(Photo: Rick Sperling, founder of MOSAIC, and Amy Nederlander, founder of L!FE Leaders.)
וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ
וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן.
Know from where you come, and where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning.
In Pirkei Avot, one of the teachings shared is to know from where you came. For tens of thousands of “expats” now living in locations from New York City and Melbourne to Beijing and Jerusalem, the place where they grew up is Detroit. In addition to having family here, many of these expats studied here and have also worked here.
Each fall, former Detroiters have come back home for a three-day conference called the Detroit Homecoming. The event is now in its eighth year though 2020 was mostly virtual. The three days are meant to be a dynamic and immersive opportunity for expats to see their hometown in a new light. This year’s event included a behind the scenes experience of the DLectricity celebration of art and light in Midtown, and BLISS, produced by new Michigan Opera Theater Director Yuval Sharon, which “replays three sublime minutes of The Marriage of Figaro with the same cast and same orchestra without pause for twelve hours”. Themed dinners showcased new restaurants and historical homes remodeled, such as Bas Bleu, a new space on Ferry Street envisioned by Nancy Tellem.
Visitors to this event received neighborhood tours learning the names and stories behind prominent streets in Midtown, explored plans for the Detroit Riverfront’s future on a guided tour, saw the cutting-edge mobility technology coming out of Corktown, and heard from exceptional speakers which included Ford CEO Jim Farley — and a range of authors, journalists and policy-makers.
As in past years, several members of the Jewish community gathered at a reception to reflect on our heritage and ways to give back to our hometown. Attendees heard from White House Senior Aide Gene Sperling, the point-person for the administration’s Coronavirus Relief Plan, who talked about his upbringing in Michigan and how it inspired his years in public service. Google.org founder Larry Brilliant — who helped eradicate the world from Smallpox, spoke from San Francisco, about how his early years in Detroit guided much of his public health work, which has included co-founding an organization that has given back sight to three million blind people.
Previous honorees include National Geographic Publisher Susan Goldberg, Harvard President Larry Bacow, Broadway Producer Jeffrey Seller, Developer Stephen Ross, Economist Jeff Sachs and Roots founders Don Green and Michael Budman.
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein shared remarks and Congressman Andy Levin discussed how much the city meant to his uncle Senator Carl Levin. Senator Levin attended each of the prior receptions going back to the inaugural year.
Abe Feder, a cellist at the DSO performed, and artwork made by children from the Farber Center was displayed.
In addition to current expats, the Detroit Homecoming included local leaders and “Boomerangs” — former expats who have returned back to Detroit to live. The event was supported by Jennifer and Dan Gilbert, the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, the Mandell and Madeleine Berman Foundation and the Tauber Family Foundation. It was generously hosted by Rabbi Yisral and Devorah Pinson at the Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit.
A Detroit Mezuzah, created by Pewabic Pottery, was gifted to the expats as a way to take a piece of Detroit creativity and their heritage back home with them.
Since the last gathering, Detroit expats continued to make the news; one more notable example is Paul Milgrom — originally of Oak Park —who was honored with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on auction theory.
As expats came together on the warm September day it was easy to recall the song September by Earth, Wind and Fire, which was written by Allee Willis, a Grammy Award-winning songwriter and multimedia artist who had attended and performed at several prior events.
Allee Willis, of blessed memory, died in December 2019 though her life and creativity live on in many ways; from The Color Purple, the Tony-award winning production she co-authored — to the theme song she wrote from the Friends show which reminds expats “I’ll be there for you. (‘Cause you’re there for me too”) not just of the importance of relationships between people, but also the importance for people to stay connected with the cities and communities that helped support who they became.
(This article originally appeared in Nu?Detroit.)