From Indianapolis – once a Hoosier, always a Hoosier – Sherrie Singer now roots for her hometown Detroit, where she has lived most of her adult life. A Tamarack Camps advocate, Sherrie also speaks in glowing terms of GUCI, the Goldman Union Camp Institute, a URJ camp dubbed “a rabbi factory,” where she fell in love with “everything cool about being Jewish,” including the redheaded song leader, Danny, who would become her husband. Dating long distance through their college years, that “guy with a guitar” became a neurologist in practice today with the Michigan Institute for Neurological Disorders. And, many of their GUCI friends became rabbis and other Jewish professionals. “We had three rabbis and a cantor officiating at our wedding and six rabbis at our son’s bris.”
“Throughout my life, rabbis not only have been my spiritual leaders, but friends who have mentored me and inspired me. With their guidance, we started the nonprofit Thread-Connecting Jewish Women,” says Sherrie. “We’re an independent women’s group – not affiliated with any one congregation – partnering with other Jewish organizations in the community. We like to refer to Thread as a “community weaver”, helping to engage women to get involved.
The one who can never say no
Long before there was Thread, there was always Sherrie: the career volunteer with that trademark smile and boundless energy; the community fundraiser, the Federation committee member and the chair of community events and programs too numerous to list. “I’m the one who can never say no.” A past member of Federation’s National Young Leadership Cabinet, Sherrie was named the recipient of the Sylvia Simon Greenberg Award for Young Leadership in 2011. A member of Federation’s Board of Governors, Sherrie has participated in the Grosfeld Mission to Israel and in Federation Class of a Million. A continuing Melton student for the past 10 years, Sherrie has served as the Co-Chair of the Melton Advisory Committee.
Coming full circle from GUCI – the summer camp of rabbis in the making – Sherrie is now in position to shape the next generation of rabbis as a member of the Board of Overseers of Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. This spring, Sherrie will take her place as a new member of the Board of Hillel of Metro Detroit. Additionally, she will travel to Israel in celebration of her graduation with her cohorts in the prestigious Wexner Fellowship program.
Still counted “under the wire” of Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit leaders, Sherrie and Danny, both 47, are residents of West Bloomfield and the parents of Ari, 18, a senior at Bloomfield Hills High School, heading U. of M. to study Computer Engineering, and Gabe, 15 now a sophomore in high school.
In Conversation with Sherrie Singer on Her Jewish Journey
Five words that describe your leadership style:
Outgoing, creative, collaborative enthusiastic. . . Jewish!
On family, early years and influences
I was born into a wonderful Jewish family. We kept a kosher home where Jewish traditions and education were paramount. My family life is really the backbone of who I am as a Jew.
My love for learning comes from my parents. My mom, Renée, was an early childhood education teacher. My dad, Bernie Oppenheim, is a retired radiologist and an accomplished Jewish scholar with a Master’s in Religious Studies from Indiana University. Recently, he finished an eleven-year project writing The Powerless God, a study of post-Holocaust theology.
I am a great advocate of Jewish camping – a proven Jewish identity builder. At a young age, I began attending a secular camp for girls, but my mother encouraged me (actually she bribed me) to try a Jewish camp called GUCI just ten minutes from our home. Mom assured me that I could still go to the girls’ camp, if I agreed to go to GUCI as well. Otherwise, I would have to pay for the girls’ camp on my own. I went to GUCI that summer and was sold.
My temple youth group was another strong influence in building friendships, leadership skills, confidence and Jewish identity. In my senior year of high school, I was President of the Ohio Valley Region of NFTY (the North American Federation of Temple Youth) covering five states – Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. NFTY gave me the opportunity to travel to different cities for events and to often visit Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati.
In considering career paths, I gave serious thought into going into the rabbinate, but concluded that the business world might be a better fit for me. I attended Indiana University, where I graduated with degrees in Marketing and Management.
What brought you finally to Michigan?
My first job after graduation . . . and Danny. At my third interview for a sales position in a company where I really wanted to work, they offered me a choice of cities including Chicago. Chicago was my preference, because I had friends and family there. But in that interview, I also indicated that I wanted to eventually transfer to Detroit, because “there was a certain boy there …” As it turned out, they offered me the job in Detroit immediately.
I took the job, moved to Detroit and have loved it here ever since. Danny and I were soon engaged and then married after his third year in medical school, 22 years ago.
On community work, fundraising and community leadership
What drew you to the work of the Jewish Federation? Where did is start?
I was simply asked to be on a committee. That’s all it really takes to get involved in just about any organization. When I first moved to Detroit, I joined a young chapter of Hadassah and served on its board. That was my introduction to getting involved in the vibrant Jewish community. I really have never looked back.
Later, as a young mom with kids in school and a little more time on my hands, I started attending events and volunteering with Federation. One event snowballed into the next and, once you are on the radar, the committees come calling. I co-chaired an event called Community Connections, a wonderful entrée into getting involved with Federation Women’s Philanthropy. More recently, I served as a Vice President of Education, overseeing several subcommittees including Young Women’s Philanthropy, which I helped start several years ago.
I believe Federation is one of the best ways for people to develop their leadership skills. The staff is so supportive; the community leadership is outstanding; and the doors are always open for those who want to pitch in to help our community.
Describe how your missions to Israel have played a part in your communal work.
