Where Leadership Counts

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.”  

Mark and Laura Adler

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.

Favorites

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


ZOOMing over Passover

The irony escapes no one reading this that it’s April — the Hebrew month of Nisan – our time for renewal and celebration, our time for gathering family and friends (including newcomers) from near and far for our Passover feast.  This year, as we hunker down to our virtual seders, we may well write a new chapter of our Haggadah – our own accounting of a modern-day, world-wide, real-life plague.

Social distancing.  Sheltering at home. Working from home. Skyping. Meeting online via ZOOM. Keeping ourselves and our families safe, active and connected . . . how are you?

Taking long walks, long breaths and short naps? Practicing yoga? Learning to home-school the kids? Hanging out online? Shopping Amazon?  Buying groceries via InstaCart? Enjoying home cooking? Stress baking? Reading new novels? Turning off the news? Starting a journal? Playing music daylong? Finding new board games fascinating? Solving word puzzles? Catching Netflix? Binging on popcorn and washing hands? Cleaning and wiping surfaces obsessively?

How are we spending our time?

As the days and weeks and projected months of COVID-19 pass (and, as the sun comes up each morning, this too will pass), what will we make of this time?  Our time together.  How will we record it, replay it, remember it and retell it to our children?

If you are watching, waiting and counting the days to pass over and wish to share your thoughts, one of many places to connect is right here on the link to Federation’s Facebook page.   

We may be families in close quarters with our youngsters, doing our best to keep books and laptop lessons open . . . We may be couples or singles far away from our loved ones or shut off from our seniors in communal spaces. . . but we’re all in this together.  Perhaps we’re not “preparing” for Pesach this year in our usual ways, but our story, now nearly 3,000 years long, still goes on, from bondage to bonding, from Exodus to freedom, from Four Questions to answers, from bitter herbs and tears to song and laughter. 

That’s our Passover and nothing changes the fact that we are in the story together, here together – Heneinu.  Here for Good.  Here for our families and community. May our connections and moments of grace and wellbeing keep us strong and sustain us through the storm.

Your Federation is at work.

 Looking for resources, ways to get help or give back? 

Check Federation’s Community-Wide Coronavirus Resource Page with links to Help, Connect, and Go online for Congregational services and other information. More information can be found on our Facebook page.

Connect with Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit, Women’s Philanthropy, Affinities and Israel and Overseas – moving programs online and developing new content that specifically address the emotional wellbeing of community members in light of the profound changes in our daily lives and interactions.

Stay strong. We recognize that there is no roadmap for dealing with this crisis, no instruction manual to follow. But we are fortunate to live in Jewish Detroit – a generous and resilient community, where we can be grateful for the many supporters and volunteers who have stepped up to lead our emergency efforts.

Stay safe, stay well, stay connected

Planning a virtual seder?

Get a family-friendly Hagaddah, free online from Kveller.com.

For more resources, online Hagaddahs and recipes, visit JTA linked here.


Leaders on Their Way

Jayme and Jeff Kirschner often thought about a trip to Israel. One day, “someday,” they would get there. But then Federation called. Jayme vividly remembers getting the call from Karen Kaplan, the lead staff of the Gen X Mission. “I was so surprised when she asked if I might be interested in leading the trip, that I asked her if she was sure she had the right name and number.”

Jayme and Jeff have been involved with Federation and its agencies for years. Their daughter, Sadie, went to Israel two summers ago with the Teen Mission; their son, Garrett, will go with Tamarack Camps next summer. Jayme, herself, turned down two previous invitations to the Grosfeld Leadership Missions because the timing just wasn’t right for her family. But this Mission was different, and the timing was perfect.

“We know Federation does missions like no other,”said Jeff. “When Jayme and I first started talking about the Gen X Mission, the itinerary sounded like “Israel’s Greatest Hits” – thanks to the Wolfe’s personal favorite things to do, people to meet and places to see. We were in good hands with the Federation staff, both in Detroit and in Israel; and with our co-chair, Brian Satovsky, also onboard, we couldn’t have asked for a better leadership team.”

Mission leadership (l to r): Brian Satovsky, Karen Kaplan, Jayme and Jeff Kirschner and Amy Brody.

A past board member and well-versed in Federation leadership programs and mission planning, Brian Satovsky has traveled to Israel numerous times. “I was particularly excited about the Mission and its focus on Gen X community engagement.” he said. “It was my privilege to lead and share the experience with our first-time participants – as well as my co-chairs, (Jeff, who had never been, and Jayme who hadn’t been to Israel in over 30 years!)  Now that we’ve returned, my hope is that our journey together will continue, and our group will become an active cohort opening to new paths to leadership in our community.”

