Randi Sakwa

by Vivian Henoch

Whatever the future holds for Jewish Detroit in the aftermath of Covid-19, one thing is certain: our community needs its leaders, the support of its agencies and its legions of volunteers.

“In these trying times, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to be a leader,” said Randi Sakwa. In a conversation at Federation early in March — at the outbreak of the coronavirus in Michigan — she reflected, “Leaders are people who make tough decisions and stand behind those decisions to support their team. Leaders also work to develop and grow leadership.”

Randi Sakwa speaking at Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy’s Signature Event in 2018

“As a leader, it matters how you respond in a crisis,” she continued. “Privately, I may be sitting here varklempt [Yiddish for stressed] wondering about the challenges ahead and the well-being of my family and friends here and in Israel . . . but at this moment, I know I need a confident and a calm exterior. People look to their leaders for guidance. As I’ve learned by facing tough challenges on the School Board, the community looks to us as a gauge to how things are. Being a leader in a crisis takes both vigilance and a clear state of mind.” 

To those who know Randi’s natural leadership qualities, it may come as a surprise that she considers herself a late bloomer. “I found my inner student at the Florence Melton School and now consider myself a lifelong Jewish learner,” she says. Randi beams when talking about her three adult children (all University of Michigan grads).  There’s Ryan, 29, recently married to Brooke, and working and enrolled in an MBA in Chicago; Hayley, 27, a recent Dorot Fellow in Israel; and Ashley, 25, a grad student interning in Chicago. 

“And, of course, there’s Stuart, my thoughtful, hard-working husband of 33 years,” Randi emphatically adds. “He’s the one who sacrifices, so I can do all the things I do! Such a good man and a loyal friend to many!”

In conversation with Randi Sakwa on March 12, 2020

On family background and early influences

myJewishDetroit: Please share a little about your family background, your education, your Jewish journey growing up.

I grew up in Southfield in a large, traditional Jewish family. I am the oldest of four sibs — a sister and two brothers — all still here in town. My parents, Marilou and Marvin Berman, both of blessed memory, were brought up in Detroit and in their later years moved to West Bloomfield, where we live. My mother was one of those moms always involved in our school activities — the “PTA,” as they called it back in the day. She was active with Hadassah, loved Judaism, loved synagogue and the Detroit Tigers, even when they were losing.

My grandparents on my mom’s side were born here. I remember spending Friday afternoons in my grandmother’s kitchen. Mom would drop me off and my grandmother and I would cook until the family came to Shabbat dinner.  

On my dad’s side, we had a very large family. My grandmother would have us over for Sunday dinners and holidays, so I spent a lot of time cooking and baking with her as well. I have the fondest memories of the breakfront in her dining room, where she kept old photos stashed in the bottom drawer. They call it scrapbooking now, but I created a photo album of the entire family which I gave to my grandfather on Father’s Day. It’s a family treasure that I have now.

My father was always a proponent of working hard. He worked long hours into the evening at Farmer Jack Supermarkets and imparted in us a strong work ethic as well as a love of learning.

Though each side of our large family has grown along separate paths, our Jewish heritage has remained a constant anchor in our lives. I was brought up in Congregation Shaarey Zedek; Stuart and I were married there; my parents were married there too. Though I have kept my ties to Shaarey Zedek, we transitioned to Temple Israel when we moved to West Bloomfield several years ago. At Temple Israel, I took the challenge of learning to chant Torah and celebrated an adult Bat Mitzvah. That was such a profound personal experience that now, whenever I have the opportunity to stand on the bimah to chant, I feel my mother’s presence and her love of Judaism.   

On the leadership path at Federation

Randi Sakwa and Stacy Doctoroff at the Israel at 70 Celebration in Detroit

myJewishDetroit:  How did you first get involved with Federation?

This may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but I took my first steps with Federation when my kids were small. Prior to marriage and motherhood, I had training in the dental field, worked as an assistant and office manager, taught aerobics at the JCC (where I met my husband Stuart) and also worked in my dad’s business at Farmer Jack’s. At home with the kids, I felt it was time to find my place in the community and Federation’s Volunteer Network seemed a natural choice for me. I started there, became the Chair of the TOV Committee, then moved on to Chair Mitzvah Day (called the Volunteer Extravaganza back then). My husband would often participate with the kids and we became a family of volunteers.

Once the kids entered elementary school and, as they moved along, I took a break from Federation and became involved in the school PTO. That led to my election to the WBSD School Board.

In 2012, I was drawn back to Federation for a program called Community Connections – a deep dive into the work of Federation and its partner agencies, culminating in my first mission to Israel. I had never been to Israel and, at the point they started talking about the Mosaic Mission, I came home and said to Stuart, I really would like to do this, and, with his encouragement, it was a go.    

myJewishDetroit:  Who have been your mentors?

I think first of my mother and grandmother, Anna Berman; both were strong Jewish women. As a young girl, my grandmother was given her belongings and sent on her way because things were so bad where she lived in Russia. Her family perished in the pogroms and later, she built a new life with my grandfather, Ralph Berman. And, like so many migrant stories at the time, she came to America with next to nothing but hope. She had her husband, a young daughter and was pregnant with another. She didn’t speak the language, and yet she was so modern, so strong in her convictions. We had such a beautiful relationship.

Randi Sakwa makes macaroons at a Passover desserts demo

As for my mentors at Federation: I can look to the strengths of a long list of Past Presidents in Women’s Philanthropy — many who have traveled on missions with us. Given their knowledge, their history, their experience, their perspectives and generosity, they have been great mentors for many of us.

