Fall is peak “orange cone” season in Southeast Michigan. Everywhere you look, crews are hurriedly paving and repairing roads before temperatures drop. It’s arduous, unglamorous — yet absolutely vital — work.
Marta and Benjamin Rosenthal see a lot of themselves in those crews. “We were just the people who built the road,” said Ben. Only the road they’ve been on stretches back thousands of years — the unbroken history of the Jewish people — and their section is the one Jews in Detroit use every day.
The Rosenthals have spent their entire adult lives in the community — Ben grew up in Northwest Detroit, back when Hampton Elementary was, as he puts it, “98-plus percent Jewish;” Marty is from Huntington Woods (which, she contends, has hardly changed at all). They have each invested decades serving the community in myriad roles (too many, in fact, to cover exhaustively here): Marta helped steer the community’s relationship with Israel as chair of the Partnership2Gether initiative, co-chaired the Federation’s Annual Campaign in the early 2000s, and, before that, was deeply involved in the Detroit Federation and American Joint Distribution Committee’s effort to deliver social services and education to newly arrived Ethiopian olim in Israel. Ben was, most recently, president of United Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit, which serves as Federation’s partner in holding and managing the community’s financial and real estate assets. They did all this while raising their own children (now grown).
“When they were little, I used to tell them that they were doing their tzedakah so I could go do my tzedakah in the community,” said Marty.
Both have been recognized for their contributions. Marty received the William Davidson Lifetime Achievement award from the Federation over the summer, and Ben, this month, was given the Fred M. Butzel Award.
Neither is done helping — Marty, for instance, still sits on the Jewish Foundation board, and their contribution to the Federation’s Centennial Campaign Endowment means their impact will be felt for years to come. But as we met them in their Franklin home, surrounded by artwork and artifacts from their many trips to Israel, they were willing to reflect on what they’ve accomplished and what work lies ahead.
To converse with them is to get deeply nuanced — and at times differing — perspectives on our community‘s strengths and challenges. What they clearly share is a zeal for Jewish Detroit and a hope that the next generation will take up the task of building the road.
“When we were done building our portion of the road, we got out of the way, so that the next generation can build their portion,” said Ben.
A different Israel, and a different Detroit — but always the same challenges
Ben: I worry about the next generation feeling about Israel the way we did. I was born in ’48. Marty was born in ’52. We’ve known nothing but the state. It came to the forefront in ’67 with the [Six Day] war. I’m typical in that regard. We’ve learned that we need Israel as much as Israel needs us. I started going in ’82, Marty in ’85. She’s been there thirty-plus times, I’ve been twenty-plus. So, it’s in our heart and soul. And it’s a different country now. When I started going you took your own toilet paper! It’s now obviously a wealthy country and militarily a strong country, but it has obviously huge challenges. And, we can’t lose that connection.
Marta: We have a lot of friends in Israel. They would say to me, “Why are you doing this?” And I would say, “Because I grew up in America. You grew up in a Jewish State, with everyone being Jewish.”
When I grew up, I went to Royal Oak schools; Jews were about 4 percent of the whole school system — it was the kids from Huntington Woods. I had connection to the Jewish community—my mother was a president of the National Jewish Women’s Council, my father did some work for Federation, and my grandfather was Chazzan at Shaarey Zedek — but the point I would make to my Israeli friends was, I want my kids to know what it means to be Jewish. And it’s harder here.
You have to work at it. Keep a Jewish home — everybody makes Shabbat in their own way. But everybody still feels a connection to traditional Judaism. It depends on your family. For us, that real connection, though we go to synagogue, was Israel.
Ben: We have to find a way to connect [the younger generations] to Judaism. If you’re satisfied by being in the synagogue, great. If you need to travel to Israel…do that. If you want to help the people, the Jewish people who need help in the community, then do that.
Our generation had a different psychology. Our parents were World War II veterans. My father [a physician with the U.S. Army] went into a [concentration] camp two or three days after [its liberation]. When he came home, because of this, he said to me, “Only Jews take care of Jews.” We have to figure out a way to make sure those who are able to take care of others know that it’s their obligation.
I feel we have lost a lot of the ability to communicate to our kids what it was like to have grandparents with accents, so to speak. I think we’ve lost that European Yiddishkeit knowledge. And obviously, the Holocaust — and I just get angry when I think about it — destroyed an amazing way of life. [But] I don’t think we’ve done a great job keeping that knowledge.
Marta: I don’t think it’s a generational issue. Trying to get people to know what’s available, to get involved — that’s very hard. It’s always been hard. In every organization. I was president of the National Council of Jewish Women, it was hard to find women to get involved.
I think things are cyclical. There [are] always ebbs and flows. And I think that’s true with Federation as well. But you see, the Campaign has not dropped at all, and our agencies are busy as ever. I mean, you look at Jewish Family Service — they’ve never had a lull.
Funding for Federation; education for Ethiopian Jews
Marta: I was so proud to be a Campaign chair—it meant a great deal to me that they put that trust in me. On the programming side, what really stands out for me was when I was the chair of PACT, a joint Detroit and JDC program. It was in the Ethiopian community. We were assigned Netanya, which had the largest Ethiopian community in Israel. I went to Israel multiple times to work with the mayor to make sure there were preschools in every neighborhood. I worked with the Ethiopian families and their social service agencies and their rabbis. It was just like Head Start but included health care—we’d go right into the homes. We were trying to make sure the kids were accepted into Israeli society.
The Ethiopian community has thrived in Israel — they’ve had their racial issues — but for the most part, I think PACT had a lot to do with it. I was very proud of that.
The Federation Campaign is the glue
Marta: Campaign is the glue that holds this community together. People don’t realize so many things are touched by the Campaign. Besides all the agencies, the schools and the synagogues get money from the Campaign. Every Jewish institution is turning to Federation to learn about security — including the country clubs — including anything with any Jewishness about them.
People know [Federation helps fund] Jewish Family Service, right? But they don’t know [about] religious day schools. There [are] so many things that Campaign touches, it keeps this community together. And some people would never know because they don’t need the services, but when times are bad, they’re turning to the annual Campaign when they get help from Hebrew Free Loan or Jewish Family Service or the Jewish senior apartments.
So, money is really like the glue—that’s how I look at the Campaign.
Ben: We set up a PACE fund because the people before us had faith in our ability to manage, grow, and take care of the Jewish community of Detroit. And the purpose of the PACE fund is to make sure that there are funds available for the next generations. There’s no better Jewish community—people who we know from all over the country who come here and see what happens here see the difference. My hope is that the next generations will stay connected locally, but overseas as well.