Eyes wide open

New to Israel and leading the way, Jayme and Jeff Kirschner both bring an impressive range of experience to the Gen X Mission. Jeff is an attorney in private practice in Southfield, covering the State of Michigan and specializing in workers’ compensation and social security disability. A Past Board Member of BBYO and Temple Israel, he currently serves on the Boards of Tamarack Camps and the Michigan State University Serling Institute for Jewish Studies. An active volunteer with Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, Temple Israel and Threads, Jayme is an artist and designer who uses her talents for clients of Peace of Mind, Life Solutions, designing floor plans and specializing in downsizing homes and furnishings for seniors. Formerly the owner of Imelda’s Closet, Jayme still opens a pop-up shop called J*ME, featuring the spring and fall line of her favorite shoes.

Gen Xers in their prime: residents of West Bloomfield, parents of freshmen (Sadie at MSU and Garrett at West Bloomfield Hight School), avid MSU sports fans, lovers of art, cooking, good bourbon, travel and adventure. This is Jeff and Jayme Kirschner.  Here’s where we catch up with them two weeks before their Mission, February 20-27. 

In conversation with Jayme and Jeff Kirschner: Leaders on a Mission

On family & work

myJewishDetroit: Please share a little about your family background.

Jayme: Jeff and I (almost) grew up together. Our families lived just a couple of miles away, but never connected.

I grew up at Temple Israel – literally, I remember the groundbreaking; my grandparents were active there, and my mother was the Director of Early Education there for 34 years before her retirement three years ago. Jeff grew up at Temple Beth El and Shir Shalom. We were both in BBYO together – not that we, ourselves, recall, but I found an old photo of a retreat where we were both present.

I went to West Bloomfield High School; Jeff went to Andover. We went our separate ways to college: I have a BA in Fashion Merchandising and Design from Western Michigan University and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology  in New York City; Jeff is an MSU grad in Political Economy and Economics and earned his law degree at the Detroit College of Law.

myJewishDetroit: How did you meet?

Jayme:  The usual way before eHarmony and JDate . . . we relied on family and friends and were fixed up on a blind date. 

Jeff:  Jayme’s cousin was dating an attorney who I was close friends with. He fixed us up in 1996; we were engaged in ’98 and married in July ‘99. We’ve been married almost 21 years.

On community work

myJewishDetroit: How did you first get involved in community work?

Jeff: As a teen, I followed my brother’s footsteps to BBYO and to Tamarack Camps, where  I worked for five years, including one year at Camp Kennedy in the U.P.  I guess that laid the groundwork for my affinity for community work. I would say, too, that my law practice is about caring and helping people with critical legal and health needs.

Jayme:  I suppose my name may have first come up at Federation through Women’s Philanthropy and the Community Connections program. I also used to run the school store at West Hills (Elementary) where I recruited volunteers for lunches and that’s where I first met Karen Kaplan, who recruited us to the Gen X Mission.

As I’ve come to learn in our community, the more you volunteer, the more connections you make to open doors to incredible opportunities.

On your Mission

myJewishDetroit: Let’s talk about the mission, itself. . . who, what, where? And what was the process of recruitment?

Jeff:  The Andi and Larry Wolfe Gen X Mission to Israel included a 7-day tour from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and from the Central Galilee Partnership2Gether Region to the Golan Heights.

Spots were available for about 30 participants, not counting the co-chairs (Jayme, me and Brian Satovsky), Federation staff members, Karen Kaplan and Amy Brody, and Naomi Miller, our tour guide in Israel. Travel expenses were subsidized generously by Andi and Larry Wolfe who also served as Advisors for the Mission which is set to occur every other year.  

Jayme: Participation was determined by an open-application process where we reviewed about 100 applications from prospective participants who submitted essays or videos, explaining why they wanted to have the experience and what projected impact it would have on their lives.

Jeff: Our group netted out to 33 first timers (those who had never been to Israel, or who had not been there in over 20 years.) We were a balanced mix of men and women, married couples, singles, friends, family – all traveling together. Age-wise, we ranged between 36 and 56. At the start, there was no one in the group who knew everyone, so we all set out on the same footing, ready to get to know one another, embrace the adventure and have fun. 

myJewishDetroit: In what ways has Federation prepared you for the Mission?