Not to leave out the men — whose photos cover the walls in Federations halls and conference rooms. I think of Scott Kaufman (Federation’s former CEO) and what a mentor he has been, so often describing Judaism as a team sport and defining leadership as the ability to punt – to be adaptive.  

On Federation’s Partnership2Gether (P2G) in Israel

myJewishDetroit: Now celebrating its 25th year, P2G has connected nearly 550 Jewish communities in North American with 45 Israel Partnership areas.  How is Michigan’s Partnership exceptional?

I can’t speak for the Partnerships in other communities, but I do know how much we’ve come to cherish the relationships and family ties we’ve built over two generations here and in Israel.

Our program always has been about our people-to-people connections with the Central Galilee Region, but we’ve grown together on so many levels that we think and act like a family. Sure, we fund programs that are really important for the three municipalities, and they are all different, each with diverse needs. Our community here — representing Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids — is equally diverse. No matter where we are geographically, economically or politically, we have more in common than we often realize. 

How are we exceptional? When it comes to boots on the ground in Israel, I think we have put forth a concerted effort to build connections that have created true fellowship and lasting friendships. Past P2G Co-Chair, Betsy Heuer, has an expression for what we’re working to achieve: “Shtayim kehillot, ahchat mishpachah! Two communities, one family.” We are at a point that we have created a mutuality in our goals, particularly in our signature programs that include our Missions, our visits and educational exchanges, and of course, our Israeli Camper Program at Tamarack Camps.      

myJewishDetroit: How did you first get involved in Partnership?  

The Joint Israel and Detroit Partnership2Gether Steering Committees celebrated 25 years of partnership. We met new friends and reunited with old ones as we looked back on 25 incredible years, and looked forward to what’s on the horizon as Partnership enters its next quarter-century.

My Partnership story began with the 2012 Mosaic Mission and the home hospitality of Ruthy Zamir, a member of the Partnership Steering Committee in Israel. We became fast friends and continue to stay in touch. Ruthy is now my counterpart in Israel, co-chairing our Steering Committee there. A few years ago our family had the pleasure of hosting Ruthy’s daughter, Or, when she was a camper at Tamarack as part of the Israeli Camper Program. Just recently, Ruthy and her family hosted my daughter, Hayley, for Shabbat while she was in Israel. It is so comforting to know that my daughter has a family connection while in Israel. It’s these connections and lasting bonds of friendship that are truly the essence of Partnership that we have forged together here and in Israel.

On community leadership

myJewishDetroit: What do you find most satisfying about your community work?

As I’ve learned in my role with Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, there’s a certain privilege that comes in volunteering one’s time, talents or treasures. I don’t make distinctions between the three — because all ways of giving back are equally as important. I applaud Federation in expanding “the tent,” assuring everyone that their gifts — of any amount — can make a real difference.

Beyond my work at Federation, I also feel it’s important to be involved in the greater Detroit community through my roles on the Boards of JCRC/AJC , Hillel of Metro Detroit and the West Bloomfield School District. The work isn’t easy. You can’t please everybody. But our schools in our city need us. Even though my kids are no longer in the public school system, I still feel the need to advocate for our students and their families. There are so many more stressors on everyone today. Families are struggling everywhere.  So, when I see Hadassah volunteers come out to our schools to read with the kids — or when I watch the way Federation has launched a program tackling the issues of mental health in our teens — I feel proud to be a part of our Detroit Jewish community addressing the needs of the greater community.

On living with Covid today and the road forward

myJewishDetroit: Now, nearly six months into living with the reality of Covid, many describe finding new reservoirs of strength, perseverance and creativity in our community. What personal challenges have your faced and how has Covid changed or reinforced your perspectives and priorities?

Early on in the pandemic, my husband Stuart became ill with Covid and my daughter Hayley, due to all the uncertainty, decided to come back home early from her program in Israel. Taking care of both Stuart and Haley in quarantine was both stressful and challenging at times, but also reinforced how fortunate we were in comparison to others and reminded us to count our blessings and stay optimistic. I must add that I am ever so thankful to our clergy who tirelessly kept tabs on our well-being as well as many others in the community, all while taking care of themselves and their own families.

myJewishDetroit: What silver-linings have you found in the storm clouds of quarantine, social distancing and working from home?  

In no particular order: Zoom Shabbat candle lighting with our Chicago kids; outdoor friend and family connections; thoughtful reflection and adjustment of priorities; embracing creativity, acceptance and opportunities for positive change; extra time for reading, learning, cooking and moving to a new home. New beginnings!

myJewishDetroit: In your position on the West Bloomfield School Board, what advice do you give parents to help their families through these challenging times?  

The West Bloomfield School District team has been working very hard over the last several months to offer many different “return to learn” opportunities for our students that prioritize the health and safety of our staff and students. Since education looks very different right now, parents were given choices as they made decisions that were right for their families. Communication is key.

Recommended reading now:  How to be an Antiracist by Ibrahm Kendi, Where to Begin by Cleo Wade and Stamped by Jason Reynolds. I am also looking forward to reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

Words to live by: “This too shall pass.”  I take those words as a positive message, a reminder that even good times can change, life is a short, so be kind to one another and make each day count.

I would add a quote by poet Cleo Wade which reminds me of the work that our JFMD does in this time of crisis and great need: “We are the builders who are building a world that has never been built before.” I am proud to be part of such a community and am looking forward with positivity for better days ahead.