Betsy Heuer

by Vivian Henoch

Oy, where do we to start with Betsy’s story? She’s got a memoir entitled Beer and Whine and Other Bubbly Concoctions available on Kindle that covers some of the highpoints, but admits that her information is slightly dated and brazenly personal. Essentially, Beer and Whine is a love letter to her husband, Jeff, her kids, Jeremy and Hilary, her mom, Selma, and dedicated to the “funniest, best dad in the world,” Harvey Snider of blessed memory.

Fact: Jeff, the love of Betsy’s life in a marriage of 39 years, has yet to read past the first pages of her book. “He already knows all my stories,” says Betsy. “And my kids are sick of hearing them, too.”

Fact: In her late 20’s, (dates unspecified), Betsy was a paralegal at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss where she met her husband, a lapsed Presbyterian and a brilliant attorney who chose to convert to Judaism at the age of 39. According to Betsy, Jeff set the bar high for his Talmudic thinking, cross examination and rebuttal in his Jewish conversion classes.

Fact: Betsy’s paralegal experience could account for her due diligence in community service, her innate leadership skills on numerous boards and committees, and her trademark look in serious, dark-framed glasses and power red lipstick.

Fact: Betsy’s abiding love of Israel began with a United Synagogue Youth (USY) Teen Mission in 1971. A frequent flyer and energetic mission leader, Betsy has been to Israel 24 times . . . still counting on every opportunity to get there post-Covid. 

Fact: Betsy is a graduate of U. of M. with a B.A. in Spanish, a language she continues to enjoy and employ in her favorite daily activities: speaking and reading in Spanish and watching Netflix foreign films.

Fact: Meeting Betsy for the first time feels like chatting with an old friend. Here are the highlights of our interview: 

Betsy on Zoom . . . never without a smile.

On a Zoom Call with Betsy Heuer

Talking about family, booming personalities and the legacy of laughter

myJewishDetroit: Let’s start with Beer and Whine, your memoir published in 2013. What – or who -inspired you to write it?

The movie in my mind was a romantic comedy – the story of a happily mixed-and-mixed-up marriage – starring Jeff, the tall, handsome frosty drink of beer, and me, the short, but constant Jewish whine. I never wrote the screenplay. But I always had this itch to convey our story – and the stories of so many of our friends in West Bloomfield – in mixed marriages. By the time I got around to writing the book, the kids were adults, living in Chicago – Jeremy, an attorney, was almost 30, and Hilary, a nurse anesthetist, was 28. And there I found myself, a worrier, still hovering over my kids, wondering what they were doing, and what in the world I was doing waiting for them to call — just like the “stereotypical Jewish mother” I had somehow mysteriously turned into.

I remember clearly – the moment of frustration (possibly a hot flash) when I started writing. I was channeling my energies into sentences . . . and funny, my first thought was about my dad, when I wrote those first few sentences: “I don’t know how I ended up like this . . .  How did we become a whole generation of obnoxious helicopter parents? Our parents were never like that.” I lost my dad when he was young and that really hit me hard. Harvey Snider was a short guy with a big, booming personality and so funny.  His irrepressible humor is the legacy he left us– and it’s the gift I wanted to share with our kids. 

myJewishDetroit:  Do you think humor is hereditary?

Yes, I believe a good sense of humor can be a family trait. Jeff came from lovely, smart parents, but he tells me that humor was never a big thing in his family. Jeff’s dad was an orphan by the age of one, raised by a maiden aunt and grandmother, so he never knew what it was like to grow up in a family of big mouths and booming voices.

As I mentioned, I dedicated Beer and Whine to my dad. Actually, I have a little epilogue to his story: Hilary was due in October 2017 with Sadie (named after my Mom, Selma). On September 18th, the day that would have been my dad’s 90th birthday, I woke up feeling sad about that fact, when the phone rang. It was Hil – who never calls from her work in the OR – to say that she was in labor. Sadie was born almost a month early on my dad’s birthday. I think Harvey didn’t want us to forget about him.  And wouldn’t you know it? Sadie has made sure of that with her own big booming personality!  Funny, how life just happens.  

myJewishDetroit:  Are you still a helicopter parent?

Absolutely! But I know my boundaries. Our kids need their space. Jeremy is still in Chicago, now works for Oracle, and I’m thrilled that he is engaged to Vicky, a dermatologist from Mexico City. I absolutely love speaking with Vicky in fluent Spanish . . . my dream come true. Hilary is married to Jim Dupree, a urologist, and both are in busy practices with U. of M. in Ann Arbor where they live. Ann Arbor is not nearly close enough to our home in Bloomfield Hills, now that that we are the proud grandparents of Sadie 3, and Jane almost 2. I know my place, but long-distance grandparenting and Facetime with toddlers is for the birds! Who’d ever imagine that we’d need vaccinations to see our grandchildren? But we’ve got our shots and I can’t wait to get back to lots of hugs, kisses and sleepovers. . . coming home soon.

