By David Zenlea
On June 1, the Federation Awards Night will once again honor a select group of community leaders who have dedicated themselves to helping our Detroit Jewish community thrive. This year, we’re proud to honor one of our own, Amy Neistein, with The Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Award for Outstanding Jewish Communal Service.
When you talk with Amy about her work, the word that comes up more than any other is Community. That’s not a surprise. For nearly three decades, Amy has worked behind the scenes on some of our community’s most important initiatives. Fittingly, she is in her own words, “So not a spotlight person.”
Neistein has quietly helped guide some of Detroit Federation’s most significant and successful programs of the last three decades. She started in the 1990s with the Neighborhood Project, which rejuvenated the Jewish communal presence in Oak Park and Southfield. Her tenure at the Israel and Overseas Department, where she eventually became director, saw a dramatic deepening of Detroit’s Israel ties (Teen Mission, Partnership2Gether, Israeli Camper Program). Since 2015, she has led Women’s Philanthropy, which raises some $6 million annually from some 4000 women for Federation’s Annual Campaign, as well providing opportunities for networking, learning, volunteering and socializing.
Neistein serially defers credit to colleagues, volunteers, and the community as a whole—rarely will she even use the words “I” or “we” without qualifying that there are others to acknowledge. “All these wonderful, amazing ideas that our volunteer leaders lead with… I have just this great opportunity to help implement them.”
Yet those she has worked with describe a consummate professional whose cool competence, work ethic, and modesty are vital to making programs happen.
“She works powerfully and efficiently behind the scenes, and she takes it upon herself to make the laypeople come off in the best light possible,” notes Betsy Heuer, who worked with Neistein on Israel programming and is currently president of Women’s Philanthropy. “I’ve seen her function professionally under extremely stressful circumstances.”
I caught up with Neistein during just such a circumstance—less than two weeks out from Women’s Philanthropy’s Signature Event, a 500-person engagement featuring Monica Lewinsky, to be followed by a leadership trip to New York. (And you thought preparing for Seder was high-pressure.) True to form, she wondered “how articulate I’m going to be” before patiently—and very articulately—reflecting on 26 years of service.
“I found such a connection”
I think what really drove me to community was positive connection.
I always had the perception that I was different. I’m a Southerner, from Louisiana. I had very few Jewish peers. I grew up very quickly with a lot of responsibility, as my mother was ill. I don’t want to in any way insinuate [that I had it worse than others]. I think the broader perspective has always been, “I had challenges, but there are other and bigger challenges out there in this world.”
The Reform movement built a camp in the Deep South—Henry S. Jacobs in Utica, Mississippi. The camp was built because—like Federation in Detroit—the Jewish community there realized, “We’re not going to have a Jewish future here for our young adults if we don’t do something.” The families in the Deep South raised the money and worked with the Reform movement. It was visionary. I was already high school age when it was built [but] I had an opportunity to be staff.
I just found such a connection at the camp, a very positive time for me in my life. I had such fun and met Jewish friends. Howard and I were actually married there because camp was my home away from home. [Howard Neistein also works for Federation as chief officer of strategic partnerships.]
“This community is resourceful and visionary—and not afraid to take risks”
I think this community is resourceful and visionary—and not afraid to take risks. My first job here was with a program called Neighborhood Project. At the time [in the 1990s], Jews were moving out of Southfield and Oak Park. The community looked at the neighborhoods there and said, “We have $15 million in Jewish real estate in these neighborhoods. How do we retain a Jewish presence here?”
And that was the beginning of giving out interest-free home loans to get families to continue to anchor the neighborhood. They actually went to Washington, D.C., and lobbied with the Department of Transportation to reroute I-696 and create pedestrian decks on the overpasses so it wouldn’t adversely impact the Orthodox community. They also had an eye on the broader non-Jewish community in enhancing those neighborhoods. It was an important concept.
“I often will just stop and ask, ‘What other community does that?’”
The community also has a special relationship with Israel. The investment they made in people-to-people relationships really personalized that relationship.
The Teen Missions became and continue to be a great partnership with our congregations. I was fortunate to help coordinate six of them. The most pride I have is that I’ll run into someone who was a participant or counselor on a Teen Mission and they’re young adults now, contributing to the community. I often will just stop and say, “What other community does that?”
In 2002, during the Second Intifada, we couldn’t take Teen Mission to Israel safely. This community had the vision to help provide respite for the Israeli kids in our partner region [the Central Galilee]. So they brought them to Tamarack Camps. They brought 300 kids to Tamarack in one summer session. It was such an amazing experience that the community kept doing it. The Israeli Camper Program is still going, 20 years later.
“The infrastructure that allows us to address an emergency”
Now I have the privilege to partner with women. Here’s another community that is just exceptional. I like to say it’s amazing women doing great work—a powerhouse of women who can engage their networks. And this is not just about their philanthropy…we’re also connecting women and developing leaders.
One of the most important aspects of the fundraising, for Federation as a whole, is that with all of that work they’re doing, they’re still poised to address any emergency that comes along. That’s why we were able to really turn on a dime and address needs during COVID or Ukraine emergency—it’s because everything that we’re always doing every day in an annual campaign and our non-emergency time is the infrastructure that allows us to be ready to address an emergency.
“Right now is this incredible time.”
What are we working on today? Right now is this incredible time. Our signature fundraising event is coming up in 12 days, on April 26, and we have sold out with 500 women. This is one of two fundraisers we do in the year—it’s for the entire community of women—but the purpose of it is, of course, beyond the fundraiser is to engage our women. This event is bringing Monica Lewinsky to talk about cyberbullying, which of course is such a priority for youth mental health.
At the time of registration, we wanted to kind of acknowledge that this is not just a fun girls’ night out—there’s a very challenging world right now with the Ukraine emergency. We added on to our registration site [an option] to donate to the Ukrainian emergency fund. So far, we’ve raised over $12,000 [for Ukraine] by just adding that to our site. That is just reflective of this community.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a travel experience to New York for our Campaign Leadership Program. We’re going to New York to access some amazing presenters, and we’re going to use the Jewish New York experience to further inspire them, including a customized tour on the Lower East Side to tell our immigration story through the eyes of women.
“That’s keeping me going.”
What keeps me going? I love the volunteer-professional partnership. There are just passionate, smart, creative volunteers and professionals doing great work for the community, and there’s so much caring. I’m still happy to be contributing to those relationships. And that’s keeping me going.