On Wednesday, March 11 — within hours after the first two cases of COVID-19 in Michigan were reported — we find Mark Adler on the job at a Federation, meeting with the security staff. “There were four of us around the table, so we didn’t need much Purell at the time,” he tells us later that morning when interviewed for this profile. But clearly, the gravity of what was about to unfold in the course of the day and the weeks to come weighed heavily on his mind.
On his watch
“Every day presents a challenge in our world,” says Mark. “The Security Team meets weekly, and more frequently when needed, to discuss the ways we can improve.” In the four years since he stepped up to his role as Security Chair, Mark and the team have known their share of unprecedented challenges. “My first emergency on the job — not more than a couple months into my term in 2017 — were the of bomb threats to nearly 30 JCCs across the country, including ours. The investigation quickly revealed no actual risk to lives. But the upside of the incident was what we learned and what to implement going forward. Gary and his team are the experts in law enforcement, but if there’s just one thing I’ve discovered working in community security that applies to virtually any emergency situation, it’s to have our lines of communication open with protocols in place and procedures well-practiced.”
Social distancing. Staying home. Rethinking virtually every aspect of our “normal” everyday activities and expectations. COVID-19 is a test: a test of our leadership, a test of our communities, a test of our personal steps to safeguard our families. As we hunker down for the storm to pass (and it will), we can take comfort in the strength of Jewish Detroit – its agencies and agents of change — those volunteers, professionals, community leaders like Mark Adler.
“We’re ‘Here for Good’,” says Mark (quoting Federation’s branding line). “My wife, Laura, and I both grew up in families rooted in Jewish life in Detroit. We are the parents of three — Alyssa, 27, Alex, 25 and David, 22; they have traveled to Israel with Hillel Day School and Frankel Jewish Academy, as well as on family trips, have been Tamarack Campers and are graduates of Hillel and the Jewish Academy. All three of our kids are successfully “launched,” working and living in New York. For three generations, we’ve been a close-knit family connected to the Jewish community and we have nothing but gratitude and pride in the work we do to give back and pay our blessings forward.”
Laura and Mark have been married 30 years. Formerly Director of Marketing at Tamarack Camps, Laura is now the Marketing Director at Mark Adler Custom Homes. As Laura describes, “Mark is a forward-thinker, a good listener, a hard-worker, a devoted family man and an astute businessman – all the qualities that make him ’menschy’.”
To those who know Mark as a friend and colleague, it will come as no surprise that he came to the interview prepared with written answers to the questions we posed in advance. What follows is a blend of his writing and his commentary.
Q & A with Mark Adler
On early influences
myJewishDetroit: Please share a little about your family background and your Jewish journey growing up.
Growing up, my parents instilled hard work and a never-give-up approach on life.
My father, Tom, is a Holocaust survivor. After the war, he was sent to a displacement camp in Slovakia. Then, in 1947, he went to Israel to join his brother who smuggled him in through underground connections (just like the movie Exodus). My dad doesn’t talk about the war years, but in Israel he served in the Navy, became a merchant marine and studied agricultural engineering. My dad met my mom in Israel and my older sister was born there before they came to Detroit in 1962.
My mother, Chava, also has an Israeli background. She was born in Lodz, Poland, and, at the age of two (1934), her family moved to Jerusalem. My grandfather, an ardent Zionist, had been living in Israel for two years before the move. My mother’s family lived in Jerusalem until the War of Independence broke out. They then moved to Tel Aviv.
My parents have been my model of strength and resilience — my Jewish foundation for life. They have been great examples on how to live life and respect others.
myJewishDetroit: What brought your parent to Detroit?
A business opportunity. My parents had no family here in Detroit, but my dad was sponsored by another Israeli who was in the building business and needed a good salesman. As it turned out, my uncle in Israel knew this guy here (because every Jew knows everybody, right?) and, somehow, they connected. So, long story short, my dad came here in the building business and built his own company. I grew up in the business, lived in Livonia, then moved to West Bloomfield in 1969, where our family lives today.
myJewishDetroit: How did you and Laura meet?
We didn’t actually meet in college, but I first had eyes on Laura when visiting friends at University of Michigan. I was in school at Michigan State University but, on a visit one weekend, I saw Laura at a bar and asked my friend about her. I was told she had a boyfriend, so that ended it there. It was a few years later, when we were both back in town, that same friend introduced us.
On building community trust and security
myJewishDetroit: As a builder of custom homes, what is the philosophy of your business and how has it sustained you through the ups and downs of the market?
I work with each customer personally and learn what is important in a home for them. For most people, a home is the largest purchase they will ever make. Build it right the first time and focus on the details no matter how big or small.
Other than Laura, who is my Marketing Director, I have no partners in business. I run solo. But my team consists of some great people who have been with me for over 30 years, including trade contractors who now represent a second generation working with me.
myJewishDetroit: What does it mean to be the second generation of a family business?
I learned a lot from my father working for and with him. From being a laborer to eventually owning my own company. I have the knowledge of the actual site construction process and the business side. I would say my father had and still gets “nachas” [Yiddish meaning pride and joy] from working with his son.
myJewishDetroit: How has your business shaped or driven your community leadership roles?
Running your own business helps in developing leadership and organizational skills. Security is no different. Other than Gary Sikorski and Kristen Hollenbeck being the experts, I am the eyes and ears for the community. We talk about the planning, personnel and funding for the security of the whole community.
myJewishDetroit: How did you first get involved with Federation?