I’ve been to Israel five times, and every trip has been transformative. On each trip, I’ve learned something new about Israel and the importance of the role Jewish Detroit plays in our Partnership Region and throughout the country. I’ve also learned how Israel helps our communities in the Diaspora and brings us closer together.
My sixth trip to Israel is set for our Wexner graduation ceremony, coming up this July. That will be bittersweet for me, because I have loved the program and don’t want to see it end. And that’s the intention. Historically, the Wexner Fellows program works to build strong cohorts of community leaders in cities across the country. Two years ago, after a hiatus of 31 years in Detroit, the Wexner program returned to our city. And, you might say our cohort is making up for lost time. We’re 20 members strong and represent a broad range of ages, professions and special skills. I look forward to our dynamic exchange as we continue to work together.
Sweetest memories of Israel?
That was our son’s Bar Mitzvah during Temple Israel’s Family Mission in 2012. Our celebration took place at HUC overlooking the Old City in Jerusalem. Temple Israel has beautiful custom for the ceremony. We gather as one big family as the Torah scroll is opened and unfurled. Then, the parents hold the scroll for their children, and one by one, the B’nai Mitzvot recite a few lines from their parsha. With about 20 children reading that morning, it was an unforgettable experience.
On Thread – Connecting Jewish Women
How did you start Thread?
Like so many things in life, it started with an idea and a discussion with friends, Amy Shefman and Jennifer Fishkind. We felt that there was a void in our community for Jewish women in our demographic – in their late 30s to 50s. Our community is focused on young people, on creating opportunities and resources for the next generation. There’s also lots of programming for people in retirement. We started Thread to help fill the gap.
So often, women would come to me to say, I do “nothing” in this community, how can I get involved, where can I start?” Thread is our answer. We’re independent, interconnected and work across all streams of Judaism with the goal to weave the fabric of our Jewish community together through non-traditional learning and programing.
For our very first event in September 2016, we decided to take 46 women to Cincinnati to discover our American Jewish roots. We chose Cincinnati, a fun city to visit, and the home of HUC and the landmark Plum Street Temple. At the time, no one knew what Thread would be, but 46 women took a leap with us. And their response inspired us to dig deeper and reach further.
For our third event, we hosted an evening with Israeli activist, Anat Hoffman, Founder of Women of the Wall with 12 community partners. I’m proud to say we drew 450 attendees, from 10 congregations for that event. Since then, we’ve hosted dozens of speakers from around the world, conducted workshops and cooking demonstrations, provided community service opportunities, launched a book club, held “Camp Thread,” a retreat at Tamarack, and shared our stories together.
Because our programming is often hosted by our community partners, Thread is sometimes mistaken for a Temple Israel or Federation program. To clarify, Thread is an independent nonprofit; we are not a fundraising organization and there are no membership fees to join. Our events are open to the community and we invite women to subscribe to our email list at www.threadcommunity.org and follow us anytime on Facebook.
On the Board at HUC
From thoughts of becoming a rabbi, now to serving on the board of the HUC, what challenges and opportunities do you see in your role in service to the next generation of Jewish clergy?
I joined the Board last year, so I’ve just begun my term. I am honored to be an ambassador from the Detroit community and to see how I can help support future Jewish leaders by raising awareness of the seminary’s work.
Studies show that the landscape of American Jewry is changing, and people are looking outside the synagogue for Jewish meaning and Jewish life. My passion lies in Jewish continuity and helping to inspire the next generation.
In every challenge there’s an opportunity. Though it’s heartening to see more women entering the clergy, on the whole, the numbers of rabbis are dropping – most significantly in small communities around the country. There are small congregations that are losing their rabbis and can’t afford even to have student rabbis come for the holidays. It seems to me that it would be a win-win for us raise awareness and funds to help rabbinic students practice in those small communities.
Do you ever wonder what if you had become a rabbi?
It’s true that I enjoyed being the “rabbi for the day” at my Bat Mitzvah, and I have enjoyed chanting Torah for Rosh HaShana. But I’ve found my calling as a lifelong learner and a partner in Jewish community-building right here in Detroit. And in my own way, I know I’m making an imprint – by helping others become more engaged in Jewish life.
What next for you?
I’m excited to see through my new commitments including Thread and the HUC and Hillel boards. I look forward to staying engaged and to continue to grow with Federation and the other organizations I am involved with.
Restaurants: Selden Standard, Market North End (love the corn there) – Beau’s Grillery (for the make-your-own-salad) and anywhere with an outside patio!
Places to meet for coffee: Great Lakes Coffee. I have a lot of meetings there.
Building in the Detroit skyline: I’m a Hoosier at heart, a Detroit transplant, but I’d say the RenCen.
Place to take kids and visitors: Adventure Park at the JCC, DIA, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and Eastern Market
Vacation places: Any place warm with a lot of activities – love Israel!
Israel faves: Tel Aviv, Neve Tzdek (the Birmingham of Tel Aviv), Tzfat, Jerusalem
Sports: Tennis, biking and watching my kids play basketball
Jewish food: Challah, seven-layer cake
Jewish holiday: Sukkot
Jewish expression: Chutzpah!
Guilty pleasures: Cookies! (My mother claims ‘cookie’ was the first word out of my mouth and I’ve never met a cookie I didn’t like.)
Never leave home without (besides your phone): A credit card, because you never know when you need to shop or stop for a snack.
READING NOW: Becoming, by Michelle Obama; and my father’s book, The Powerless God
WORDS TO LIVE BY: Kill them with Kindness! The time is always right to do what is right.