The Perfect Stranger
By David Glass
January 18, 2022
By David Zenlea
Our sense of belonging comes from the memory that we were all once strangers. This quintessential contradiction of Jewish identity, explicitly commanded in the Torah and echoed throughout our history, binds our people together and drives a shared commitment to tolerance and empathy.
It certainly drives Spencer Lucker, 34-year-old resident of the Boston Edison neighborhood. By day, he helps fellow Detroiters as director of employer engagement for Mayor Mike Duggan’s Workforce Development Board. In his spare time (a precious resource since he has six-month-old twins), he oversees community outreach and identity efforts on NEXTGen Detroit’s executive committee.
His passion for Detroit’s Jewish community, particularly those new to it, owes to the fact that he was very recently a complete stranger here himself; Lucker is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, and moved here just three years ago from Washington, D.C.
“We need to ensure that all Jewish young adults in Metro Detroit are able to feel the warm embrace by the Jewish community that I did when I moved here three years ago,” he said.
The need to welcome young Jews is a growing one. The number of Jews in metro Detroit ages 18 to 34 more than doubled between 2005 and 2018, and there is anecdotal evidence that the influx has continued during the pandemic, as young adults seek more affordable housing and look to be closer to family support networks.
This is cause for celebration, not to mention a credit in part to community efforts like NEXTGen Detroit, which was established about a decade ago with the express goal of attracting and engaging millennials. “In many ways, we’re ahead of the game,” says Lucker.
Yet it also creates new challenges and opportunities.
“How are we welcoming people? How do we reach all types of Jews in the Jewish community? How do we infuse Jewish identity into social events in a way that doesn’t push people away?” asks Lucker.
We spoke to Lucker about his journey into the Detroit Jewish community and how he hopes to make that journey even better for his peers.
Why not Detroit?
My wife [Stephanie Bloom] and I were both on the East Coast. I was based in D.C., working for the Federal government and the Obama administration on rural development for an agency called the Delta Regional Authority, which is focused on the economic development of the Mississippi River Delta. That was so meaningful for me as a native Arkansan. I had been there for years [including a transition period into the Trump administration], and Stephanie was in management consulting — both very high-intensity jobs that we were just exhausted by.
By 2018, we were both ready to leave our current jobs, and ready to leave New York and Washington, D.C. We decided, whoever gets a job first, the other will follow.
Three or four weeks after that conversation, Stephanie’s father and uncle called and asked if she’d join the family business. She presented it to me as, “I told them it doesn’t seem right for us.” And I was like, “Why?” Detroit has so many things to offer in such a cool city, and I had always read exciting things about Detroit professionally. I was comfortable with working in… places like Memphis, Little Rock, New Orleans, Jackson. Detroit is very much the southern city in the North — the assets as well as the challenges.
“We’re going to do what it takes to make sure you land here, lay roots here, and thrive.”
The Jewish community is one of the first places I tapped into when networking and trying to figure out what my next job would be. My mother-in-law started connecting me with her friends and folks she was connected with through women’s philanthropy. I started looking at NEXTGen Detroit, volunteered with Repair the World, and served on the JCRC/AJC board.
Dipping my toe in the water — that’s what I intended to do. I wound up diving in deeper. People were so embracing. They were so excited that I was here. They were intrigued that someone with a diverse background was coming to the city. And they were like, “We’re so happy you’re here, and we’re going to do what it takes to make sure you land here, lay roots here, and thrive.
An advocate for everyone
In my conversations with NEXTGen Detroit staff and with George Roberts, the current president, all of my passion is focused on, How do we continue to evolve NEXTGen Detroit, to ensure that everyone feels welcome?
I was lucky in that I had an advocate on my side who helped me navigate how to get involved. But not everyone has an advocate. How do we make NEXTGen Detroit accessible to people who are new and frankly, unlikely to have a connection to the community? How do we partner with Federation agencies, as well as the many other Jewish organizations that are not necessarily Federation affiliated or funded? These questions are at the center of our work this year in growing the NEXTGen community.
Infusing more meaning — and more Judaism — into NEXTGen Detroit
NEXTGen Detroit is not religious. It’s not a temple or a congregation. But [we’re exploring] how can we infuse and lift up what may feel like a social event or a happy hour [with] that Jewish connection. Because you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have that Jewish identity component. And so how do we talk about that? And how do we lift that up as a common thread that binds us all?
Making a safe space to talk about Israel
I also lead the Israel and Overseas workstream. In many ways, this is something that has always been operational — the Federation has an Israel and Overseas department that supports NEXTGen Detroit with targeted programming. But historically NEXTGen Detroit hasn’t been part of [the Israel] conversation. And we risk losing the next generation if we remove ourselves from the conversation, and don’t help to create a space for all Jewish young adults. I think we lose more by not engaging young adults in the conversation, and at least asking questions and posing questions back to them. Because everyone else is engaging in those conversations. We are forfeiting the right to tell our own narrative to someone else who will try and fill in, “What does Federation and what does NEXTGen Detroit believe?”
We have the opportunity to open up NEXTGen Detroit to folks with a diversity of opinions, and let them know that if they don’t necessarily agree with what the Federation stands for [on Israel], that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place within our Jewish community and that they can engage Jewishly with NEXTGen Detroit in the Federation in many other ways. I think it’s also a missed opportunity for education and awareness building.
We have the infrastructure
My mom [in Arkansas] is still calling on me and saying, “How do we engage young people?” Whereas in Detroit, I feel we’re really lucky in that the leadership over the past 10 to 15 years . . . had the foresight to say, “This is important.”
We haven’t figured it all out yet. But we at least have the infrastructure to engage young adults, and we have innovative programming. All of the things that we need to have a thriving young adult Jewish community are here. And then . . . that becomes an even stronger Jewish community — the strong Jewish community that our parents’ generation and frankly, our generation grew up in — that was partially harmed when some of us left, 15 to 20 years ago.