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10:43 am
Mon August 22, 2011

Preserving Jewish community in Detroit

Detroit’s shrinking population is well-documented, as are the many incentives offered to people to move back into the city center. These efforts are a mix of hyping what Detroit can become and offering economic incentives for those willing to give it a try. A group of Jewish organizations in Metro Detroit has been using the same formula to keep young Jewish people from leaving the area.

The Jewish population in Michigan is less than 1 percent, according to the U.S Census. The overwhelming majority of those 87,000 people live in Metro Detroit, in an area east of M5 and north of Interstate 696, according to Joshua Goldberg of the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. But the area’s Jewish population has been falling steadily for at least the last few decades. Mirroring a trend in the state overall, in the Jewish community the young people are leading the march out of state.

Arthur Siegal wants to reverse this. The 50-year-old attorney and Wayne State graduate conceived of the Back Stage Pass MI program. The four-year program started last year selects promising Jewish high school students before their junior year and culminates in a Detroit internship placement after the student’s sophomore year of college. Along the way, the program takes its cohort of around 20 students a year to cultural and social events designed to show Detroit at its best.

“These young people are really wanted in this community, they are going to be sought after here,” says Siegal. “There are amazing opportunities for people who stay. Land is cheap, labor is cheap, and the opportunities to do your own thing and make your own mark are unparalleled. ”

Most of the students in the program, funded by a grant from the Stephen H. Schulman Millennium Fund of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit have limited exposure to Detroit prior to the program, say Goldberg and Siegal.

“Of our group, none of them grew up in Detroit, but many of their parents did, many of their grandparents did,” said Goldberg.

Even so, Siegal says combating negative messages students might be get from their parents is part of the challenge in keeping young people in the region.

“I don’t know that it’s any kind of hostility toward the city,” says Siegal.  “But I think that suburban parents are pointing their children away from Detroit. “

Goldberg fully expects that some of the students will leave the area for college, or just to see what other areas of the country have to offer.

But I also know,” says Goldberg, “when they think about what’s possible, we’re showing them what’s possible here and we’re showing them where they fit in.”