by Vivian Henoch

Keith Schonberger has developed an impressive resume: From teaching a computer to solve a Rubik’s Cube on his way to a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Science at MSU, including a brief software engineering internship with The Boeing Company, on to MSU College of Law, where he earned his J.D. and found his calling in patent law. With almost nine years in practice including almost six years with Young Basile, Keith is now a shareholder in his firm.

A two-career family today, Keith and Tara met at MSU in what Keith briefly describes as sorority girl meets fraternity boy in a Battle of the Bands during Greek Week. “Tara is the real brains in the family,” says Keith. With a Master’s Degree in Clinical Laboratory Science and more than a dozen initials behind her name that certify her hard-earned credentials, Tara has worked in the Blood Bank and HLA Laboratories at Beaumont Health for 12 years. 

Reflecting on the challenges of work in balance with family homelife, Keith describes coming through Covid as a remarkable year of growth and reawakening. “Covid has tested every aspect of what we consider to be normal, but the concept of togetherness and community – doing something greater than yourself with other people – has always been a focal point of my life. Today, I can say that I’ve seen my family, my colleagues and our community grow stronger, more resilient and more creative together.”

On a Zoom Call with Keith Schonberger

On Family Life in the Time of Covid

myJewishDetroit: Keith, please give us a snapshot of your family over the past year. How have you fared?

Keith and Tara Schonberger

Honestly, we’ve been wonderful – blessed to be healthy and happy – but we crave the same things everyone craves: getting back together with family and friends. I’ve been working from home for more than a year, spending loads of time with Tara and our children. Eli is 5 and will enter kindergarten in the fall; Adam is 3; and Leah – born shortly before the pandemic began – is a year and a half. Our boys have been physically in school at Somerset Academy in Troy this year and are doing so well. Eli is learning to read and write and is doing such an incredible job on both, and his brother is quickly becoming a reader too. Notwithstanding all the obstacles of social distancing, we also recently moved to a new home in Rochester Hills in a beautiful area that is strategically nearby grandparents. With Tara’s parents in Romeo and my folks in West Bloomfield, we have some daycare support, and everyone is vaccinated at this point.   

It’s easy to dwell on what we’ve missed this year. . . but when I think about it, there’s so much I’ve gained in the time. Time is the one resource we all have. And you never get time back. Being home with Tara and the kids this year has given me the time to catch more of those precious little moments we might ordinarily miss. Even when I’m working at my desk and can’t break away, being nearby has been an incredible gift.   

And I’d be remiss not to mention all the extra attention we’ve given our 9-year-old pup – our Whoodle, Kedzie, who is just the best dog and has surely loved all the extra walks he’s been getting lately.

myJewishDetroit: As more public spaces are starting to open again, what are the prospects of returning to your office?

We’re following Michigan guidelines, and will return when it’s safe to do so. One silver lining of the shutdown: Young Basile leveraged the time as an opportunity to renovate our space in our main office located in Troy. So, we look forward to returning to brand new facilities. Zoom meetings aside, I have missed the day-to-day connections with my colleagues. I miss every one of them. But I do anticipate a change in our work habits upon our return, with many of us likely opting to work at home some amount more than we used to.   

On Jewish family background and education

myJewishDetroit: You have been an active community volunteer with Federation for more than a decade – additionally serving on the Boards of MSU Hillel and Tamarack Camps. In what ways has the Jewish community been a strong part of your upbringing?

My family’s involvement with Federation and its partner agencies starts back two generations ago with my mother’s parents who met at Tamarack Camps. We still like to tell the story about the baseball game at Tamarack (the Fresh Air Society at the time), and the boy who threw a wild pitch into the stands and hit a girl in the head. The pitcher was my grandfather, the girl was my grandmother. No injuries were reported, as I understand, but it was the pitch that started our family.   

My grandparents, all four of blessed memory, were very community-driven. In particular, my maternal grandparents spent their time building bridges between the Jewish community and the Black and Arab communities. Building a greater Detroit was a longtime desire and goal of theirs. My parents were a part of that and loved being involved in making friends across those community lines, blurring those lines – teaching one another.

