County Community College) Prof in Psychology and Political Science. As former program coordinator of gardens and food for Hazon Detroit, Sky has helped set up many of the gardens in synagogues in town and designed the Sensory Garden at Tamarack Camps Farber Farm. A doula, urban farmer, “weaver of ritual and keeper of sacred space,” Sky is focused on deepening her Jewish religious practices as a Kohenet in training, soon to be ordained through the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. Sky and David are parents to Avi, 3, who attends the Early Childhood Education Center at the JCC.

 “Growing through the cracks”

A work in progress – with a piano on the porch, two friendly dogs to greet visitors and two cats in the yard, the “Kibbutz” is warmly inviting, but not yet the communal living arrangement that Sky and David initially envisioned in moving to Detroit in 2013. Clearly, their goal is to develop an intentional community space on their own densely wooded 1.5-acre property. Beyond their lot, they have full access to an adjacent field – a 4-acre city parcel where they tend their vegetable gardens, fruit trees and a “permanent sukkah” for hosting educational events.

One of the smallest pilot sites among Hazon’s national cohort of Jewish organizations committed to environmental advocacy and leadership, Kibbutz Detropia has earned the Seal of Sustainability – now one of 16 accredited sites in the metro Detroit area. Launched in 2016, Hazon’s Seal of Sustainability program calls upon Jewish congregations, schools and other organizations to plant the “seeds of change that grow” into greening projects. To be eligible, cohorts commit to audit their practices, form a green team and implement at least three sustainability projects over the course of the certification process.

David Brown in the front yard of Kibbutz Detropia
David Brown in the front yard of Kibbutz Detropia

“Welcome to our little utopia”

In the rain on a late afternoon in December, the cheery blue house with the hand-lettered sign ‘Kibbutz Detropia’ is a welcome sight among the empty homes on Ridge Road. “We joke that our name is an obvious mash between Detroit and utopia . . .with a nod to dystopia. But most of the time, we aim towards utopia,” says Sky. “Our place is magical in the winter and so lush and green in the summer when the trees are in full leaf, you can barely see the other houses on the street.”

“When we bought the house in 2014, it was the biggest lot available for sale in Detroit,” David continued. “With its finished basement, it was much easier to imagine a community hub here.” But like so many homes throughout the city, the basement took a hit in the 2014 flood. As David describes, it’s taken baby steps to refurbish their house which had been abandoned for ten years. Having the basement waterproofed this past year, they plan to spend the winter adding two bedrooms that will double their living space to nearly 2,000 square feet.”

Working on the goals of clean energy, sustainability and zero-waste in a household that grows much of its food, uses the natural resources of firewood for heat, brings in the minimal in packaging and practices recycling and composting four ways, Sky and David are leaders in eco-activism by hands-on example. Come spring, the Browns expect to produce more crops from their field, thanks to a grant from Hazon to purchase a solar-powered pumping system to use the water from the River Rouge.

Sky – admittedly a shy public speaker – now runs an online shul and leads services every other Friday night, alternating with Shabbat dinners prepared by David. Together, the Browns serve thousands of meals to visitors at their table every year (currently 100% on their own dime).

Partnering with Repair the World and PeerCorps teen volunteers, Sky and David work with kids a least twice a month. “We’ve written our own Haggadah, created our own lulavs, built menorahs, made our own maple syrup, conducted workshops by open invitation on Facebook – all to build ritual, tend to those in need, sing, dance and create welcoming spaces around us in our own little corner of utopia here in Detroit. It’s hard work – and yes, we’d prefer to be paid full time,” says Sky. “But we’re deeply grateful for all the support we have.”

In conversation with Sky and David Brown

Sitting around the wood-burning furnace in the comfort of their home, an interview with Sky and David easily turns into a conversation where every straightforward question turns into a fascinating digression. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

myJewishDetroit: Where did you grow up?

Sky: In eight states, but I think of Minneapolis as the closest place to home.

David: Bloomfield Hills. Simple.

myJewishDetroit: How did you meet? 

Sky: It’s a little ridiculous: I met David on YouTube. I started studying aerial silks when I was in the middle of law school. Watching other performers online, I saw David doing a move I really wanted to learn. I spent weeks hunting him down (there are a lot of David Browns out there).  We then started an email correspondence and that went on for about eight months, until David bought me a ticket to meet him at Burning Man – (the annual arts event in Black Rock Desert, Nevada where thousands gather to build a temporary city). I flew there from law school for the weekend, with no stuff—no tent, no nothing. . . and I never found him!

David:  We planned to meet at sunset – that seemed so romantic. But if you arrive just a little late, it’s pitch dark!

Sky: David was looking for the dots that accentuate my eyes (yes, among other things, I have been a tattoo artist). But in the desert, everyone was wearing goggles.