Jayme:  From start to finish, the Gen X Mission is an educational process that consists of pre and post Mission programs that cover different aspects of the community and the work of our Jewish agencies, both here and in Israel. As a group, we met three times before the mission. The Wolfes hosted our first in their home; our next two meetings were held in the Federation offices.

myJewishDetroit: When you first saw the itinerary, what were some of the highlights that most excited you?

Jeff:  I’d have to say it was everything– the whole experience.  Everyone I’ve ever met who’s been to Israel, comes back with rave reviews and profoundly moved.  

Jayme: Personally, I was excited to see Technion and looking forward to getting to our Partnership Region and meeting the families we’ve gotten to know through Tamarack Camps’ exchanges. The graffiti tour in Tel Aviv also excited me.  And, of course, I’m all about the food! A wine tasting in the Golan Heights, and a culinary grazing tour in the Jaffa Flea Market.

Jeff: Obviously, everyone in our group had different levels of involvement going into this and will have different expectations coming home. I anticipate that our experience will enlighten us and spark further interest in Federation, in Israel, in our roles in the community and what it means to be Jewish.

Favorites

Restaurants:  The Stage is our go-to neighborhood place. Downtown, we love Parc in Campus Martius and Table No. 2 on Livernois.  Jayme: I’ll add Beau’s, Sonny’s for omelets and brunch, and Beyond Juice in Birmingham.

Building in the Detroit skyline: Jeff: Ren Cen – the iconic landmark building in every silhouette you see of Detroit. Also, I like the architecture of the Penobscot Building, where I used to work.   Jayme: The Lafayette Coney Island and the Eastern Market.

Vacation places:  Every summer we do road trips, discovering the U.S. Our favorites include driving Nashville to Memphis, St. Louis to Chicago, the Maine coastline, and Portland to Seattle.

Sports: Tennis and everything MSU

Jewish food: Soup, corned beef

Jewish holiday: Any, all the food; I love Passover.

Guilty pleasures: Poker, bourbon and beer

Reading now: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, by Yossi Klein Halevi (a Mission group assignment)

Watching now : Don’t F**K with Cats (way bizarre!)

Words to live by:  Jayme:  Be thankful.   Jeff: No matter what, be kind.


Happy 98, Millie Berg!

What a gift for life . . .  And what a joy it was to visit Millie in the day-after glow of her 98th birthday on January 30. “Come in, come in,” she bid us, welcoming our interview as though we were old friends dropping in for coffee and chitchat.

Amidst the flower bouquets and balloons giving her cozy apartment the appearance of the backstage dressing room of the star on opening night, we find Millie, elegantly dressed and seated comfortably in a sunlit chair in the living room. “I’m still on a high from yesterday,” she tells us. “Ten grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren, and yesterday, on my birthday, I heard from every one of them. Cards, calls, tributes! My family hosted a luncheon in my honor. There were three birthday cakes, can you imagine? One person brought in a seven-layer cake – a whole loaf decorated with Happy Birthday on top, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Living well, going strong, in remarkably good health and with her memory sharp, Millie has every reason to celebrate.  “I’ve had a lot of naches (the Yiddish word for pride and joy) in my life,” she says. “I have had a wonderful family life, married for 76 years to Aaron of blessed memory. Aaron lived to nearly 105 and he always used to say, ‘I’ve lived to see all my dreams come true.’ And now I say that too. I’ve lived to see all that my children have accomplished and, beyond that, I now see the next generation coming up, all just as hard-working and accomplished as their fathers and mothers.” 

Millie and Aaron’s story began in 1939 in the retail hub of Michigan Avenue in Detroit. The daughter of Rose and David Schuff, Millie worked in her family millinery shop. She was 17 when she met Aaron, the enterprising young furniture salesman, at a store opening event. “He was the furniture store; I was the hat store girl next door. Aaron thought I was the most gorgeous thing walking and started sending me flowers,” said Millie with a twinkle in her eye. “We married in June 1940, five years to the day after he came to the U.S. Aaron believed in hard work, spoke eight languages and understood how to take care of people. Out of the 18 furniture stores on our block, my husband was the top salesman. All the stores were after him. Six months after we got married, he went into business on his own, started Senate Furniture and had a tremendous following. People would wait an hour to see him.”

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, and well educated there, Aaron was the son of a rabbi, a political activist who was imprisoned in Siberia for the first two years of Aaron’s life. At the encouragement of his mother, Aaron came to America in 1935 where he joined his older sister in Detroit.

