A New Home for Detroit’s LGBT Jews
By David Stanley
Whether it is Slow’s BBQ in the reimagined Corktown district or Midtown’s Shinola artisanal bicycles, watches and leather goods, Detroit’s renaissance is underway. Local businessman Sam Dubin, 24, sees possibility everywhere he looks.
Yet the proudly out Dubin also notes the collateral damage of the devastating financial collapse, particularly at the intersection of the Jewish and LGBT communities. “Detroit has lost so many young people,” he says. “Where are the Jewish leaders, the Jewish gay leaders, of this century going to come from?”
Not long ago, the metro Detroit area boasted one of the largest American Jewish populations not located on a coast. But as the auto industry tanked in the 1980s, Jews, along with so many others, left in droves. Today, the 70,000 Detroit-area Jews are remarkable for their geographic stability: Nine out of 10 have lived in the area for more than 20 years. But the average age of this population is 20 percent older than the national average of 39.
Dubin saw, with the exodus of his peer group, that more work needed to be done.
As a gay Jew, Dubin says, he wants to feel a part of a community—both the Jewish community at large, and the Jewish LGBT community. “It’s not that Detroit isn’t gay-friendly. It’s fine,” he says. “But if people don’t feel a sense of support, they’ll migrate to communities where they are comfortable. And for Detroit, that’s a huge loss by every measure.”
He and his friend Jonathan Schwartz, an LGBT ally and local attorney, approached NEXTGen Detroit—the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit’s young adult program—with an idea: launching an LGBT initiative.
“We recognize and value the LGBTQA community,” says NEXTGen Detroit director Stefanie Tuzman. “When Sam and Jonathan approached us, we felt this was the right time to put together a program which would support this community.”
Today, that program—called NEXTGen Pride—is the only LGBT program for Jews in the Detroit area.
Traditionally, the Reform Movement to which Dubin belongs has welcomed diversity. But while inclusion is the first step, he knows there has to be more. “With NEXTGen Pride, we hope that we will be a center for young Jewish life,” he says. “We want to provide real, authentic support, be a community catalyst across the range of LGBTQ issues, for sure, but we also want to be a social center, too.”
But Schwartz knows there are so many ways to be a Jew—and so many ways to be part of the LGBT community. How, then, does the group reach out to an underserved population with such varied needs? “As an ally, I am very aware that there is so much I don’t know about the wants and needs of the LGBTQ community,” he says. “We are making a concerted effort to recruit and get input from a diverse group of people within the LGBTQ community, and hold meetings that are safe spaces to express all opinions and ideas. As time goes on, we intend to provide an array of programming to cater to that diversity.”
Already, the group serves Jews of all denominations: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Sephardic, Ashkenazi. “We believe that the more we look at each other as one people, and the less we use labels or further divide ourselves, the more the community thrives,” says Tuzman.
The first NEXTGen Pride event, a happy hour at a Royal Oak, Mich. club, drew 40 attendees. As the only LGBT program for Jews in the Detroit area, the founders tried every means possible—phone calls and texts, social media, even U.S. mail—to spread the word. They continue to research within the community as they seek to provide engaging and meaningful programming.
Jewish communities across the U.S. are always on the watch for young community leaders. It’s often a struggle to grow them, and they need to be nurtured carefully. “The real goal here,” says Dubin, “is for all of us to succeed, to have a spirited LGBTQ community within a dynamic Jewish community.”
What would that look like? Dubin pictures a recent graduate from the University of Michigan who stays in town because of NEXTGen Pride—someone who finds work, builds a career and lives a good life. “When I hear that story,” Dubin says, “then I know we’ve succeeded.”