January 24, 2019

Gilda Radner’s Life Story in Her Own Words

Gilda Radner

In 1975, a petite Jewish comedian from suburban Detroit named Gilda Radner became famous overnight with the debut of “Saturday Night Live.” As one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” on “SNL,” Radner created iconic characters like Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and Baba Wawa, and won an Emmy during her five-year run on the show. But hidden behind the laughter was the Gilda the public never knew: a woman who struggled with the pressures of fame, an eating disorder, and later, ovarian cancer, which ultimately claimed her life in 1989 when she was 42.

The documentary “Love, Gilda” explores both the public persona and the personal side of the beloved performer, telling her story through video clips, audio recordings, home movies, interviews with friends and colleagues, and writings from her journals, read by more recent “SNL” cast members including Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Bill Hader.

First-time feature director Lisa D’Apolito, who spent 4 1/2 years making the film, told the Journal, “It was a passion project.”  She wasn’t a big Radner fan while growing up, “but I am now,” D’Apolito said. “Her legacy was so unique and important.”

While D’Apolito was working in production at an advertising agency about eight years ago, a request came in to make some videos for Gilda’s Club, the cancer support organization that Radner’s widower, Gene Wilder, founded in 1995. “But about halfway through the process, Gilda’s brother gave me access to her personal materials that had been in storage since she passed away, including audiotapes that she recorded for her book, ‘It’s Always Something.’ Once I heard them, I wanted to incorporate as much as I could, and tell the story from her point of view,” she said.

Unfortunately, some of the audiotapes were damaged, so D’Apolito had others rerecord Radner’s words. She had about a dozen journals and other writings to work with, and excerpts appear on screen in Radner’s handwriting. “It was important to me to use the journals exactly how they were written,” she said. “But we had to retouch and clean up a lot of them.”

One journal, from the summer of 1978, was particularly revelatory. “Gilda had checked herself into a hospital for an eating disorder,” D’Apolito said. “Only two friends knew. It was surprising to me that at the height of her fame, she was going through so much. She was struggling inside and not telling anybody what was going on.”

As noted in the film, Radner’s issues with food go back to her childhood, when she was given diet pills as an overweight 10-year-old. She grew up in an affluent Jewish community, attending a private school and spending winters in Miami Beach with her family, which was her first comedic inspiration.

“Her father, brother and cousins were funny. There’s a real respect for humor in the way she grew up,” D’Apolitio said. “She wasn’t raised religious in any way, but she called herself a Jew from Detroit. She was very proud of her background.”

It was important to D’Apolito to convey what it was like for a woman in comedy in the 1970s and specifically on “SNL,” where there were no female writers at the time. “But Gilda never felt suppressed, and she never doubted herself as a performer,” she said. “She felt equal to [the men].”

Although Radner had tragedy in her life, including her father’s death from a brain tumor when she was 14, plus a miscarriage and her battle with ovarian cancer, “she could always find the humor,” D’Apolito said. “No matter what was going on, she never hit rock bottom, never let anything get her down.”

D’Apolito believes it was Radner’s perky personality that endeared the performer to the public. “She loved an audience. She loved people. She was very accessible and approachable. She exuded some sort of joy, something that made you connect to her.”

In April, comedian Tina Fey introduced the film at its premiere on opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, with many other “SNL” alumni and comic luminaries in attendance. “Audiences are happy to have Gilda back,” D’Apolito said, based on her observations at Tribeca and other screenings. “They’re remembering her and how much they loved her.”

D’APolito added, “I’m hoping that a younger generation can discover Gilda. She had a really important role in comedy, and I hope the film brings that to light for people who didn’t know her and her work.”

Asked how Radner might react to the film, D’Apolito wasn’t sure. “But her friends and family love it,” she said. “I hear Gilda’s voice in my head [saying], ‘Why did you use that bad picture of me?’ But I think [the film] has a good balance. I think she’d want an open, honest picture of her life and I think that’s what I have. I hope that she would like it.”

New York-based D’Apolito, who was an actress before she got into production and directing commercials and short films, may not be finished with Radner just yet. “Gilda left behind a lot of material, some short stories and a really good screenplay — a comedy about a woman looking for love who’s torn between two men,” she said. “I don’t want her stuff to go back into storage. I’m talking to people to figure out what we can possibly do.”

“Love, Gilda” opens in theaters on Sept. 21.

Jewish security officials, cops from five North American cities tour Israel

Jewish security officials from five North American cities joined top police officers in a tour of Israel to examine its security practices.

Four U.S. metropolitan areas — Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit and Kansas City, the site of a deadly attack on Jewish institutions last year — are represented on the weeklong trip by Jewish security officials and senior police officers.

