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Jewish Revival in Downtown Detroit
by The Town Talk
DETROIT — Four years ago, Rabbi Yisrael Pinson saw the beginnings of a Jewish revival downtown and sought to convince local religious leaders that the city needed its first Chabad House.

Chabad is a worldwide movement in which Jewish families open their homes to Jews in the community as “extended family,” offering outreach, support and guidance.

“My argument was that our young people are moving into the city of Detroit,” Pinson told The Detroit News. “They are starting businesses, renovating homes, and rebuilding the city of Detroit. I felt it was both our responsibility and privilege to be part of that movement.”

Pinson was passionate about his vision, but the leaders were not as optimistic about the city’s future. After all, in 2010, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick had not yet been convicted, bankruptcy was still on the horizon. When the search committee (Pinson was a member of the committee) couldn’t find a young family willing to commit to moving to the city, it looked like the plans for a Chabad House downtown might be scrapped.

Traditionally Chabad couples move to new places when they are very young, newly married and starting families. The Pinsons most definitely did not fit the mold. Beside the fact the rabbi at age 38 and his wife, Devorah, were raising five children ranging from 8 months to 12 years old, they were also comfortably ensconced in West Bloomfield Township where Pinson served as director of the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House, a recovery center for addicts and their families.

Still, he said he couldn’t stand by if it meant no Chabad House.

“I knew we needed someone who had strong convictions about the city. So I told them I’m betting on Detroit now, and I’m willing to make it happen. It took some convincing, but in the end, everyone agreed it was good timing and that my relationships with those in the city put me in a good position to do this.”

A few weeks ago, a couple hundred supporters braved the frigid temperatures and treacherous roads to attend the open house of Chabad of Greater Downtown Detroit, a stately, three-story red brick 1908 house on Mack in the heart of Brush Park. They raised a glass and toasted to the success of their new emissary’s mission to reach out to the young Jews engaged in the city’s rebirth.

“I want to create a place young Jews can engage with Judaism on their own terms,” Pinson said. “We want to teach them how to live the Jewish experience without having to be religious, to show them Jewish involvement beyond going to services or paying membership at a temple.”

At its height in the 1940s, the Jewish population in Detroit numbered some 85,000 residents. They were served by several kosher butchers and close to 50 synagogues. But just as white flight meant a steady exodus of Jews to the northwest suburbs, Pinson likens the urban rebirth to a Jewish homecoming of sorts. Brush Park was once a prime Jewish residential neighborhood that contained several Albert Kahn-designed homes. The original Temple Beth El — now the Bonstelle Theater — can be viewed from Pinson’s back yard.

Pinson is a fourth-generation rabbi. His family has been involved in the Chabad movement going back several decades. Born in Nice, France, his parents still run a school there; his grandparents also ran a school in Tunisia in the 1950s. Devorah, too, comes from a Chabad background. Born in Cincinnati, her parents remain active running a Chabad house there today.

Pinson met Devorah in 2002 when he was tagged to create the Friendship House and she was working at the Friendship Circle. Over the next 10 years, Pinson cast his net wide. Blending Torah teachings with 12-step programs both at the Friendship House and online, Pinson was instrumental in creating a strong Jewish recovery community of Metro Detroit. Posting his lectures online, his web savvy earned him a global following along with the moniker “Recovery Rabbi.”

Gradually Pinson, who’s been educated all over the world and speaks four languages, became involved in the city. He was part of the Menorah in the D observance that commissioned a 25-foot steel and glass menorah that drew some 2,000 people for its lighting in Campus Martius Park in December. Early on, he said he was inspired by Quicken Loans’ founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert and began networking and developing relationships with Detroiters involved in the TEDx Detroit talks, the Techonomy Detroit conference, D:hive and NEXTGen Detroit.

In June, Pinson served as the rabbi who gave an official blessing at the opening of Whole Foods. Sue Mosey, president of the community development organization Midtown Detroit Inc., said to him: “You want to find a house on Mack Avenue. This is where you want to live.”

Days later, Pinson made an offer on a “perfect” house. It had ample parking, it was zoned both residential and commercial, and was owned by a physician who ran his practice there for 30 years and was only too happy to sell to someone who would care for the lovely home as he had.

Mosey is excited about their decision to move from West Bloomfield.

“We were happy to help him find great historic home in the Midtown neighborhood which meets the needs of his family,” Mosey said. “We’re also very pleased about his desire to contribute to the city of Detroit.”

Pinson is beyond elated. “We’re a half-mile away from Comerica Park, right across the street from the hospital where I’m able to do some chaplaincy work, near Whole Foods, cool stores and cool coffee shops,” he said. “We can really feel the city come alive.”

Safety being a major concern, Pinson said they appreciate the presence of the Wayne State University police and the security provided by a strong neighborhood association, such as Brush Park’s Community Development Council. Since the kids attend private school in Oak Park, their commute time will hardly change.

Right now, the upper floors are being renovated to make it a living space for the family. They are moving in stages, although Pinson said the kids are so excited they would have preferred to move in yesterday.

“One of our goals now is to encourage all our friends to move to the city. We’re really talking it up: ‘We’re moving downtown! When are you coming?’ “After all, the Chabad House is all about building community.

“We know we’re going to make new friends in the city and build new relationships,” Pinson said. “That’s what we do.”


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