I grew up with a strong sense that my parents’ and grandparents’ Jewish identities were essential to them. However, my own Jewish identity, didn’t truly materialize until I participated in a Teen Mission to Israel in 2004. My parents decided to enroll me after seeing an advertisement for the trip in The Jewish News, and I’m so glad that they did. At 17, I was not unlike other teens in high school – rebelling for the sake of rebelling, including by struggling with my Jewish identity and the concept of organized religion.

But then, when I stepped off the bus in Israel at that first stop at Castel  – that lookout point over Jerusalem – suddenly I realized where I stood and how connected I was to our ancestry and the history of the land. And it was in that moment that something clicked, and I thought that maybe my Jewish identity was more important than I realized.   

I carried that Jewish identity to college and adopted MSU Hillel as the place I most loved to be on campus. I’m an Alpha Epsilon Pi alum, but MSU Hillel was where I spent much of my time. I studied there, hung out there, led Shabbat services there for six years. I can’t say enough about Cindy Hughey and Jonathon Koenigsberg (Executive Director and Associate Director) and how they and the rest of the incredible staff made MSU Hillel a home for all of us. 

What eventually drew me to community work in my 20s, though, was the realization that I had received so much from the Jewish community and that I felt it was time to start giving back. I also had friends in community leadership roles showing me the way. To be on the receiving end of our community resources is a good thing but giving back feels great. Sixteen years a community volunteer in Jewish Detroit, and I still consider myself a “newcomer,” just getting started on a lifelong journey with Federation. And I couldn’t be prouder to be on my way. 

On professional and leadership development

myJewishDetroit: How does a computer geek become a patent lawyer?

I started college with a love for video games and pursued computer programming coursework to learn how to make them. With programming – writing software – the only resources you need are a computer and your brain to create, invent and solve problems beyond your wildest dreams. I found it to be a challenging and fulfilling activity . . . until I realized that most of software development is debugging – fixing broken code – especially when it was written by someone else. It turned out that debugging was not something I enjoyed. Still, I was halfway toward my Computer Science degree, and it made no sense to throw out that knowledge. So, I looked to see how I might apply my skills to another field and found the answer in patent law.

Patent law is pretty specialized. I had to take an additional bar exam to get my license to practice before the USPTO. I work with inventors – engineers at global corporations, industry leaders in software and telecommunications – in all sorts of other spaces. I’m the guy who can translate their science into legalese. I learn about what they’ve invented and how it works, and then I write patent applications, which are dense, legal documents explaining how to make and use the invention, to help them protect those inventions. Not unlike any other aspect of law, it’s challenging, it’s rewarding—and there’s a lot of strategy involved. 

The past couple of decades in particular has seen an explosion in the number of patents awarded to software inventions. In just the span of time that I’ve been in practice, the rate of U.S. invention has been mind-boggling.  The first US patents were awarded in the 1790s. In 2011, when Tara and I were on our honeymoon, the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) awarded the 8 millionth US patent. The 10 millionth US patent was awarded in 2018. This shows that the rate at which we as a society are filing patent applications, and thus the rate at which we are innovating, is exponentially increasing. It’s really cool to be a part of this.

On NEXTGen Detroit and the strength of community

myJewishDetroit: How did you first get involved with Federation?

My two-year term on the Board of Tamarack Camps (2015-17) was my introduction to communal leadership. Joining that Board led to a wider network with Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit and my first assignment as Co-Chair of Federation’s Interfaith Couples Group. With that connection, Tara and I had all the incentive we needed to jump into a new Jewish community adventure together. Tara’s role in helping to shape Federation’s programming opportunities for interfaith couples, and encouraging others to participate, was as formative as mine.

Tara grew up Presbyterian, but if you ask her, I imagine that she would say that religious belief is a personal choice, and that she doesn’t identify with any religion today. Before we married, we were in clear agreement: Out of respect and love for our blended families, we have chosen to raise our kids in a Jewish household where we can celebrate Christmas and Easter with their maternal grandparents.