“Though Aaron lost his parents, four siblings and other members of his family in the Holocaust, he was able to close that chapter in his life. Aaron never lost his faith, his gratitude for his family and his joy for living,” Millie observed. “Together we were active at Congregation Adat Shalom for nearly 77 years. My husband davened beautifully; he sang and could have been a cantor. He loved to dance . . . and he loved to play golf. He was known at Knollwood Country Club to be oldest golfer to ever have a hole in one.”

Beyond their record-holding support of Federation – in Detroit as well as in Florida –  the Bergs were active volunteers in the community and honored for their donations and work on behalf of Israel Bonds, the Jewish National Fund and Histadrut, (the Federation of Jewish Labor) in Israel. “We were both very big Zionists,” said Millie. “In fact, I have more family living in Israel than here. My grandfather was a musician in the orchestra of the Tsar (Nicholas II).  During the Russian Revolution of 1905, he fled to Israel and settled in Petah Tikva (the “Door of Hope”).  I still have family in that community.  

Here’s to life, here’s to longevity. . .

Imagine living nearly a century, long enough to see your children – through the duration of distinguished careers to their retirement – through the years to see grandchildren in the prime of life, raising the next generation. Millie and Aaron raised their four children – Brenda, Richard, Robert and Charles – in Huntington Woods; all four graduated from Michigan schools that did them proud. And all carried the Berg tradition of hard work, scholarship and enterprise. As the family moved on, Millie and Aaron made their home in West Bloomfield in Wabeek and also maintained a residence in Pompano Beach, Florida.

These days, in conversation with Millie, it takes no time for her to launch into a Who’s Who in a family she likes to call  her “League of Nations” – her generations of brothers and sisters, children and in-laws, grandchildren, and great grandchildren – a family of attorneys, doctors, social workers, professors, art appraisers, businessmen and entrepreneurs across the country.

The list of the Berg family is long, but so is Millie’s memory.  Those who know the Berg family from way-back-when may remember:

  • Millie’s “kid” sister, Annette Gurian, a social worker and one of the founders of JARC, now living in Roanoke, Virginia.
  • Brenda Friedman (n. Berg), a long-time Detroiter, active with Federation, now retired and living in downtown Chicago, Illinois.
  • Richard (Rick) Berg, a law professor at Santa Clara University, now retired and living in Santa Cruz, California.
  • Robert A. Berg, Professor of Anesthesiology, Critical Care Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and Division Chief of Critical Care Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
  • Charles (Chuck) Berg, second generation of Senate Furniture & Mattress, owner of La-Z-Boy in Santa Cruz, now retired.
  • Grandchildren and their children: Ranging in ages from 1 year old to 51, they are too numerous to name.

 “You’re never too old (or too young) to give.”

“I’ve lived long enough to see three generations in a beautiful mix of people I love,” says Millie. “There are a lot of intermarriages in our family – but the kids know they are Jewish, and we celebrate the holidays. And what I see Federation doing today is wonderful in bringing more young people and families together in our community. If you ask me, that’s why it’s so important and gratifying for me to be a lifetime donor. And I would say to others that you’re never too old (or too young!) to give. You don’t have to give a lot of money, but you’ve got to give something, because a little from everybody every year adds up to lifelong donations.”

We visited Millie representing Federation, but in true Jewish matriarch fashion, she invited us to stay for lunch served downstairs – a tempting offer we had to decline. “Well, at least take a slice of cake,” she insisted . . .  

And sure enough, without further question, we take the cake.  


Life Coach

A bridge to the generations: At 40, Tomer is well established in Jewish Detroit, with friends and colleagues who span a generation of Tamarack campers coming of age as well as their parents – and grandparents. A certified career and life coach, Tomer spent 12 summers working at Tamarack Camps, responsible for counselor training and coaching, as well as the hiring and management of all international staff.

A multi-talented Jewish educator and an avid student of human nature, Tomer has degrees in Acting, Directing and Theater Education from the Kibbutzim College in Tel Aviv and Beit Zvi College of Performing Arts, Israel. Additionally, he is a member of the Cornerstone Faculty of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the AVI CHAI Foundation and holds a diploma of Positive Psychology studies from IDC Herzliya.

“It may seem like a huge leap for me to leave Israel and come here,” says Tomer, “However, the transition has been remarkably easy. Since moving to Birmingham in November, I feel very lucky and humbled — finding so many people in NEXTGen eager to get to know me and start working with me. I also have amazing circles of support. There are many families in the community who have ‘adopted me’ — The Ketais, the Applebaums, the Ruskins, the Weinstocks, the Aronovitzes, the Trepecks — to name a few.”