Also joining the tour, organized by Secure Community Network, the security arm of the national Jewish community, are directors of security for Montreal’s Jewish community and a representative of the New Jersey State Police. In addition, a senior official of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is accompanying the group, which arrived in Israel on Sunday.

SCN, affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has long emphasized the importance of building relationships with local police. JFNA and local federations are paying for the tour.

The aim of the trip is to examine Israeli methods of increasing public awareness of a security threat. Israeli officials will brief participants on terrorism, international threats and cybersecurity, among other issues.

The timing of the massive terrorist attack in Paris over the weekend made the need for the training especially acute, said SCN’s director, Paul Goldenberg.

“The events in Paris, with well-planned and coordinated attacks on innocent civilians at soft targets, highlights the importance of an approach which brings together community, security professionals and law enforcement,” he said in a statement.

Should Jews pack their bags for Detroit?

Sure, the news from the city of Detroit seems endlessly grim: bankruptcy, crime and so forth.

But the metro area, whose northwest suburbs host a panoply of Jewish amenities, is the most affordable place in the United States to raise a “committed Jewish family,” at least according to one graduate student’s admittedly “back-of-the-napkin” calculations.

In a widely shared April 28 post on his blog, Matthew Williams ranked the 10 most and least affordable places that meet the following minimum criteria: a mikvah, an eruv, at least one synagogue for each major denomination, K-12 Jewish day school options and at least one kosher restaurant or kosher-friendly supermarket.

Williams, a Jim Joseph fellow pursuing a joint doctorate in history and education in connection with Stanford’s Education and Jewish Studies program, came up with a list of 50 cities and towns that met the minimum criteria, then ranked them in order of affordability as measured by average real estate prices and average day school tuition.

Just behind Detroit are Cleveland, Buffalo and Milwaukee. At the other end, the least affordable, according to the ranking, are Palo Alto, Calif. (where Williams lives); Manhattan and San Francisco.

The post has garnered more than 57,000 visits, according to Williams.

Not surprisingly, the post generated comments galore, most of them of the “Why didn’t you include my community?” and “Every Jew should move to Israel” varieties, along with a few disses of the communities that the list did include. Others questioned Williams’ methodology, which he is the first to concede is imprecise — more rough draft than final product.

“There’s never going to be a definitive list of what’s the most affordable,” Williams said in a phone interview with JTA. “If anything, I just wanted to provoke the conversation.”

A former day school teacher at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md. — a Washington suburb that didn’t make the list (D.C. ranked 10th least affordable, while nearby Silver Spring, Md. was 24th most affordable) — Williams said he was pleasantly surprised by the interest his list has generated.

“People seem to really care about this issue,” he said. “It strikes a chord.”

Jews searching for affordable places to live are being sought after by Jewish communities looking to bolster their numbers.

The Orthodox Union organizes an annual Jewish Community Fair, a gathering highlighting affordable, Orthodox-friendly communities around North America. The O.U.’s last fair attracted 1,500 visitors, said Rabbi Judah Isaacs, the Orthodox Union’s director of community engagement.

“There are definitely people looking for affordable options,” he said.

Isaacs said that as a result of the O.U.’s fairs, he gets calls from communities eager to tout their affordability and other virtues.

A number of smaller Jewish communities have, in recent years, not just promoted themselves at fairs and online but offered financial incentives — such as mortgage help and day school discounts — to attract young families.

Isaacs, a former professional at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, expressed skepticism that Detroit is the most affordable Jewish community in the country.

Williams says he plans to redo his ranking to include additional factors, such as crime rates, percentage of day school students receiving financial aid, income data and cost-of-living indices. He’s also adding more communities to the list, incorporating some of the commenter suggestions, and is limiting the real estate price data to neighborhoods within easy commuting distance of Jewish institutions, rather than the entire metro areas — something he did inconsistently in the current ranking.

The redo may well topple Detroit from its No. 1 perch, since Williams used data for the entire metro area, rather than for far posher Oakland County, where the overwhelming majority of area Jews live. The rock-bottom housing prices south of Eight Mile Road, the border between city and suburb, no doubt skewed the averages dramatically downward.

Scott Kaufman, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, told JTA that “the cost of Jewish life — housing and day school tuition — is very reasonable here.”

Moreover, he said, the community of approximately 67,000 Jews is on the upswing.

“We experienced population shrinkage for decades, but in the last few years, we have seen an uptick for the first time in recent memory of both young adults and young families,” Kaufman said.

And the growth is not just in the suburbs, he said, with 20- and 30-somethings increasingly moving to the city.

“Now is a great time to take advantage of the value proposition,” Kaufman said. “We’re starting to see real estate prices go up, but compared to the East and West coasts, you get a lot more bang for the buck.”