I was so excited to have the opportunity to co-chair the Interfaith Couples group. As studies have shown for years, our family represents an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the population that is interfaith. To be a vibrant Jewish community, we must embrace our diversity and welcome interfaith couples, with the acknowledgement that this is their community as well. If we aren’t engaging this growing segment of our population and including them, welcoming them in and making them feel wanted, it’s a disservice to our community. I am very glad Federation began this outreach and engagement and have loved being a part of it.

myJewishDetroit: Who do you consider to be your mentors along your path to community-building?

Wow, too many to list! A mentor is anyone who has taught me something of value: about community, about the power of communications, about the professional skills of listening – learning when to say yes and when to say no.  

If I had to name one person? Without a doubt, it’s Jonathan Schwartz. Jonathan was in his second year as a NEXTGen Board Member when I was in my first. Federation’s Interfaith Couples Group was his brainchild in 2016, but as Co-Chairs we were strongly aligned in launching the program. Jonathan has led the way for me, every step of the way – a cherished friend and colleague who creates and grows lasting relationships. It speaks for itself that Jonathan’s leadership was recognized with the Frank Wetsman Young Leadership Award in 2021.

myJewishDetroit: “Built for this Moment” — That truly is an apt description of the work of Federation over this past year. Looking back in a year of tremendous challenge and upheaval, in what ways have you seen NEXTGen grow in strength?

Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit is built on the strength of our community. We are here to welcome everyone. Our “target age” group is 21 to 45, but we’re open to any life stage, whether you are fresh out of college or an established business leader with 100 employees, whether you are single, married, have kids – it doesn’t matter. If you want to be involved with our organization, we want you to be there with us. 

Like most organizations, our greatest challenge through Covid has been maintaining our connections, creating new opportunities for engagement and growing meaningful relationships, all while operating in a remote capacity and in virtual space. Altogether, I would say Federation and NEXTGen Detroit have done a remarkable job with that. In particular, we have taken some different approaches in our outreach. Beyond the usual “Thank You” calls, we started making “Hello Calls” as community check-ins – simply to reach out to members of the community to say, “We’re thinking of you, we hope you and your loved ones are doing well, and we’re here to help if you need us.” It was a thrill to be a part of that effort. And it was such a simple means of connecting with fellow community members that I hope we continue that activity.

For sure, Federation is built for the moment because it is a system that exists to make sure that community exists – no matter what – and that we all work together to keep building it. We have always been an organization ready to meet the challenges of the times, ready to meet the needs of the community, ready to adapt for the greater good and change for the better.  

If we talk about silver linings during Covid – from my perspective, the past year has been an extraordinary leap for our community, despite the considerable challenges. Through catastrophe and navigating months of uncertainty, together we’ve shown a capacity for growth and adaptation far greater than what we might give ourselves credit for and we’ve proven just how resilient and strong we are. And NEXTGen Detroit and Federation have been there every step of the way.

On a personal note

myJewishDetroit: What do you do to relax and enjoy?

My favorite thing, of course, is spending time with my wife and kids. I’m very lucky to have them and to be able to just play with my kids and be silly with them.

Then, and besides my passion for work and community – there’s music. I am a lifelong musician. As a kid, I started on piano, then saxophone, bass guitar, and guitar. I taught myself how to play bass guitar and guitar, and guitar, in particular, has been my main instrument for about 20 years now. Lately, I’ve been taking voice lessons, getting better enough to substantially notice an improvement over the past year. Playing guitar for a good 10 or 15 minutes relaxes me better than anything else.

Oh, and I do enjoy a good whiskey every now and then.

myJewishDetroit: Coming out of the restrictions of Covid, what are some of the first things you wish or plan to do?

Go out with friends. Anywhere! A restaurant, ballgame, bar . . . anywhere, I don’t care.  After that it would be travel . . . Tara and I love to travel.

Reading recommendations:

The Godfather, by Mario Puzo

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay

Words to Live By

Be good to each other. Give people the benefit of the doubt whenever you can. You never know what challenges they may be facing.