What next? In conversation with Tomer Moked

Tomer with the NEXTGen Detroit team at Latke Vodka

On coming to Detroit  

myJewishDetroit: While it’s true that you’ve only just begun your work with Federation, you had many colleagues in town rooting for you to join the staff. Describe how you made your decision: why Detroit, why now? 

Tomer: I’m going to answer that question with a little background. I’m a lifelong student, and through my studies, I have continued to learn my strengths: First in acting school, then in earning my degrees in theater and education; and, after that, getting my certification in life and career coaching, and finally, a diploma in Positive Psychology. 

I believe in pushing myself to take on challenges, to be open to change and eager to take new career paths. For the past ten years I’ve had the opportunity to combine my creative talent and coaching skills in conducting workshops and staff training for both corporate and nonprofit organizations, and I’ve learned what it takes to be a good listener, a leader and a mentor. All that experience – both in Israel and at Tamarack – now translates to working here with NEXTGen Detroit – a new opportunity that combines everything I love to do.

For me, moving to Michigan was an easy decision. At the time, Scott Kaufman was still Federation CEO. A master of community building, Scott had been mentoring me quietly from the sidelines and inspired me with his vision for a vibrant NEXTGen. Scott has lived up to his promise to re-imagine our community for the next generation. I believe my job today is to keep that promise and help envision our next steps.

I can’t say now what the future will hold for me in the next three, 10, 20 years . . . but I know I want to lay the groundwork for new work that continues to attract and maintain young leaders and to motivate them to keep building the vibrant Jewish community that we have promised.

Essentially, I see my role as a NEXTGen leadership developer, mentoring NEXTGen Detroiters. I think about that as a goal, and it starts with the NEXTGen Board, those who are giving so generously of their time, their energy and their skills to the community. 

After the first NEXTGen Board meeting I attended, I turned to the Marketing Department and requested a large poster putting together the names and faces of every member of my NEXTGen Board. I keep that poster on prominent display in my office as my reminder of what our community leaders do for us every day, all the ways they count on me and why I’m here working for them.  

Tomer Moked
Tomer runs into a former camper (and later Tamarack staffer) at Latke Vodka. Having worked at Tamarack Camps for 12 years, Tomer knows many young people in the Jewish community.

On coming from Israel

myJewishDetroit: The staff at Federation – particularly in collaboration with Tamarack Camps – have led the way in building strong family relationships in Israel. In your position of influence now, is it an advantage that you are Israeli?

Tomer: I ask myself the same question. I think it’s an advantage that I come from the outside. That certainly gives me a healthy perspective, but I also realize that Israel is a touch point for controversy. People feel very strongly in support . . . and they also come to me with questions and lots of feedback over the conflict in Israel.

In that respect, my role becomes something of an ambassador here. I believe I represent about 75% of the community in Israel – the people who can acknowledge both sides of the struggle and seek the best ways forward. I also represent a unique kind of Israeli: I prefer not to “talk politics” but love to listen to people and to hear what they are feeling. I think everyone’s feelings are valid. But facts matter. In difficult conversations, I ask how much do we want to learn what’s really going on in Israel?

myJewishDetroit: What does it mean that you are a unique Israeli?

Tomer: As someone coming from theater and the arts, and as a gay man, I would say that I am very liberal, open, diverse and accepting. As a life coach and practitioner of Positive Psychology, my profession is working with people from all fields: to take them wherever they are in life or in their careers, to help them find and define their strengths, and to move them five steps ahead. 

I love the concept of finding the best in people—that’s my talent. Not many people think of Israelis as open and sensitive. We often come off as very direct (which I am) and even aggressive (which I admit I can be sometimes).  But I’m here to listen, to learn, to explore possibilities, build relationships . . . and make lasting friendships.   

myJewishDetroit: What drew you to theater?

Tomer: Starting around the age of three, and every year after when I was just a kid, I would blow out the candles on a birthday cake with exactly two wishes: to be an actor and to go to Disneyland.  

I studied theater in high school, always engaged with theater and drama classes. And when I finished the army, it was as clear as the sky to me that I was going to acting school. Although my parents felt that I should get a “real” profession, I was keen on accomplishing my dream. In 2002, I went to acting school . . . and then to Orlando to see Disneyworld! I’ll admit, I’m still a big fan of Disney and their business approach.

myJewishDetroit: Do you enjoy being on stage?

