When I returned to Detroit from Adamah, the Jewish Environmental Fellowship in 2008, I had only two things on my mind: food and Jews. Having grown up in the Detroit suburbs, I had never before grown my own food. Coming of age in a secular family that belonged to a large Reform congregation, I had never sung Jewish songs, and had never celebrated Shabbat. At Adamah, we sang at every opportunity, and felt the meaning of Shabbat through the grateful rest of our aching muscles. From the moment I returned to Detroit, this time to the urban center instead of the 3rd ring suburb of my youth, I wondered if there would be some way to lead a Jewish life as rich and grounded as life at Adamah had been. There were a few realities that allowed me to excuse this as an impossible dream.
First, most of Detroit’s Jewish population exited the city for the suburbs over the course of the 50s and 60s. Much of this exit was motivated by post-WWII upward mobility, demographic shifts, and consequent racial tension. Also, most Jewish communities I’ve known in my life have been defined by insularity and exceptionalism, which led to my belief that, because the city of Detroit is 85% black, any Jewish Renaissance within its boarders was more likely to result in gentrification than integration.