Tigers summon the tribe, swap Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler

Detroit is bringing in the Jews.

A couple of weeks after hiring Brad Ausmus as manager, the Tigers on Wednesday traded for Ian Kinsler, previously of the Texas Rangers, to play second base. The cost for the Jewish infielder, a three-time American League All-Star: mega-salaried first baseman Prince Fielder and a cool $30 million. Lucky the bankrupt city doesn’t have to ante up.

Kinsler, 31, brings a sound bat and glove to help Ausmus, who managed the Israeli squad that came up short in its bid for the World Baseball Classic, in his MLB debut. The eight-year veteran averages 24 home runs and 82 runs batted in a season and has a lifetime batting average of .273. Last season he batted .277 with 13 homers and 72 RBIs.

Ausmus and now Kinsler are part of an organization that had probably the greatest Jewish hitter in history (take that Ryan Braun): Hank Greenberg, a one-time MVP who famously skipped a Yom Kippur game in 1934 despite the pennant implications for the Tigers.

And you thought the Cleveland Indians were the Tribe.

Detroit ‘hero’ Hank Greenberg’s Jewishness

The big question in Detroit in the fall of 1934 had nothing to do with the troubled state of the world. Rather, the fans of the Detroit Tigers wanted to know whether their star first baseman, Hank Greenberg, was going to play on the Jewish High Holy Days. After all, the Tigers were in first place and they were contesting the New York Yankees for the pennant.

“The three Detroit dailies issued extra editions with updates every half hour,” John Rosengren writes in “Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes” (New American Library: $26.95), a spirited and insightful biography of the first Jewish ballplayer to achieve iconic status. “ ‘Hank is headed for the synagogue;’ ‘Hank is headed for the ballpark.’ … Detroit baseball fans grumbled: ‘Rosh Hashanah comes every year, but the Tigers haven’t won the pennant since 1909.’”

Sometimes the narrative in Rosengren’s biography reads like a Jewish joke. One local rabbi ruled that the Talmud allowed Greenberg to play, but another rabbi read the same texts and came to a different conclusion.  Ultimately, he was forced to decide for himself.  “He stood, undressed and slowly put on his uniform,” Rosengren reminds us. When he hit a ball out of the park, the grateful fans shouted: “Happy New Year!”

Hank’s parents back in New York, Sarah and David Greenberg, were observant Jews from Romania. They expected their son — whom they variously called Hyman, Hymie or Hy, although “Henry” appeared on his birth certificate  — to put family, school and religion before sports. Of course, they wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer. But Rosengren points out that Hank’s Jewish background was actually an advantage when he was looking for a way to break into pro ball.

New York’s team owners recognized that a significant fraction of their fans were Jewish, and they were actively recruiting Jewish players. “A home run hitter with a Jewish name in New York would be worth a million dollars,” John McGraw, the storied manager of the Giants, told the New York Tribune.  The Yankees courted Greenberg, but he ultimately accepted an offer of $9,000 from the Tigers and won his father’s blessing: “I thought baseball was a game,” said Pop. “But it’s a business — apparently a very good business. Take the money.” By the fall of 1934, he was playing first base for Detroit.

Detroit, of course, was the home of Henry Ford, whose Dearborn Independent served as an outlet for ugly anti-Semitic propaganda: “American baseball has passed into the hands of the Jews.” Detroit was “a lonely place for Hank Greenberg, the young Jewish transplant from the Bronx.” And yet, amid the alarming news about the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s, Greenberg represented “the elusive Hebrew star,” as the American Hebrew wrote, “for whose discovery and acquisition John McGraw…spent fortunes in vain.”

“Hank Greenberg” is an inside-baseball book, and Rosengren expertly analyzes and explains Greenberg’s career on the field.  Like every baseball book, stats play a prominent role. But the author also captures the human drama in Greenberg’s life and career, and, above all, the dire political and cultural background against which the game of baseball was played in the 1930s and 1940s.

“In a dark time, Hank was certainly giving the Jewish community something to cheer, but he was doing something even more significant: In an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent, Greenberg stood as a mighty figure and, in his image as a home-run slugger, a symbol of power,” writes Rosengren. “He changed the way Jews thought about themselves. And the way others thought about them.”

I started watching and playing baseball only after Greenberg’s career had ended, but I learned his name at an early age. Indeed, Hank Greenberg is still revered in Jewish circles.  Yet, as Rosengren points out in rich detail, Greenberg’s sense of Jewish identity had little to do with religious observance and much more to do with showing the world that Jews could achieve greatness in the national sport.