Tomer: I love being on stage. I studied that as a profession. I also love directing — seeing the bigger picture — to take all the skills and talents that go into the set, the lights, the scripts and the acting, take everyone together and compose something new.

In many ways, I feel I’m doing much of the same thing now in a different field. To be a great director, you need to know and study the talents around you, how to move them to get the best results . . . to me, it’s still an art. 

On creative opportunities

“Right now, I’m averaging a 12-hour day in meetings, mostly listening and learning.”

myJewishDetroit: So, let’s talk about your first impressions on the job and first goals.    

Tomer: Right now, I’m averaging a 12-hour day in meetings, mostly listening and learning. For me, that’s the smartest thing to do to understand the terrain before setting out.

One thing I’m thinking about is building a NEXTGen life cycle approach. When you consider the current age range of what we call NEXTGen, 21 to 45 is a broad description that defines very little. But it does suggest the niches involved – the young singles, 21 to 30; the newly married couples and those starting careers and families, 30 to 45. What I envision is building the NEXTGen community, connecting people by their interests and needs, and engaging them by providing as many options as possible under the Federation tent.   

myJewishDetroit: What has been your greatest challenge so far?

Tomer: I would say it’s been the learning curve. There are so many more people I need to get to know to make the job more personal. It’s a big adjustment. And it will take time.

That said, I have a great network of support and people looking out for me. Lee Trepeck has been a great booster and mentor. And Julie Tepperman is an amazing supervisor. She’s very wise in leading the way while leaving plenty of room to ask questions, bring my ideas to the table and make decisions. And also, she’s very smart, bringing me back on track. 

myJewishDetroit: What’s the biggest surprise since taking on the job?

Tomer: Trader Joe’s on Telegraph! Costco! Thanksgiving! America is amazing!

Seriously, I had no idea how much I was going to like it here. My first week here felt like a honeymoon. I woke up every morning, and to my surprise, I was the happiest I’ve been since acting school. To outsiders, Federation may seem to be a massive and complex organization, but when you see how vibrant and fun it is to be here, you want everyone to know about it. I’m here to share our stories and to put a face on what we do. 

myJewishDetroit: So, what’s on your plate now?

Tomer: It’s EPIC. Of all the fundraising events that I’ve been invited to and involved with, this one is nothing short of its name: EPIC. The culture of fundraising in Jewish Detroit amazes me and inspires me. In Israel, the notion of giving back — that deep connection to a Jewish community fund – is not necessarily something in our culture the way it is here. We pay taxes and consider that our contribution to Jewish life; people here support Federation to help support the social needs, health, education, well-being and greater good of Jewish Detroit and Jewish communities around the world.  

It’s incredible to me, and the more I see the bigger picture here, the more I realize how lucky I am to be here.

Tomer Moked
Tomer with one of his Detroit “nieces” at Federation’s Ultimate Indoor Recess.

myJewishDetroit: We’ve touched just briefly on your background; let’s talk about your family and life in Israel.

Tomer: My parents live and own property in Beit Arye – a community of about 5,000 people 20 miles north of Jerusalem and 15 miles east of Tel Aviv. At my parents’ urging, I built a house there when the community opened a new area intended for development by the next generation. 

Both my parents were born in Israel: my dad’s parents came from Greece before WWII. Mocatta was the family name, and he changed it to the Hebrew Moked – meaning “hearth” or the center of the home. My mother’s parents came from Egypt and Yemen through France – in moves that took three years before they got to Israel. 

My younger sister married an Israeli about five years ago. They moved to Berlin to start a new life. It may come as a surprise to many here, but there is an estimated population of 10,000 Israelis who have moved to Berlin over the past decade. I am the proud uncle of two nephews, twin boys, 9 months old . . . and I’ll be the first to tell you how much I miss my family.

Life in Israel is very demanding. And I think part of the reason my sister left is that it’s so expensive to live in Israel and to actually establish yourself without the support of the family.

Here it’s different. And in many ways for me, leaving home, moving here, has been a reboot. I thought I was set: I had a beautiful house, a beautiful company, a circle of friends I loved being with. But I just turned 40. I’m starting to think about next steps, thinking about the next generation and what makes sense for me: a single guy with a life mission to have a child? (And don’t get me started on the complexity of the laws in Israel on same-sex marriage and surrogate parenting). I hope to start my own family some day soon, and as much as my mom would love to see it happen (sooner than later), she’ll just have to wait a little longer.

Favorites

Restaurants: Social for brunch and Phoenicia for dinner in Birmingham.

