Amid Detroit Bankruptcy, Jews Rally Behind Cause of Retired City Workers

Social Justice Trumps Suburban Self-Interest in Motown

Fighting Back: Detroit municipal retirees protests planned pension cuts. The Jewish community has actively joined the fight for a fairer bankruptcy plan.
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Fighting Back: Detroit municipal retirees protests planned pension cuts. The Jewish community has actively joined the fight for a fairer bankruptcy plan.

By Nathan Guttman

Published November 08, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
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Nationally, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs has also taken the battle to Washington. The council, an umbrella organization of local Jewish community relations councils nationwide, hosted a Capitol Hill briefing on October 30 on the faith community’s role in bringing to light the “human impact of Detroit bankruptcy.”

In an opinion piece published a day earlier in The Hill, a news publication for inside-the-beltway politicos, the JCPA’s president, Rabbi Steve Gutow, wrote that most in the faith community believe in “protecting those who have worked hard for a secure future from falling into poverty.” He said it is a position “inspired by universally held traditions of social justice.”

The Capitol Hill briefing, attended mainly by congressional staff members, focused on the joint efforts of Jewish and Christian congregations in Detroit and its suburbs to help the city find its way out. Describing Detroit as the “poster child for every urban ill imaginable,” Bishop Edgar Vann of Second Ebenezer Church read out a list of figures illustrating the city’s plight: Fifty percent of street lights in Detroit are out of order; more than 70,000 houses and buildings stand abandoned, and only one in four residents is employed.

Rep. Sander Levin, a Jewish Democrat from Michigan whose family has been deeply involved in Detroit politics, said at the event, “If you miss the human dimension of Detroit’s bankruptcy, you miss a vital link.”

The JCPA has been one of the Jewish community’s leading voices on social justice issues. But in the past the organization took a cautious approach to issues that could have a negative effect on major donors from the business community. Nevertheless, Gutow said, employee rights in Detroit were “not complicated for JCPA.” Gutow said he had not gotten “any pushback” from donors on this issue.

On a practical level, it is unclear how significant the Jewish community’s contribution can be to Detroit’s pension rights battle. “There’s not a lot the Jewish community can do about it in a formal sense,” said Andy Levin, who is also the son of Sander Levin. But Gutow said, “Even judges need to listen to what is going on around them.”

Beyond expressing concern, much of the Jewish activity on the ground has been focused on joining forces with other religious groups to address some of the city’s most acute problems. Rabbi Joseph Krakoff of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Mich., has been working with Vann and other religious communities to combat illiteracy and to offer heated shelters for those in need. “The value of tikkun olam [repairing the world] is an important Jewish value. and a lot of what we are doing comes from that,” Krakoff said.

Years ago, Shaarey Zedek was located in Detroit; this was before it moved to the suburbs, following the mass migration of Jews out of the city. Prior to that mass migration, Jews had long played a central role in the city’s development. Besides the Levin family, Max Fisher, a central figure in American Jewish philanthropy for decades, was prominent among those who worked to rebuild Detroit’s core following race riots in 1967. Krakoff said that even after Shaarey Zedek moved to the suburbs, the synagogue maintained a strong connection with the inner city.

In recent years, Detroit has seen an increase in young Jewish residents moving back to the city from the suburbs. A driving force behind this movement is local Jewish businessman Dan Gilbert, who has invested millions in revitalizing downtown Detroit, making it attractive for middle-class residents once again.

Andy Levin brings a different approach to Jewish activism in Detroit. Project Micah, which he heads, is now hiring a rabbi who will serve part time as the religious leader of the Reconstructionist Congregation T’chiyah and part time as a community organizer at the city’s Harriet Tubman Center. The center’s mission is to advance equality in the city, mainly through training programs and internships.

The idea, Levin explained, is to bring together synagogue work and interfaith grassroots activity to promote programs in Detroit such as mass transit, community gardens development and education.

“The Jewish community is so disproportionately generous in helping people in need,” Andy Levin said. “However, in terms of our houses of worship engaging in social justice activity — not so much.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


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