On Yom Kippur in 1959, for example, he told his young children that they would not be attending school on the Jewish holiday.  Rather than taking them to shul, however, he took them to the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan.  “It was several years before I realized,” recalls his son, Steve, “that Yom Kippur was not a day that Jews went to the planetarium.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Rabbi Irwin Groner, ex-Rabbinical Assembly president, dies at 81

Rabbi Irwin Groner, a former president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, has died.

Groner, who led Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit for more than four decades, died Dec. 30 at a hospital in that city. He was 81 and suffered from Parkinson's disease.

He guided the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, from 1990 to 1992, calling it “the highlight of my professional career,” according to an obituary in the Detroit Jewish News.

Groner was named the senior rabbi at Shaarey Zedek in 1967 — a year after Rabbi Morris Adler was shot and killed by a young congregant. He had been the assistant rabbi since 1959.

The Conservative congregation named Groner rabbi for life in 1978 and emeritus rabbi in 2003.

“He was a true giant in the rabbinical world,” said Rabbi Joseph Krakoff of Shaarey Zedek told the Detroit Jewish News. “He was an inspiring teacher, a magnificent preacher and a man who truly understood the depth of the human condition.

“Rabbi Groner approached every situation with a smile, a sense of humor and an acute sense of caring and concern.”

Groner began his career in Little Rock, Ark., at Agudath Achim Congregation when anti-Semitism magnified by the civil rights movement threatened the synagogue and its rabbi. During efforts to desegregate the city's schools, Groner refused to cancel services due to bomb threats.

He served as a member of the board of governors for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal and the Board of Governors of the United Synagogue. In 1984, Gov. James Blanchard appointed Groner the first clergyman to serve on Michigan's Judicial Tenure Commission, which settles grievances in the legal community. He also was active with area interfaith programs.

Groner was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College of Chicago, his native city. He graduated from the University of Chicago.

Michigan St. student says attack at party was anti-Semitism

A Jewish student at Michigan State University said he was attacked at an off-campus party in what he is calling a hate crime.

Just before the assault, which broke his jaw, Zach Tennen said his attackers asked him if he was Jewish, according to reports.

Tennen, 19, a resident of suburban Detroit, said he answered in the affirmative. He told WDIV-TV in Detroit that his attackers also “were making Nazi and Hitler symbols and they said they were part of the KKK.”

Tennen was knocked unconscious during the attack, which took place early Sunday morning near MSU’s East Lansing campus. The assailants stapled his mouth shut through his gums.

Others at the party watched as Tennen called a taxi to take him to the hospital. His mouth was surgically wired shut.

His family has called the Anti-Defamation League regarding the assault. Tennen plans to return to classes in a week.

The university in an email statement referred all questions about the police investigation to the East Lansing Police Department, as the incident occurred off campus.

“Michigan State University’s Student Affairs and Services office has reached out to the family of the student who said he was assaulted in East Lansing to provide the academic and other support the student needs,” the statement also said.

MLB suspends Delmon Young over anti-Semitic altercation

Delmon Young, the Detroit Tigers outfielder arrested in New York for allegedly attacking a group of men and making anti-Semitic remarks, was suspended without pay for seven days.

The suspension is retroactive to April 27, when he was placed on the restricted list. His loss of pay amounts to more than $250,000, according to the Detroit News. Young will not contest the suspension.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced the suspension on April 30, saying, “Those associated with our game should meet the responsibilities and standards that stem from our game’s stature as a social institution. An incident like this cannot and will not be tolerated. I think that Mr. Young is regretful, and it is my expectation that he will learn from this unfortunate episode.”

Young is facing a misdemeanor aggravated harassment hate crime charge stemming from the April 27 incident outside the Hilton Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where the Tigers were staying before the start of a series with the New York Yankees that night. He is scheduled to appear in court in New York on May 29 and faces up to a year in jail if convicted.

According to reports, a group of tourists staying at the hotel were approached by a panhandler wearing a yarmulke. Young yelled anti-Semitic epithets at the group. Young also reportedly shoved one of the men, who sustained minor injuries. Young was taken to the hospital after the incident.

A New York Police Department spokesman told the New York Post that it was unclear whether the alleged victim, described as a 32-year-old male, was Jewish.

Young, who endured a 50-game suspension in 2006 for throwing a bat at an umpire, apologized for the New York incident in a news release.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying it was “deeply disturbed” by reports of the player’s outburst. “Bigoted words are unbecoming for any professional sports player and anti-Semitism certainly has no place in the game, either on or off the field,” the group said.

Tigers outfielder arrested after shouting anti-Semitic remarks

Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young was arrested outside of a New York hotel for allegedly attacking a group of men and making anti-Semitic remarks.

