Detroit: Because We Could Not Stay Away

As the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism gathers for its twice yearly meeting in Detroit, MI, a few of you have asked me – and I’ve overheard more of you asking one another: — “Why are we here in Detroit?”

Detroit's Brush ParkOur meeting here is the result of a 10-year campaign by one very determined person – my mother.

As some of you know, I grew up just up I-75 from here, in Flint. It’s about an hour from our hotel here in downtown Detroit.

Nearly 10 years ago, the first time we took a group of Union for Reform Judaism leaders to visit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, my mom started whispering in my ear. “I certainly empathize with those who lives were uprooted by the hurricane,” she said, “but how come we seem to care so much more about the victims of this natural disaster than we do about the victims of the man-made economic disaster in the industrial Midwest?” I had no good answer for her.

And the next time we went to the Gulf Coast, I heard from her again, only this time, not quite as much of a whisper. And still I had no answer for her.

Because, in truth, what has happened to Detroit, Flint, and other nearby cities is a very close parallel to the impact of Katrina on the Gulf Coast. Think back to how often we were heard in the Gulf that what was lost was a “way of life.” The same is true here. When I was growing up in Flint, the auto plants ran three shifts, meaning that the whole city ran 24 hours a day. And autoworkers had good jobs. These jobs were incredibly demanding, and stressful, but they provided the type of upwardly mobile, middle-class job that is so rare today.

That is now gone. And nothing, really nothing, has replaced it.

How dire is the situation?

Unemployment in the U.S. at the end of February was 8.7%. We all agree that constitutes a national crisis, and it is probably the most important issue in the upcoming 2012 election.

In Michigan, the unemployment rate is 9.7%. And that is seen as good news, because it is moving in the right direction.

In Detroit, unemployment is at 17.8%, almost exactly twice the national average. And that is much improved from 27% in June of 2009, the high, or low point, of unemployment.

One of the reasons I wanted to come to downtown Detroit is because the ride in from the airport tells as powerful a story as any of these statistics. The buildings are, quite literally, shells of their former selves. The abandoned properties. (Detroit has more abandoned property than any other city in America.) The lack of people on the street.

There has been, of course, a tremendous impact within our own Jewish communities here in Michigan. Again, I know Flint best. When I was growing up there were two healthy, vibrant congregations. Today there is a small Reform congregation which I understand has recently moved its rabbi to part-time, and a Conservative shul which is entirely lay-lead. (There is, also, now a significant Chabad presence). What does that mean? It means, for example, that nearly all of the people with whom I went to religious school – the kids in my b’nai mitzvah and confirmation classes – have left town. And it means that, as best I can tell, the two congregations will have a grand total of two b’nai mitzah between January of this year and June.

As I thought about traveling here, I kept coming back to a line from the letter that the rabbis who went to St. Augustine, FL, as part of the civil rights protests wrote from the jail there when they were arrested: “We came to St. Augustine,” they wrote, “mainly because we could not stay away.” I keep turning that sentence over and over in my head, and the rest of that paragraph as well.

We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.

What can we do about the economic crisis in Detroit, Flint and elsewhere? I don’t know. But I am convinced that we have a role to play. And I hope, I pray, that by the time we leave Detroit on Tuesday we’ll be much closer to an answer.

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Mark Pelavin

About Mark Pelavin

Mark Pelavin is the senior advisor to the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. In that capacity, he plays a key role in developing and refining the Union's priorities and structures for the next generation. He is a member of the Union's Senior Management Team, and oversees the Union's full array of communications. He previously served as the associate director of the Religious Action Center and director of the Commission on Social Action.

4 Responses to “Detroit: Because We Could Not Stay Away”

  1. Thanks, Mark, for paying attention to this issue. As a fellow former Flint resident, I have long wondered why Flint and other similar communities were left to fend for themselves in the face of economic collapse. I hope you come up with some good ideas as a result of the meeting.

  2. Yes, the Commission will go to Detroit but what lessons will learned?

    Unlike a natural disaster like Katrina, Detroit is man-made disaster. In 1962, Detroit was thriving and GM was the most important corporation in the world; a symbol of US industrial might. A time traveler from 1962 who visited Detroit fifty years later might understandably believe that the city had suffered an aerial bombardment. Like post WWII Berlin, vast regions of the city appear bombed out and are abandoned and its population has declined by greater than half…yet no bombs fell.

    The destruction of human capital is even greater. According to Time magazine, nearly 50% of the city’s inhabitants are functionally illiterate. The current mayor has suggested converting the vast swaths of abandoned city blocks into ‘green zones’ but mother nature will take care of this on her own schedule. The disaster of Detroit’s public education parallels a breakdown in civil society. Detroit is perpetually a national leader in murder rate and other serious crimes. Is this the kind of place you’d want to start or maintain a business?

    The demise of GM is illustrative and should serve as a national wake up call. Over a series of decades, management and the UAW colluded to produce a benefits package so generous that it created a permanent cost disadvantage, making the company uncompetitive. Certainly other factors contributed to GM’s bankruptcy, however, GM has ~100,000 workers but nearly 1,000,000 retirees and beneficiaries. It is more properly envisioned as a benefits company with a sideline automobile business. The parallels to the unsustainable Social Security and Medicare should be sobering.

    During the past fifty years there has been one constant in Detroit: the Democratic Party has had a monopoly on civic government. This one party rule is longer than the dictatorships Muammar Gaddafi or Hosnai Mubarak.

    So do not stay away from Detroit. Visit, observe and ponder the lessons of this once great city.

  3. Not simply well-said, but well-done. I am always glad to see when our Reform Movement walks the walk and takes action – symbolic and concrete action (pun intended) to draw attention to an important situation.

    I am also grateful that Mark shared the importance of his mother’s pushing for this meeting in Detroit. We need to be reminded of how important one person’s voice and determination can be.

    I hope the meetings go very well and again, thanks!

  4. Well said, Mark. The natural disasters shake us to our core because they are so vivid. Economic disasters, sadly, inure us to a equally catastrophic change in the landscape.

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