Karen Kaplan

In the Torah portion traditionally read the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashana, Moses tells the people of Israel that the Torah need not be distant or inaccessible. “It is not in heaven…or beyond the sea…the thing is very close to you.”

It’s unclear what Moses thought of axe throwing or drive-in bingo (there’s probably a commentary on it somewhere), but it’s safe to say he’d admire the way Karen Kaplan, Director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Affinities Department, makes our Jewish community feel very close to everyone.

Karen (second from left) at the Affinities Family Boppin’ BINGO at the Drive-In

“People really want to be involved here, they just want a reason to be,” she says.

Affinities, in a nutshell, exists to provide those reasons. Geared toward Gen–Xers, it engages people on the basis of specific interests, such as practicing medicine (Maimonides Society), buying and selling properties (Real Estate Group), going to Israel for the first time (Andi and Larry Wolfe Gen-X Mission), or simply being a man of a certain age living in Detroit (Pound for Pound Men’s Group, which hosted the aforementioned event at Detroit Axe).

Kaplan, 43, established Affinities five years ago and has grown it into one of Federation’s most successful initiatives, with an ever-expanding portfolio of groups and missions. Individual events, like Ultimate Indoor Recess, can attract upwards of 500 people. Even the pandemic hasn’t been able to slow the momentum: Affinities ran about 50 programs last year, from virtual events to a socially-distanced road rally.

Special-interest groups are, in and of themselves, nothing new to Federation; Maimonides Society, for instance, has been around since 1998. What has made Affinities soar is the zeal Kaplan and Jodi Feld, Affinities Department’s Associate Director, bring to the task of creating fun, meaningful experiences.

“Her brain is always working on how to better our department,” says Feld, . “I don’t know anyone who can sleep less.”

Karen and Jodi

Last year, Federation awarded Kaplan the Pappas Prize, which recognizes employees who create and implement an idea that benefits the community.

We recently sat down with Kaplan at her home in West Bloomfield, which she shares with her husband, Evan, her three boys, Noah, Isaac and Solomon, and her dog (Samson, a very large and very friendly puppy), to learn more about her affinities.

The Kaplan family (including Samson of course)

Finding a passion for creating Jewish community… at a Catholic college

I’m from the Philadelphia suburbs, and I grew up in a home where Jewish identity was really important. My mom was from Morocco — she had to flee due to Antisemitism there. My dad’s parents were Holocaust survivors.

Education was also important in my house. My sisters and I were not given many options: We were told we had to be attorneys, or doctors, or we could go to Wharton business school. So I was heading to be a lawyer. [But] I wasn’t really passionate about it.

I ended up at Rosemont, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania. I was the only Jewish student, but there were a lot of campuses around — Bryn Mawr, Villanova — where there were some Jewish students, so I started a Hillel. We celebrated holidays like Passover, we had Shabbat dinners, and we did a program on the Holocaust — things that Rosemont had never seen before that attracted non-Jewish students too. It was really meaningful to me. That’s what I decided I was passionate about (much to the dismay of my mom).

I pivoted in my last year of college — I had already taken my LSATs and gotten into law schools — and decided to go to the University of Michigan’s program for Jewish communal leadership and obtain my MSW. I started at Federation of Metro Detroit in 2004. I’ve been here ever since.

What makes Gen–Xers different…

About five years ago, I sat down with Julie Tepperman, my first roommate when I moved to Ann Arbor and now my supervisor, to discuss what Affinities would look like. We had NEXTGen, which was doing so many great things with [millennials]. We realized we were kind of missing the Generation X demographic.

For this age group, a lot of times, people might be affiliated with their synagogue, maybe because their kids went to preschool or their kids are having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. But that’s really their only touch point.

…And getting them out of the house…

The challenge with Gen-Xers is everybody in this demographic is busy with their professional and personal lives. They want their going out experiences to be meaningful, and that looks different for everybody.

That puts the responsibility on us to create programs that are exciting… worth getting a sitter for.

Karen (back row) on the Andi and Larry Wolfe Gen-X Mission to Israel

We find things that are interesting to our specific groups, using community leaders, people like our outgoing department chair Geoff Kretchmer and our new chair Bill Goldstein, Todd Sachse for our Real Estate Group, Ilana and Zachary Liss for our Forman Leadership Program. People who have their finger on the pulse. They’re Gen–Xers, so they know how to ask, “What would make us want to get out of the house?”

We offer a mix of educational and strictly social programs — along with some cool component that people won’t be exposed to in their normal lives. The men’s group, for instance, might have a night at Detroit Axe, but we’ll have Lee Trepeck from Tamarack Camps speak to incorporate a bit of community education. Maimonides did a program about Jewish Prohibition in Detroit with Federation’s Archives Department, but it was at Two James Distillery downtown.

…Even during the pandemic

We did an indoor recess event two winters ago. The hope was to repeat that, but obviously, with the pandemic, we couldn’t bring 500-plus people in a room together. So, we pivoted. We had virtual programs in the beginning — such as a weekly Facebook Affinities Night Live series featuring speakers relevant to our demographic during this unprecedented time — but we didn’t stay strictly virtual for long. We shifted to offer experiential programs that people could choose to do alone or in small groups. We did a big road rally that ended with food trucks at Adat Shalom, and we’ve done drive-in bingo and a drive-in movie night.

We’ve just kept thinking about how to keep people involved in a safe way. Because it really wasn’t a time to desert people and say, “OK, it’s too hard to do programs.”

So, while I hope we’re heading in a good direction as a community and country, I know that we can engage people however we need to.

What’s next

September and October will be really busy. Our groups are having events weaved into every conceivable night that isn’t a Jewish holiday, and we have our big bingo event on October 16.

At an Affinities Maimonides Society social event

All our groups continue to evolve, and we’re launching two new ones in the fall — an attorneys group and Launch, an intro group for Gen–X men looking to get involved in the community (a similar group for women, Debut, already exists).

What’s really cool about our department is we understand there’s no one size fits all answer, and Federation really supports us and lets us try new things.