Young was arrested early Friday morning outside of the Hilton in Midtown Manhattan, where he was staying before a series with the New York Yankees begins on Friday night.

According to the Associated Press, a group of tourists staying at the hotel were approached by a panhandler wearing a yarmulke. According to the New York Post, Young yelled anti-Semitic epithets at the group. Young also reportedly shoved one of the men, who sustained minor injuries.

Young faces a misdemeanor aggravated harassment hate crime charge. He was taken to the hospital after the incident, as he was believed to have been intoxicated, New York Police Department spokesman, Detective Joseph Cavitolo, told the Detroit Free Press.

He told the newspaper that it was unclear whether the alleged victim was Jewish.

Young endured a 50-game suspension in 2006 for throwing a bat at an umpire. It is unclear whether he will be allowed to play in Friday’s game.

FBI: Radicalized individuals, Hezbollah are potential terror threats for Detroit-area Jews

Hezbollah poses no specific threat to Jewish communities in metropolitan Detroit, the FBI’s head of counterterrorism in Michigan reportedly said at a suburban Detroit JCC.

However, Assistant Special Agent Todd Mayberry told a security conference Tuesday at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Mich., the Jewish communities face potential and general threats, the Detroit Free Press reported. Mayberry cited Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group that is a proxy of Iran, and the “self-radicalization” of terrorist sympathizers who visit jihadist websites.

“If I gave you the number of Michigan IP addresses that are on some of these sites, it’s staggering,” Mayberry was quoted as saying in the Free Press.

Mayberry said the FBI would investigate terrorism supporters in their mosques or schools.

Rising tensions between Israel and Iran have raised fears that Hezbollah might attack Israel.

“The Iranian issue … that is a huge deal … their use of the proxy group Hezbollah—these are things we’re very concerned about,” Mayberry said, according to the Free Press.

In Detroit, Jewish resurgence led by young aims to transform city

Blair Nosan grew up in the Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield, attended the University of Michigan and then, like thousands of other young Jews from the beleaguered state, moved away.

Though she grew up in a heavily Jewish area, Nosan, 26, had felt disconnected both from her Jewish identity and the nearby city, which was undergoing its own debilitating population drain. Over the last decade, 25 percent of Detroit’s residents have taken flight. Some 5,000 young Jews left Michigan between 2005 and 2010, according to a 2010 survey by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

But then Nosan came back.

In 2009, she moved to Detroit to work in its burgeoning urban agriculture scene, eventually starting her own pickling company, Suddenly Sauer.

Nosan was startled to learn that she was part of a significant migration of young Jews to the Motor City —a young Jewish renaissance that has been as unexpected as it has been successful. It’s evident not just in numbers but in a resurgence of Jewish activity and vitality in the heart of Detroit, including among Jews who had never been Jewishly active.

“I did not expect to find a Jewish community at all,” Nosan told JTA, echoing the sentiments of many of Detroit’s new Jewish residents. “Most of the Jews were living in Detroit as participants in the Jewish community, but with their Jewish identity in mind were trying to fill in the blanks of this long history we had had in the city but weren’t raised with.”

Over the last few years, a slew of new programs from the institutional to the grass roots and from suburb to city have blossomed in the Detroit area.

Detroit’s first Moishe House opened in June in midtown, and its occupants—five from the suburbs of Detroit and one from Los Angeles—have been holding five or six Jewish events a month. The most recent was a sauerkraut workshop taught by Nosan that attracted 16 people.

At a bar in Royal Oak, a suburb near Detroit, Rabbi Leiby Burnham began a weekly program in 2007 called Torah on Tap to talk about Judaism in a bar setting, with the drinks paid for by an anonymous donor. Starting with seven people, the event now draws as many as 100 per week.

The most striking example of the transformation of Jewish life in Detroit is at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, the last remaining synagogue in the city. Detroit once was a major hub of Jewish life, with 44 synagogues. But after race riots in the 1960s and economic decline, most of the city’s whites—Jews included—left for the northern suburbs, repeating a pattern taking place in cities across America.

In 2008, the 90-year old conservative shul was in dire straits—open only once a week, often unable to assemble a minyan and without a rabbi (the last one had died in 2003). The board was considering packing it in and selling the historic four-story building.

“Some didn’t think we had a future,” said David Powell, who has attended Isaac Agree for decades. “We continued to plod along until reinforcements came.”

Starting a few years ago, those reinforcements began to come in the form of young social activists and entrepreneurs who were drawn to the city by its growing arts scene and revitalization programs that offered subsidized rent and unique employment opportunities for social justice work. Many of the Jews among them came to the synagogue, in the process changing it. They began running services, serving on the board and organizing events of the sort that the old shul had never seen: Israeli film screenings, potluck dinners, Israeli folk dancing. Community activists also used it as a gathering place.