Universal Truths:

  • Every Jewish mother is born to be the best Grandma.  (Call me Ama!)
  • Love your son-in-law like your own, but know and respect your boundaries.

Talking about quality time in Covid captivity

myJewishDetroit: Betsy, you have the distinction of being Federation’s first President of Women’s Philanthropy on Zoom. Who would imagine that you’d spend so much of your time this year in meetings on “video/mute mode” on a home computer?

It’s certainly not the Presidency any of us imagined. But it’s not the world we would have imagined! Fortunately, Federation’s women are fast learners and skilled networkers. Zoom meetings and events facilitated everything we did. We pivoted like nobody’s business. We adapted and created new and virtual events and engaged new audiences. We were creative in overcoming every barrier and stepping up to every challenge. And we had fun. Really, in the all the years I’ve been a volunteer with Federation, our commitments have not changed. We are here to help take care of the needs of our vibrant Jewish community. We may be using new technology today, but our primary concern this year – as always – is to keep our families and our community safe, healthy, connected and engaged in Jewish life.   

myJewishDetroit: Talk about connected, you’ve been a volunteer with Federation for 45 years. How many women can say that?

Actually, many of my closest friends are past or present Members of Federation’s Board with distinguished service to the community. Roz Blanck, Sue Kaufman (to name just two) – go back those many years right along with me. Federation has enriched my life, expanded the number of people I know – in every walk of life and every stage of life. I have met and partnered and grown closer with people going back all along the way from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations – now to my kids’ friends.

For me, the connection and the bond always has been Federation. That’s where I started and that’s where I’ve stayed ever since becoming President of the Junior Division. There’s no other volunteer organization where I’ve done anything that has been as rewarding and made me as proud. Through good times and bad, Detroit’s Federation always has led the way. Even in CovidFederation raised $7.1 million for the emergency campaign. Who does that? No other Federation in the country came close to those numbers proportionally.   

So, the zillions of Zoom calls this year I’ll soon forget – but the amazing work we did together – that I’ll always remember. And here I must give a shout-out to Federation’s amazing team of professionals – Amy Neistein, Jessica Goodwin, Amy Wayne and Marianne Bloomberg in Women’s Philanthropy and the Jewish Working Women’s Network; Jennifer Levine, Dona Stillman and Yoav Raban steering our committee activities and Partnership2Gether (P2G) programming in Israel & Overseas; Ted Cohen, John Hardwick and the marketing team; special thanks to the tech support of Scott Wasserman who set up my lighting and background settings on Zoom; and where would I be without the multi-talented Rabbi Ari Witkin (Federation’s Director of Leadership Development) who stepped in as my digital make-up artist with “the lipstick trick” – a simple adjustment in the Zoom toolbox. (All that work, just to keep me going!) 

Universal Truths: 

  • Zoom may be here to stay, but there’s no substitute for meeting face-to-face in person.
  • Look your best onscreen and never – ever! – use the restroom on a Zoom call.
  • No matter how distant or departed, never forget the ones you love and those you have lost.

Talking about Jewish Detroit in Israel and the Legacy of Louis Berry

myJewishDetroit: Your family history in Israel goes back three generations to a fateful mission to what was still Palestine in 1948. Tell us about your maternal grandfather, Louis Berry.

I love everything about the story of Israel’s becoming a state – and how my Grandpa Louie played a part of the story to become a legend in Detroit’s United Jewish Appeal. Those who go back just a little bit further than my parents’ generation would remember Louis Berry – President of Congregation Shaarey Zedek (twice), a real estate investor and owner of a number of properties in New York, including the Fisk Building where the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) was headquartered. Locally, my grandfather had been an active fundraiser with Detroit’s Allied Jewish Campaign as Chair of the Real Estate Division. But he stormed onto the national scene in 1948 when he was invited to join a month-long fact-finding mission sponsored by the UJA to study the needs of the Jews in displacement camps in Europe and to survey the prospects of resettling them in Palestine. 

That mission included Joseph Holtzman, a cohort and fellow real estate developer. After two weeks visiting the camps in Europe, the delegation arrived in Palestine to meet with David Ben-Gurion – head of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) at the time. Ben-Gurion implored them, (and I’ve kept these very words in my memoir) “Go home to your American cities and tell your fellow Jews and your gentile friends we need their help. We have men and women who will fight, but send us money for guns and trucks and instruments of war. With your help we can win.”