Buildings in the Detroit skyline:  Thanks to Jim and Sherri Ketai, I’ve fallen in love with the city. The Ketais have made a habit of taking me downtown to dinner, and whenever we can find the time, Jim takes me on a quick tour, a walk around or inside the buildings and all the developments of Bedrock and Rock Ventures. 

Places to take visitors in Israel: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Jezreel Valley

Places in Michigan to take kids/visitors: Downtown Detroit, Birmingham, up north to Petoskey with my friend Carly Weinstock.

Sports: I love to watch hockey and American football. And I invite people to meet me at Equinox, a great place to workout next door to Federation.

Israeli Food: Mom’s home cooking (Iraqi, Yemeni and Mediterranean dishes)

American food: Hamburgers (Best at Union and Red Coat Tavern)

Holiday: Thanksgiving and Chanukah: it’s food, friends . . . shopping! What’s not to love?

Watching now: The Crown, Stranger Things, and When They See Us

Never leave home without (besides your phone): My coat!!

Reading now (in Hebrew): Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Professor Yual Harari 

Words to live by: What are they thinking? 


Against the Odds

It’s near bedtime for Brock Harold Rosen-Kurzmann when we meet his parents, Katie and Matt, in their home at the end of another long workday in December. Brock – a healthy, beautiful baby boy in every way – sits contentedly wrapped in his mother’s arms as we discuss the “miracle” of his birth in June 2019.

Katie and Matt openly share the details of their first journey into parenthood for one reason. “We’re here to help spread the word about genetic screening. Knowledge is power.”

For couples of Ashkenazi Jewish decent, genetic screening is well understood to be a simple precaution – a risk assessment for diseases like Tay-Sachs, Gaugher and cystic fibrosis – all known to have a high prevalence in the Jewish community. For Katie Rosen and Matt Kurzmann, the test couldn’t have been easier with JScreen, a non-profit research, education and genetic screening program developed at Emory University in Atlanta.

“We specifically chose JScreen for the convenience of home-screening,” Katie explained. “All you do is request a kit online and they contact your doctor’s office for an order. JScreen then sends you the test, you spit into a cup and send it back.”

“JScreen is a mission-driven Jewish organization,” Matt emphasized. “With the goal to promote the health and wellness of young Jewish couples across the country, they take out the barriers that keep people from getting genetic testing – making it as easy, inexpensive and as accessible as possible. That’s why they provide their screening kits through the mail, and that’s why it’s subsidized by different private donor sources, including the Atlanta Federation.”

And beyond easy, JScreen is research-based and aggressive in their search for new genetic mutations to identify and test for. A typical screening at a private doctor’s office might use a panel of 20 commonly found diseases. JScreen’s 226-disease screening panel is as comprehensive as you will find. . . and still expanding.

What were the odds?

Married on New Year’s Eve, 2017, Katie, 33, and Matt, 30, would appear to most to lead a charmed life. A beautiful Jewish match: both grew up in Jewish Detroit with close ties to family; both graduated from Frankel Jewish Academy; both have chosen Detroit to establish themselves as young professionals and active volunteers in the community. Katie is a urologist in practice with the Michigan Institute of Urology; Matt, named in 2019 among The Well & The Jewish News’ 36 under 36, is National Director at Affordable Housing Advisors (AHA) and a First Vice President Investments at Marcus & Millichap

As newlyweds planning to start their family the summer after their marriage, Katie and Matt knew that genetic testing was something they had to do, but had little reason for concern about about the outcome. “Matt and I both come from huge families,” said Katie. “We’re both one of four kids. My mom is one of four, and both of Matt’s parents are one of four children. We had no issues or misgivings when we ordered our screen kits in April, then dragged our feet to send them in,” Katie shares. “And we dragged our feet about answering their call to give us the results, figuring the call would be routine and nothing could go wrong.”

Did you know? 80% of babies with genetic diseases are born to parents with no known family history of that disease.

-JScreen

So, when Katie and Matt finally made the appointment for what they thought would be a routine follow-up call with JScreen, they planned a casual evening out for dinner with Katie’s parents. As it turned out, Katie’s parents cancelled the dinner and Katie and Matt took the call from home. Nothing prepared them for what they were about to hear, starting with the question, “Are you guys sitting down in a quiet place?”  

“We laughed, only because we happened to be sitting down,” said Katie, recalling the conversation nearly verbatim with the genetic counselor from JScreen. “She then proceeded to ask whether anyone else in our family had kids and was there any chance that we were related. Yes, Matt’s brother has kids and no, we are not related. We know that for sure, because my brother is very into genealogy. The counselor then told us she had some very unusual news for us.”