My father-in-law, Norman Katz of blessed memory, was a strong influence. I consider him one of my mentors in life, as well as a friend. Though Norm never pushed the Federation life on me, he often spoke highly of its important role in our community. I needed no convincing to get involved. . . but one day, early on of our marriage, I received a call from Scott Eisenberg asking me to attend a Federation meeting with the intent to introduce me (or recruit me) to the ranks of young leaders. I told him that Norman Katz was my father-in-law, and with that, he said, “Oh ok, and goodbye.” He actually said no more and hung up! It was funny, but that call and the meeting that followed was the beginning of my JFMD life. It also sums up the way Norman possessed a gentle, yet powerful influence on people.
I believe my first committee role was Capital Needs — and of course, working on one committee invariably leads to another.
myJewishDetroit: What drew you to Federation’s Security Committee?
Out of necessity! In ways we never would have imagined since Jewish Detroit hired its first Security Director in 2006, our community now has a vigilant security presence on our agency campuses, the Jewish day schools, Tamarack Camps, and, most recently, now in synagogues and non-Federation Jewish community organizations.
When I was asked and accepted the Chairmanship of the Security Committee, I recall telling a person who is very involved in Federation about my new role, and he asked out of curiosity, “Working in stocks and bonds?” And I said “No, working with law enforcement, protecting against guns and bombs.”
It wasn’t long ago that security in our community was just a quiet necessity in our buildings. Now it’s a critical need. And, what most people don’t realize, our Federation now assists statewide in all sorts of situations that occur on college campuses and synagogues. For example, Federation helped secure a grant to assist a synagogue in Houghton, Michigan, to clean up swastika that had been spray painted on its building.
The more I learn, the more I value the work of our local and state law enforcement officers. As part of the job, I’ve been to Washington, D.C., for training with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Locally, I continue to accompany Gary at local training sessions, interfaith incident seminars and countless community events requiring heightened security.
My father who, by nature, is a very upbeat and positive person said to me that he never thought he would see the kind of anti-Semitism that has cropped up again. At 89, my dad is still my best partner and consultant on every project. I speak to him daily — sometimes two or three times a day and he always asks where I’m going — which job I’m heading to, my sites, my office or my “other job” with Federation. When I tell him Federation, he says, “Shomar ‘ha Yehudim — Watch over the Jews. Go do your job!”
myJewishDetroit: What are some of the new safety measures and security procedures our community has put into action recently?
We now have backpacks and trauma kits in every classroom in our schools, as well as at Tamarack Camps. We like to believe we would never have a need for those kits, but putting those words aside, there are 29 participating agencies and synagogues, Jewish day schools, Early Childhood Centers and Tamarack Camps that have received “lock down” backpacks and trauma kits to use in the event of an emergency.
We also have instituted a new alert system called Gabriel, developed by a team in Israel with a Detroit connection through Yoni Sherezin. The system essentially is panic button mounted on the wall with a camera and a video recording capability. When it’s activated, it sends a signal to all the connected devices in the building. Not only that, the system has the capability to alert other buildings in the network and to give law enforcement access to the cameras to see what’s going on. It’s pretty slick. And it’s all been funded. Our synagogues have been asking for them. All the agencies will be tied in, as we roll it out. Being first in the country, we’ve been part of the beta in development. We’re past that stage now; they have them in Miami, and the company is now reaching out to the entire country.
Another way in which we’re sharing our knowhow is through Federation’s Israel Mission program. At the request of Cleveland’s Federation and in collaboration with other Federations around the country, Gary has accompanied local police officers for training and understanding anti-Semitism. We’ve had Israeli law enforcement teams visit us here, but there’s nothing more impactful than the experience of being in Israel and seeing firsthand what innovations in protocols and procedures we might share. We need to do more missions like that.
On imagining the unimaginable
myJewishDetroit: As the steward of our community, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit has been leading an urgent and coordinated response to the outbreak of COVID-19. What measures are in place to maintain the safety of our community?
This is an unprecedented time. We have no guidelines for the challenges the next weeks and months may bring for our community. First and foremost, we’re all thinking of the health and well-being of our loved ones, our family and friends. We are also thinking globally about our Jewish community – taking care of our vulnerable seniors, our students, our congregations, our life-saving agencies.
Federation has set up an emergency fund and is initiating a COVID-19 Emergency Campaign to address the immediate concerns of our agencies. And because information is power – I would add a plug for our community connections and Resource Page at jewishdetroit.org/covid19resources/ with links to jHelp, online Congregational services and other vital information. More information can be found on our Facebook page.
And finally, on a personal note, my recommendation to all is to Keep calm, be alert . . . be aware. Stay positive, stay safe, stay sane. And wash often. This too shall pass over.
Restaurants: Laura’s Kitchen and Mark’s BBQ Pit
Places to meet for coffee: a café on Dizengoff Street with Laura
Building in the Detroit skyline: The Train Station. I am looking forward to seeing what Ford will do with that iconic Detroit building. If only the walls could talk.
Place to take kids/ visitors: Since all my kids live in New York City, our favorite places are wherever they are.
Vacation places: Israel, Lake Tahoe and Up North. And anywhere on the globe. Because travel is all about adventure.
Sports: Anything MSU and Detroit. Need to have a strong stomach lately to be a Detroit sport fan.
Jewish Expression: As my mother always says, “Are you hungry?”
Jewish holiday: Anything with my kids.
Reading now: Verbal Judo by George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins
Watching now: Planet Earth
Words to live by (and what I like to tell my children often):
To live with others, you need love and respect. To live life, you need humor and laughter. To live you need to be alert and aware of your surroundings