“The synagogue wasn’t meeting the needs of the city, and it was struggling,” said Oren Goldenberg, a filmmaker and prominent activist in the community. “It needed to adapt.”

Isaac Agree became more and more popular. Services were held three days a week rather than one. Events were organized to celebrate all the holidays. The synagogue started offering Hebrew lessons and even conversion classes. And now every Friday night it hosts a Shabbat dinner.

“I liked Isaac Agree because it stayed; it’s been here the whole time,” Nosan said. “That’s a poignant point of entry for the community—what’s already here and been here, and figuring out new energy that’s being brought to the table.”

In the past few years, Isaac Agree has more than tripled its membership households, becoming the only conservative synagogue in Michigan not to suffer a decline, according to the 2010 federation survey.

“There are definitely more Jews here then there were a year ago,” said Goldenberg while having coffee in Avalon International Breads, a bakery co-founded by Jackie Vicks, a 20-year resident of the city who joined the synagogue last year. “I live here. When things change, I know it.”

Some of the new Jewish revitalization programs, including Torah on Tap and Detroit’s Moishe House, are receiving support from CommunityNext, a program started by one Detroit returnee based on the idea that creating cultural activities and a strong cultural center is as important as jobs to retaining and attracting young adults to Detroit.

“Young Jews are not going to move to suburbs, they’re going to move to cities,” said Jordan Wolfe, the Detroit native who launched the program in 2010 after returning to the area in 2007 following a stint in California’s high-tech sector. “They’re willing to take jobs as a waiter if there’s something to do.”

CommunityNext’s strategy is to support both Jewish culture and Detroit’s revitalization.

The program, which was funded in the first year by $60,000 from two anonymous donors and another $40,000 from Detroit’s Jewish federation, organizes Jewish events and offers Jewish entrepreneurs small business loans and free office space. CommunityNext also supports nonsectarian Detroit revitalization projects such as Come Play Detroit, which helps organize intramural sports leagues. In its first year, Come Play Detroit created 27 leagues in nine sports involving 4,500 people.

“We’re building community, but the larger agenda is Detroit,” said Rachel Lachover, CommunityNext’s associate director. “People are moving back. People are talking about Detroit.”

In August, the federation teamed up with Come Play Detroit to set up fundraising sports tournaments across the country, raising $100,000 for 25 rent subsidies to help people move to Detroit on the condition that they hold community events once a month—the Moishe House model.

“I’ve enjoyed becoming part of the Detroit Jewish community,” said Allie Gross, an L.A. native now living at Moishe House. “It’s changing as a lot as young people move back in. There’s a sense of urgency. People are excited about what Detroit’s offering. It’s very exciting.”

In Detroit-area activists’ newsletter, celebs send their Shabbat best

Sending out a weekly e-mail newsletter to friends has become a passion for Lisa Mark Lis.

Lis, a suburban Detroit-based community activist and philanthropist, in her Friday morning e-mail posts to friends and family not only wishes her readers a “Shabbat Shalom,” but she often has a celebrity extend their wishes, too.

Lis has videotaped such notable performers as James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, Neil Sedaka and David Broza sending Shabbat best. Politicians as far up as President Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama, have offered “Shabbat Shalom” wishes on camera for Lis, as have U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Other celebs who have participated include “Millionaire Matchmaker” Patti Stanger and actor Wallace Shawn, who perhaps is best known for his role in “The Princess Bride.”

Lis isn’t shy about asking for a quick “Shabbat Shalom” greeting when running into a celebrity. When she told Marvin Hamlisch about some of the famous people who had recorded messages, the composer raised a glass of champagne to Lis’ camera phone and said, “I’m not Paul Simon and I’m not James Taylor. I’m Marvin Hamlisch and yes, I know how to say ‘Shabbat Shalom.’ “

She’s been sending her weekly greeting every Friday for nearly 2 1/2 years. She isn’t sure how many people are on her distribution list, but it includes friends and family from around the world, including a large contingent in Israel (her husband, Hannan, is a native Israeli).

Lis says she sends out the messages to wish as many people as possible a good weekend and to stay in touch with her connections.

“I do it to say ‘Shabbat Shalom,’ and then anything else I add is my soapbox,” Lis said. “I started to include the video messages of famous people saying ‘Shabbat Shalom’ as a fun addition to the e-mails. It makes people smile. Now people have come to expect them.”

Political views are included in some of her weekly messages. So are reminders to attend local fundraising events for causes she supports. A paragraph encouraging her readers to remember Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit during his captivity was a staple of each week’s e-mail message until his release last month. Every message includes wishes of “Happy Birthday” and “Mazel Tov” to her friends and family celebrating milestones in the upcoming week.