What Katie and Matt learned was that they were a rare match indeed. Both carried not one, but two genetic mutations they were at risk of passing along to a child: a hearing loss disorder as well as serious genetic disorder called RASPSYN, which can be fatal.

“The best-case scenario with RASPYN is that it can leave a child who is born with the condition with respiratory and muscular disorders,” said Katie. “The condition could be undiagnosed in utero and women might have miscarriages or fetal demise without knowing why. Or babies are born and die soon after because their lungs don’t function properly.”

RAPSYN? Never heard of it.

RAPSYN is one of the newest diseases added to JScreen’s 226-disease screening panel. Half of those are common in people with Jewish ancestry, and the majority aren’t tested at a doctor’s office. JScreen “came together out of need,” said Hillary Kener Regelman, JScreen’s Director of National Outreach. “It was developed six years ago after Emory University, where it’s based, commissioned a national study of Jews of childbearing age and found that only 24% had been screened or were aware of the need for genetic carrier testing.

Beyond shock

While Katie was more attuned to the medical details, Matt certainly understood the ramifications. Their chances of having a child with one or both of the genetic diseases was 50%. “Because of genetic testing, you learn if there’s a small chance of something happening, and a window of opportunity opens,” Matt said. “When you do the math, with two genetic diseases for which we both happened to be carriers on the JScreen panel – then add any of the other genetic mutations that anyone can have a 25% chance of passing along, we essentially had a 75% chance of an unborn child having any genetic condition. We were advised and agreed not to take that risk.”

Armed with that information, the conversation quickly turned to two options: first, to get pregnant and get amniocentesis testing to determine whether the fetus was affected (still a risk) or to go through in vitro fertilization (IVF) with pre-implantation genetic testing – a complex, multi-stage procedure to identify viable embryos safe and suitable for implanting (or freezing for future use).

“Having that information ahead of time lets couples plan ahead,” said Karen Arnovitz Grinzaid, Executive Director at JScreen and Assistant Professor at Emory University School of Medicine. “And that’s really our goal, to give people information that they can use for family planning.”

Beyond random, beyond lucky

And here’s where Katie and Matt’s story gets really interesting. “For the record, I’m pro-choice,” says Katie, “But there are choices I would never want to have to make. IVF with pre-implantation genetic testing was the one option we felt we had in order to carry a health child from conception to birth.”

Katie was 30, in good health and hopeful that she and Matt would produce viable embryos through the first arduous cycle or two of daily injections, bloodwork, ultrasound, “harvesting” and testing. And they did.

By September 2018, there were eight viable embryos; six tested positive for one or both of the rare diseases; and one tested positive for another common chromosomal abnormality. That left one chance – a risky chance to take with a first pregnancy, where it’s common even for natural fertilization not to take place. Boldly, Katie and Matt took the chance with the one embryo. By Thanksgiving of that year, they had good news to share with their families that they were pregnant, against all the odds.

Rocking a sleepy baby in her arms, Katie eyes begin to well. “I can’t believe this is our situation. I never thought we’d have to do IVF — not straight out of the gate as we did. (We didn’t even get to the fun part.) When I think of all the women I’ve met in doctors’ offices, on their eighth or ninth cycle, with no positive results, I know we have been blessed. I’m beyond thankful that we found JScreen, thankful that we got pregnant at the very first try, and thankful that we have the health and finances to even consider repeat the process for a brother or sister for Brock. My dad still cannot wrap his head around the medical science. Every day he says he can’t believe genetic testing and intervention is even a thing, and will probably never stop telling us how lucky we were to find JScreen.”

“What most people don’t realize is how taxing IVF can be,” says Matt. “It’s taxing on the body and the mind, it’s taxing on a marriage, and it’s taxing on any day-to-day work/life balance.  And not one single thing about IVF is covered by our medical insurance (though this may vary by plan and state). For most young people, the choice is prohibitively expensive at the average cost of $12,000 to $15,000 per cycle. And that’s the lower range per round.”

Katie and Matt openly share the intimate details, trials and tribulations of their first journey into parenthood for one reason. “We’re here to help spread the word that genetic screening is not only essential for family planning, it’s easy and comprehensive with JScreen,” says Matt. “We drew the wild card, but we’re here to say that knowledge is power. And even if you were tested a couple of years ago, get retested – because, as we know today, our body of knowledge is always changing.”