If ever you need a post-pandemic boost of positive energy, practical advice or a good story wrapped in the embrace of Jewish wisdom and humor, call Zalenko. That’s Neal Zalenko – a name well-known throughout Detroit for upstanding public accounting, community leadership and longtime service to dozens of organizations and charitable causes. “Put it this way,” he says, “I think of myself as a ‘professional partner.’ I’m the guy you call if you have a challenge, be it organizational, financial or goal-oriented.”
To those Neal has served as financial counsel over the years, to those who have partnered with Neal in the work of community-building and philanthropic giving, and to those who know Neal as the kindest and most steadfast of friends for life, it comes as no surprise that Neal recently received Federation’s 2021 William Davidson (z”l) Lifetime Achievement Award. The award honors those who have devoted a lifetime of service to the Jewish community of Detroit and the Jewish people. At a Zoom presentation in May, Neal accepted the award for all volunteers giving their time, talents and resources for the betterment of the community. “This one is for you,” he said. “Detroit has allowed me to do better, be better, help more . . . find a place. And for those of you who feel this requires a lifetime effort, sorry you are wrong. As I always say, it only requires the word, ‘Yes.’ Yes to every opportunity thrown your way. Yes to every challenge. Yes to every request. Yes opens the door to all possibilities and all things you dream.”
What does it mean to be an inclusive community in Jewish Detroit? A good question: to be answered, not in a mission statement, but in meaningful conversations, in personal choices and in activities that speak louder than words. Inclusivity. It’s the goal of Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit and that’s where we find Keith Schonberger – “all in” and deeply engaged in the work.
A patent attorney by profession, in a growing practice with Young Basile in Troy, Keith is also a longtime community volunteer on a leadership path. Among his numerous community-building roles, he is a past Board Member of MSU Hillel and Tamarack Camps, and a Co-Founder and Past Co-Chair of Federation’s Interfaith Couples Group. Currently, Keith is a V.P. on the NEXTGen Detroit Executive Board and a member of Federation’s Campaign Cabinet.
Raising three young children in an interfaith family, Keith and his wife, Tara, are both active in The Well – a pluralistic Jewish community for young adults in Metro Detroit, where Tara has served on its Board and Keith has served as song leader for Tot Shabbat services since the organization’s founding in 2015. Recognized as one of the community’s “best and brightest” making his impact, Keith is listed among “The Well/Jewish News 36 Under 36 Class of 2019.”
Betsy Heuer! If you’ve had anything to do with Federation’s women’s programs over the last 45 years, you know Betsy. Betsy, forever young, bubbly, blonde (and very Jewish). Who else but Betsy can start a meaningful conversation with a total stranger in a parking lot? Who else but Betsy can walk into almost any coffee shop in Israel’s Jezreel Valley and likely find three people she knows? A lively and colorful storyteller (and a compassionate listener), Betsy loves a microphone on a tour bus, a spot on the stage of community theater, a place at the table where she can speak her mind (and doesn’t have to cook). Despite her claim to be a “canasta-playing, weekly salon hair blow-out, hovering stereotypical Jewish mother,” Betsy is anything but typical in her lifetime service to the Jewish community through her many leadership roles with Federation. This is her story. Prepare to smile.
Who finds a dream job in the middle of a pandemic? Ask Dr. Darin S. Katz how he’s doing now - mid-way through his first year as Head of School at Hillel – and he answers, “As long as everyone at Hillel is doing well, I’m doing well.” Actually, Darin is managing the challenges of Covid exceptionally well, even while living separately from his family. For the time being, plans for moving to Detroit have been delayed - with his wife, Dr. Marsha Pincus Katz, their son, Jonah (a high school senior) and parents still in the Philadelphia area and older son, Eli, who recently completed graduate school in Baltimore. “Moving? A mere detail to be worked out come spring,” Darin reassures. “We’re all healthy and connected to one another every single day. That’s the important thing. And professionally? I have never been happier. Honestly, I feel like I’ve died and gone to Jewish Day School heaven – the luckiest Head of School of Jewish day schools in the country! And I’m here to tell everyone all the reasons why.”
If there is one lesson to be learned in a world pandemic, it’s how connected we are and how vulnerable we are without the strength of our families, the reach of our networks and the support of community. In our public spaces - and even in our own homes – Covid has put to the test nearly every decision: how we gather in safety, how we meet and work productively, how we care for those we love, how we celebrate together, how we return to the activities that nourish and sustain body and mind, how we redefine what it means to build community.
“We’re at a pivotal moment,” says Brian D. Siegel, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit. “The JCC had set a path to fundamentally change the nature of its business model and COVID-19 has served to accelerate that paradigm shift. We have been following the clear steps of a strategic plan that our Board adopted four years ago and I can say with pride that we’re finally in a place where we’re excited to tell our story.”
Wherever we find ourselves today, we are a different community than we were one year ago. We have seen unprecedented threats to our health and wellbeing, tectonic shifts in the workplace and in our schools, and pivotal changes in our habits at home and away. Few have wrestled more intimately with the challenges of safeguarding the future of Jewish Detroit than Dennis Bernard, newly elected President of the United Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit. And few are as well prepared to meet the community challenges ahead.
As Founder and President of Bernard Financial Group, Michigan’s largest commercial mortgage banking and servicing firm, Dennis holds a longtime record of professional and philanthropic leadership in both the Jewish community and greater community of Detroit. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in Michigan, Dennis has co-chaired Federation’s Covid Emergency Campaign in partnership with Matt Lester, Federation President (also beginning his term in October). “Faced with a crisis, humans are truly remarkable,” Dennis reflected, “The response of our Jewish community - with their hearts, with their brains, with their wallets - has been nothing but astounding.”