Lis plans to continue finding the chutzpah to ask celebs and politicians to utter those two Hebrew words for her camera phone. After all, it’s not every Friday that an e-mail arrives with a video of the leader of the free world wishing you a “Shabbat Shalom.”

ason Miller is an entrepreneurial rabbi and technologist. He is president of Access Computer Techonlogy, an IT and social media marketing company in Michigan. He blogs at http://blog.rabbijason.com and is a popular speaker about the intersection of Judaism and technology.

Drive aiming to attract young Jews to Detroit

The Detroit Jewish community is launching a nationwide campaign to raise money to bring 25 young Jews to live in the city.

Do It for Detroit is hosting events through August held by Detroit residents and former residents, as well as supporters in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, to raise $100,000 to revitalize the Michigan city’s Jewish community. A program of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, it will offer subsidies of $3,000 a year to live in the city, and the recipient will host at least one community event a month to help strengthen the Jewish and Detroit-area communities.

The first event will take place Wednesday at a high school softball field in suburban Detroit, followed the next day by a fundraiser in Chicago by ex-Detroiters. Charity kickball tournaments in Los Angeles and baseball events in New York also are planned.

The effort is part of a larger campaign to attract young people back to Detroit, which despite a growing cultural life has been suffering a brain drain due to Michigan’s high unemployment.

Detroit once was a major Jewish hub, with 44 synagogues and a rich cultural life. Now only one synagogue remains there—the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

As the city declined, most of the Jewish population moved to the northern suburbs. A study conducted by the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit found that 72,000 Jews live in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, making the area the 21st largest Jewish community in the United States.

If the money is raised, the program will start accepting applications in October. As of Wednesday morning, the campaign had raised $9,702.

Ron Bloom: Car czar in the Labor Zionist tradition

By now Ron Bloom’s professional road to becoming the Obama administration’s car czar has been widely reported. Missing from the coverage, however, has been any mention of those formative years at Jewish summer camp.

Born in New York City and raised in Swarthmore, a suburb of Philadelphia, much of Bloom’s early life revolved around Habonim (now known as Habonim Dror), a progressive Labor Zionist youth movement that emphasizes cultural Judaism, socialism and social justice.

It’s all part of an upbringing that the man overseeing the country’s bailout of the U.S. auto industry cites among his earliest influences.

“I had an aunt in the teacher’s union,” and relatives who were “Hebrew butchers and Hebrew bakers,” Bloom recently told JTA in an exclusive interview a few days after returning from a trip to Israel to attend the 80th birthday of an uncle who moved there several decades ago. “My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe; that was very much in my upbringing,” Bloom said.

Bloom’s parents met at a Habonim summer camp in the 1940s and moved to Israel, intending to make aliyah. Though they changed their minds and moved back to the United States, Habonim remained an integral part of their lives.

“My parents had always been supportive of doing something that we found meaningful,” Bloom said. “There was always a view that what’s going on in the world matters. We talked politics at the dinner table. Life was about engagement in the world.”

At age 10, Bloom was sent with his two siblings to Camp Galil, a movement-run summer camp near Doylestown, Pa. He returned each season for the next four years and later became a camp counselor.

One of campers was Jack Markell, who years later would become the governor of Delaware. Bloom reconnected with Markell, as well as with several other old Habonim friends, upon arriving in Washington for his new job. They are now “offering me home-cooked meals,” said Bloom, who is commuting between his family in Pittsburgh and his job in Washington.

Bloom recalled camp as “a fun experience” that afforded him the opportunity to “meet people from different places.” He said he never intended to go into the Labor Zionist movement professionally.

Addressing the question of how the experience influenced him, Bloom said, “It’s all a tapestry, and it’s hard to figure out what fits where.”

He says Habonim infused him with values that influenced the way he views public service. “We sang the songs, but it wasn’t about that,” Bloom said. “It was a broader sense of identifying with the underdog, and of observing the world through a lens, through people who don’t have as much and aren’t as lucky.”

The Labor Zionist movement prides itself in its direct connection with union work and its ability to inspire leadership, said Kenneth Bob, the president of Ameinu, the Labor Zionist organization that provides funding to the Habonim Dror youth movement.

Prior to his ascent in the Labor Zionist movement, Bob was actually Bloom’s counselor at Camp Tel Ari, Habonim’s leadership training institute. He recalled Bloom as being “a very serious, engaged person, there for the right reasons, to drink in the experience and learn as much as he could.”

Bob said there is a “great deal of pride” within the Habonim community regarding Bloom’s new position in the Obama administration.

