Bob and Lisa

by Vivian Henoch

It’s not easy to introduce Jewish Detroit’s Bob Aronson standing on one foot. . .  and here goes.   

As Federation’s CEO for more than 20 years and Chief Development Advisor today, Bob continues to be a major influence in shaping Jewish Detroit and Michigan’s Partnership2Gether Region of the Central Galilee. Past president of Birthright Israel and the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and an adjunct professor of Jewish Philanthropy at the University of Michigan, Bob has set the gold standard for Jewish professional development and philanthropic leadership on the world stage. 

Born in Milwaukee, a frequent flyer to Israel from his adopted city of Detroit, Bob is never far from home in his visits to the Galilee: to Federation’s tri-city community in the Partnership Region; to Kibbutz Yifat, where he spent summers as a teen and where his grandparents are buried; to Zippori where he draws his inspiration as an accomplished artist; and back to the roots of the Jewish people in the ancient synagogue in Zippori National Park where he exchanged vows with Lisa Schyck this past June on their Israeli “wedding tour.”

Lisa and Bob in Israel

“I believe G-d has blessed me,” he said in his remarks to his guests at the commitment ceremony with Lisa. “G-d has led me here.  He gave me the strength to work here, the right souls to connect with here. He made me a Jew here.”

Transforming lives

By happenstance or by design, there couldn’t have been a better time and place for Bob’s and Lisa’s wedding celebration. Guests included Bob’s sister’s family from Kiryat Tivon in Israel and members of the original Partnership Steering Committee. “We had nearly 50 guests, Israelis and Detroiters together,” Bob recounted, “And, to a number, every single one came to me with stories about friendships that have continued, families who visited one another – the many ways they have interconnected and have been changed by the Partnership since its inception 25 years ago.”

And who better to officiate the ceremony than Rabbi Reut Hammer? When Bob first met Reut and her husband, Yair, on the Partnership Steering Committee in 1994, they were secular Jews, residents of Moshav Nahalal. Today, Reut is a mother of four, a Progressive Rabbi, leading a congregation of several hundred families in the Jezreel Valley. Still an active volunteer with the Partnership, she works as an organizational consultant and community developer at the Cultural Center Corporation. “Reut has completely transformed her life and the lives of her family,” Bob observes, “And, in becoming the first – and still the only rabbi in the Region – she is transforming the lives of her congregants.”

Enumerating the ways in which the Partnership has fostered enduring relationships, Bob continued, “There are so many touch points that have occurred over the years – too many to recount in the hundreds of Israeli and Michigan families who have connected through Federation’s Israeli Camper Program at Tamarack (now in its 18th year), and the thousands more who have come to Israel through our Mission Programs, and the community work we’ve inspired through our Leadership Development Programs.”

About the Michigan Central Galilee Partnership

Created in1994, the Partnership comprises Metropolitan Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids in Michigan and the municipalities of Midgal HaEmek, Nazareth Illit, (now Nof Hagalil) and the Jezreel Valley in the region of northern Israel referred to as the Central Galilee. One of 46 pairings conceived by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), Partnership2Gether was originally organized to support programs addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. As the Partnership has grown and the Region has flourished, its focus today is to build economic, Jewish identity and educational opportunities through a variety of shared programs and cultural exchanges.

With his family history and his own personal ties to the region, Bob is credited for the foresight that has made the Partnership a vibrant person-to-person, community-to-community exchange of talent and resources often described as a “living bridge” and considered to be a model for Federations around the country. 

The notion that Federation chose the Central Galilee based on Bob’s personal connection is certainly true. Indeed, he fought hard to get the Region. But he is quick to add that there were other important factors in the selection. “We wanted a region that had an affinity for absorption. Within the Emek we had the cradle of Zionism and the rich history of the kibbutzim long established in the area. We also had Migdal HaEmek, a development community at the time with an influx of Sephardic immigrants.”

Amidst the reams of documents in the archives that track the creation of Federation’s Partnership, we find a simple summary statement, dated July 11, 1994, in which Bob puts forth a passionate bid for the Region with an affirmative: “I believe we can do it.”

“I’m excited about the opportunities provided by the Central Galilee Region for the Partnership. The Region we call Emek Yisre’el” has the right “feel” for Detroit . . . with its well-established kibbutzim serving as the agricultural, as well as industrial core.  My grandparents, Max and Chana Feingold, were founders of one of these kibbutzim. The valley has inexhaustible resources for motivating and training our high school kids, students and Jewish teachers alike. The potential for exchange with Michigan universities is tremendous.

The Partnership will be about money, people and economic development. It requires a major investment on the part of Detroit to build long-term relationships. The Central Galilee region provides all three, so long as the Detroit Federation can rise to the challenge and commit enthusiastically to building the Partnership.

I believe we can do it.”

Far more than even Bob Aronson could have projected in 1994 are the ways the commitments to the Partnership have grown. According to Bob, one of the most valued by-products of the Partnership is its diversity. Because the demographics are so different in the communities of Nazareth, Migdal HaEmek and the Jezreel Valley, people who would never otherwise know each are now working as partners and friends in developing the region. “In my view, this is the bridge to understanding am Yisrael, the People Israel.”

Meeting young people in the region today, Bob often inquires what their career plans might be. “And they all say the same thing to me: they want to pursue work in the Partnership to advance the relationships and Jewish identity between the people of Israel and those of us in the Diaspora.

 Our connectivity is the fundamental pillar of our Partnership,” says Bob. “We’re unique. We are the “Chalutzim” – the pioneers. More than a Partnership, we’re a community built on the hard work of everyone who has been involved in building our Peoplehood with the State of Israel at our core.”

Coming full circle

Newlywed, far from “retired,” Bob maintains a full schedule of engagements in the community and a brisk pace at Federation. Talk to him about Israel, about the land of his grandparents’ dream, and Bob reveals his true North, his Jewish pioneer soul. “It was my dream to have my commitment ceremony to Lisa, the woman I love, in Zippori, the place which holds so much meaning for me,” he tells us. “I wanted Lisa to feel what I hold in my heart for this Land.”

At the ceremony in Israel, Bob shared the words of a speech his grandfather Max delivered in Wisconsin in 1951 – the year Bob was born. Bob’s grandmother, Dena, had recently died, and this is what Max wrote:

“And when I will walk in the ways of our prophets and I will look as our country is being rebuilt, our people will clear the land of the stones and rocks in the Galilee and the sand dunes in the Negev will be built on the trenches (referring to the War of ’48) into farms and cities, (my wife’s) image will be with me and with my own hands, I’ll plant trees in her name that one day people in the future will sit in the shade.”

Prophetic once again. Sitting in the shade of his beloved Galilee, like his grandfather before him, Bob believes his dreams of Israel have come true.