Louie and Joe came home passionately committed to lead the charge and together they raised $250,000 for Federation – a great sum of money at the time. Louie was very direct in his campaign solicitations and used to say, “This is pay up day, the day you have to give thanks for how very lucky you are to be an American and how important it is to remember you are a Jew.”

When you have a story like that in your family, you never forget Israel. 

What challenges us today is making that same connection for generations coming up. How do we instill a love and responsibility for Israel – in a complex world at a time when there are so many critical needs to fill and choices to make? And that’s where I think the Detroit Federation has excelled – particularly in helping create meaningful opportunities to experience Israeli life as it is today — through missions for teens and young adults, through leadership development and P2G programs in the Central Galilee. 

myJewishDetroit: In what ways do you think Federation’s P2G has excelled? 

I assume that other cities around the world feel much the same way about their partnership cities in Israel – as we do in ours. But we have reached the point where we can honestly say that when you are in our P2G Region, you are never alone: you are home. Today, you can play Jewish geography virtually everywhere in the Region – almost everyone knows someone from Jewish Detroit – a cousin who went to Tamarack, a teen who’s been on a mission, a family who has hosted visitors and on and on it goes. 

Diversity is one of the unique characteristics of our partnership. We are fortunate to have three distinct areas of the Region. Demographically, they are different, but they are aligned in their goals for community-building and development. There’s the Jezreel Valley comprised of kibbutzim and moshavim, Migdal ha’Emek and Nof Hagalil (formerly Nazareth-Illit). There was a time when the three mayors in the Region lacked the opportunity to work together, and now they are collaborators on projects and infrastructure – most notably, the hike and bike path and park system that connects all three communities. Our focus in the Region continues to be educational enrichment and it’s been gratifying to see the impact of our programs over the years as the communities have continued to grow and develop.     

myJewishDetroit: Do you know of any community that has anything like Tamarack Camps’ Israel Camper programs?

No, I know of no other camper program like ours. Since 2002, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, P2G and Tamarack Camps have united to bring more than 1,600 Israeli children from our Region to Tamarack Camps. With the support of 500 host families, we have created lifelong friends and happy memories of summers in Michigan.

For our family, and so many others who we know, the experience of hosting campers has been life changing. We are families that have grown together over the years. We have known some of our campers since they were 13. Many come back as counselors; others have kept in touch with us – during their service in the army, through visits with our families in Israel and now, as we see them: young adults, launching their college education, starting their careers or families of their own.

More than a partnership, as we always say, we are two communities, one family: Shtay k’heelot, mishpacha achad.

And that’s my Universal Truth: Two communities, one family!   

Talking about next big things (next year in Jerusalem?)

myJewishDetroit: What’s next for you? Certainly, you’re not ready to retire.

In all my roles at Federation, I’ve always found a happy balance between the Women’s Annual Campaign fundraising activities and Israel & Overseas. Honestly, I thought I had done it all, until I was asked almost four years ago to take on the Presidency of Women’s Philanthropy. That’s a five-year track – a commitment to serve the first year as Associate Campaign Chair, the next two years as Campaign Chair, followed by a two-year term as President. As I pass the gavel in May 2022, it will be my pleasure to step back. But I also intend to stay involved. One of the best perks of Women’s Philanthropy is the programming; being with women – young and old, sharing our stories, learning new skills, ever learning something new, expanding our horizons.  

After that – all things being equal – I certainly hope to do something with Israel again. There is a group of us who have been the core all along. As long as I am healthy enough and everyone I love is healthy – I want to be in a place to be able to go to Israel every year for as long as I can.  

myJewishDetroit: So, what do you do to relax and “unwhine”? 

I binge-watch foreign films – love, love, love them! Especially in Spanish, French and Hebrew where I barely need the subtitles. I spend a lot of time reading. And of course, I’ve got my grandchildren (albeit only on weekends) to keep me on my toes and endlessly entertained. And post-Covid, I’m also looking forward to spending more time with our community Shaliach, Yitfah Leket, his beautiful wife, Paz, daughter Ella and new baby, Gili. They live within walking distance in my neighborhood, and I’ve decided to adopt them as my family – respecting boundaries, of course!   

Reading recommendations: 

The Girl with the Louding Voice, by Abi Daré

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, by Abi Waxman

Words to live by:

Peace begins with a smile.”  – Mother Theresa

One woman can make a difference, thousands can change the world.