David: After never meeting at Burning Man, Sky and I kept up this intriguing communication. (She’s even made a book from a compilation of our letters.) Eventually, Sky bought me a one-way ticket to visit her in Massachusetts.

Sky: David had just moved to Portland with no real commitment, and I wasn’t sure how long our visit would be. A week? A month? I figured I’d just buy David the return ticket when I was ready for him to go.

 David: And I never went back.

myJewishDetroit: What brought you to Detroit?

Sky: It’s an interesting story. We had big plans: moving to the mountains of North Carolina where my best friend had this beautiful farm. We were all set to go after my graduation from law school, when we discovered that David had a little brain tumor that gave him something called Cushing’s disease.

David: Sky correctly diagnosed the thing with Google.

Sky: And then we found that David’s insurance only worked here in Michigan.

David: As it turned out, one of the top surgeons in the country – the guy who does the very specific surgery I needed – happened to be at U. of M. Luckily, I was his last patient before he retired.

Sky: I came to Detroit with every intention of hating it. But, as my mom always told me, things happen for a reason. It’s true – especially in hindsight. Living in Detroit can be exhausting and sometimes frustrating, but there’s always something here drawing me back.

myJewishDetroit: Why Kibbutz Detropia?

David: We’ve discussed that a lot – with each other, with our board, as participants in the broader discussions at conferences we attend and in our coaching sessions with Hakhel, the Intentional Community Incubator run partly through Hazon.

The phrase that best describes our vision is Rewilding Judaism. That may sound strange to our suburban/urban Jewish sensibilities, but it encompasses much of what we’re doing within both our spiritual practice and our physical presence in the place we’ve made our home. Of all places, here in Detroit, we have chosen a wild space. We don’t have a manicured lawn to mow; we’ve replaced our driveway with a small crop of an ancient grain of wheat from Canaan. We grow much of our own food, and even our farming practices are largely permaculturally sustainable, inspired by letting nature do its own thing.

I believe we are here to serve a deep need for younger people to explore, discover and practice their Judaism in ways that feel wholesome and nurturing to them — beyond the formal institutional settings which have yet to fully connect or engage them.

Sky: As a Kohenet in training, I’m learning the ancient indigenous Jewish practices of women before the Temple was destroyed – primarily those sacred roles women filled before they were written out of every ritual. What I hope to do is to help people see the wisdom and beauty of our ancient land-based Judaism and learn to adapt its practices to modern life in the diaspora.

The Kohenet movement, now in its 10th year, is certainly growing in numbers, and I think there’s a growing need for its presence in the Midwest. In naturally related skills, I am both a trained doula and a volunteer at hospice. Lately, I’ve been working to create a radically inclusive chevra kadisha (burial society). We host a “death café” once a month; we gather to share a meal and our thoughts about the ways we might demystify the life cycle along the journey from birth to death.

myJewishDetroit: Clearly, you’ve both tapped a vein of deeply spiritual Judaism. What is your Jewish educational background?

Sky: I am a Jew by choice, but along the way to conversion, I learned that my grandfather was secretly Jewish. There was something comforting in that knowledge, because I was so drawn to Judaism. I was never Christian at all, not per se. In fact, I was a pretty stringent atheist.

David: You could say we both have complex Jewish backgrounds. My dad, Emery Brown, escaped the horrors of the Holocaust by immigrating to the United States with his mother when he was 13. My parents adopted me when they were in their 50s. I grew up at Temple Israel – active with the youth group NFTY, but stopped practicing Judaism by the time I got to college. I studied a lot of different religions in college and found a lot of spiritual fulfillment in nature. As I started re-learning about Judaism as an adult, I found that all that nature related stuff was Jewish all along.

Sky: David was not practicing when I met him, but out of respect for his dad, I studied and followed the steps to convert at Temple Israel.

myJewishDetroit: What is on your wish list for Kibbutz Detropia?

David: Visitors! Always welcome. We host guests from all over the world who come for Shabbat dinners, classes and workshops. Our doors are open to WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), Airbnb travelers and the occasional traveling Priestess.

Sky: More funding! We have a beautiful business plan. Our focus now is on funding, writing grant proposals and getting our name out there.

David: Volunteers. We are always in need of those willing to work in the gardens, help us build something, teach a class, sing and dance with us, suggest something we haven’t considered before.

Sky: We can always use tools and equipment to help us do our work. Currently, we’re focusing on rebuilding the basement. Our next step will be getting a new stove so that we can be officially certified Kosher.

David: Sponsors! For dinners, events, large and small. On the average, a Shabbat dinner costs us $12 per person and we host about 10 people per dinner.

Sky: More neighbors! I still dream that more people will join us and live here in the neighborhood. We’re thrilled to have Rabbi Moshe Givental – a Russian immigrant and former psychotherapist who has recently moved to town – now partnering with us on healing workshops.

For more on Kibbutz Detropia, its neighborhood, its work, its vision, just reach out online or call 313-348-7107.