“There’s definitely been a buzz on the online alumni listserv,” Bob said. “People are very proud, very supportive of Obama and excited about the things he’s trying to do, and to have one of our own helping.”

Bloom’s expertise in both private banking and the labor union movement, as well as his reputation as a passionate but pragmatic negotiator, helped him land what he says is the job of a lifetime.

A graduate of Harvard business school, Bloom worked as an investment banker for a decade before leaving the financial sector to take a position—and pay cut—with the United Steelworkers of America. Then, when Obama came into office, he became an aide to Rattner at the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry. When Rattner resigned after just five months, Bloom took over as car czar.

Now, there’s speculation in Washington that Bloom will be offered a new position next month overseeing manufacturing policy for the Obama administration.

Bloom said his decision to join the administration was, in part, the product of a broader sense of engagement and desire to improve the world, which he developed in his Habonim years. “That’s part of what I try to do in my work life,” he said. “That’s one of the things that made me want to work for Obama.”

As for the possibility of future assignments in Washington, Bloom said that the difficulties of commuting and the strain it places on his family would need to be taken into consideration.

“I’m not in a position to talk about future,” Bloom said. “I will stay as long as the president wants me to stay. If there are opportunities, I’ll consider them.”

Motown Jews invade Hollywood

For the young Jews of Detroit now living in Hollywood, Bob Aronson might as well be a movie star. The gentle-voiced CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit has the money, power and prestige to throw a respectable Hollywood party. More importantly, he knows the magic ingredient required to attract young, aspiring industry types to the much-stigmatized Jewish mixer: Make it free.

And it was the sexy Stone Rose Lounge at Hotel Sofitel featured an unlimited open bar and unending plates of food that flowed out of the kitchen until 11 p.m. So it’s no wonder that more than 250 Detroit Jews in their 20s who left their hometown community to fulfill Hollywood dreams decided a federation event would be the best way to spend their Thursday night.

What was Aronson’s motivation for throwing this soiree all of a sudden? For the most part, he says, “all our children are here,” and judging by the size of the crowd he’s not kidding. Yet instead of worrying about the future of Jewish life in Detroit, Aronson is bringing Jewish life to Detroiters wherever they happen to be. The new cause even has a name: “Young Detroit Hollywood” (YDH) and it was already being marketed, down to the nametagd. Aronson wants to brand his group, get them connected and get them involved.

“We want you to remember your Jewish roots,” he said to the crowd. “We love you. We care about you. The Jewish community of Detroit is one of the great Jewish communities of the world.”

So why exactly are they leaving?

“No. 1, weather. No. 2, women. No. 3, friends,” said Zach Weisman, an account manager for Blackboard Connect, an Internet company based in Sherman Oaks.

Others cited a lack of economic opportunity in Detroit, or a desire for adventure. But everyone knows if you want to work in the movie business, there’s really only one place to go. The very word “Hollywood” was used to generate buzz for the event and, expecting a mostly industry crowd, it was surprising to discover a larger swath of ambition than just a room full of future Steven Spielbergs. There was an attorney, an investment banker, a marketing executive, a “green builder” and a self-described “actor/writer/Hebrew teacher/bellman.”

As they say in Hollywood, you have to do whatever it takes….

Early rumors had Jerry Bruckheimer slated as the evening’s keynote speaker, but Michael Binder proved to be entertaining. Annoyed at the incessant chatter during his remarks, the actor, director, writer and producer said, “Could you just be quiet for a minute? Your chatting like that makes me wish I was a Muslim from Cleveland because at their get-togethers, everybody listens!”

He went on to say that he hopes more people will take moviemaking back to Detroit, and press local government to offer tax incentives for on-location shooting. When he wrote and starred in the film, “The Upside of Anger,” tax breaks in London meant a story set in Detroit would have to shoot in the United Kingdom.

But all credit can’t be paid to Aronson alone, who divulged his new secret weapon son Max Aronson, an assistant to two vice presidents at Sony Television, who, along with Aaron Kaczander and Eli Sussman, put together the guest list. The younger Aronson has big fundraising plans for YDH and was harder to corner for a quote than Binder.

“This is the Detroit Diaspora,” Aronson said. “We’re a very tight group and that’s what L.A. lacks a community.”

The real trick of the night, however, was the discovery that the Detroit Diaspora was prompted to show up through an age-old influence. Turns out, once the guest list was in order, two employees of the Detroit Federation called each nvitee’s mother and had mom make sure her son or daughter showed up.

And there you have it: The secret to getting young Jews in Hollywood to a Jewish event.

Bob Aronson, Lauren Moore, Sandy Danto
Jordan Glass, Darren Rogow and David Boorstein